There was a bit of a fuss over the last few weeks on education Twitter. It consisted of large groups of Twitterers simultaneously denouncing a series of targets in ever more intemperate ways. It began with Uncommon Schools being criticised for their training videos which showed children being trained to follow a routine in class. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then Rob Peal was criticised for this brilliant book review. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then John Blake was in the firing line for minor acts of snarkiness and the suspicion of being posh. Then me again, this time for being a man who argued with people on Twitter. Then a maths teacher, with a couple of hundred followers, was targeted for the crime of not liking some maths homework she’d seen. Then it was me again for denying that I was privately educated (don’t ask). Eventually, the mob started to turn on itself and people were throwing abuse at the some of the most non-confrontational people on Twitter. Then, with a couple of people quitting Twitter, it all seemed to die out.
I don’t know if anyone has learnt anything from the saga. In terms of Twitter, I am going to be very careful to make sure that, when I criticise something, I stay around to make sure the people who agree with me don’t act the same way as that mob. I’m also going to be careful what I share about my own life on Twitter, and to add more smilies when I make jokes about how great I am, as the mob seemed to make great use of of both unhappy times in my life I’ve talked about honestly, and my arrogant persona.
However, it did lead me to reflect on the conduct of educational debate again. The witch-hunt analogy appeared very early on when describing the public denunciations – I went on to label the whole business as “the Twitch-hunt” – which reminded of some of the arguments over Trojan Horse which was described as a witch-hunt by some of those accused. Because education has been dominated by a fairly narrow orthodoxy, it is easy to paint opposing views as heretical. One recent lead article in an education journal talked of “mainstream educational thought” being challenged by “blogocrats”, as if voices from the staffroom becoming heard on social media were an unwelcome contaminant to a debate which should only ever take place between office-dwelling experts. But considering that even opinions that were once beyond the pale can quickly become the accepted wisdom in the social media age, how do we ensure debate does not become a witch-hunt against dissent and difference? I think there are three key distinctions between a debate and a witch-hunt.
The first is that for a debate it must be possible to answer criticisms. If twenty people have a go at one person, then debate becomes difficult. I’m good at arguing with a lot of people at once, but even I struggle to keep up with answering the comments on my blog. This can become self-reinforcing if those who disagree, having got the false impression that they speak for only a tiny minority, keep their opinions to themselves. Don’t argue against people’s ideas behind their backs, or for that matter, in the third person when they are still part of the discussion. Right to reply should not only be a given, it should be encouraged. If criticism is vague or highly subjective then it is hard to argue against it; a lot of the criticism of Uncommon Schools consisted of little more than people saying “I don’t like the look of that”. Don’t introduce notions of politeness that, if taken seriously, would end debate. Polite disagreement is not a contradiction in terms, but if there is a conflict between civility and debate, let’s favour debate. Similarly, complaints about “tone” are unhelpful when we all naturally imagine all sorts of things about our own tone and the tone of those who disagree with us. If criticisms seem arbitrary, they can be very hard to answer. Certainly a lot of the flak aimed at me was for doing things (like arguing) that others had no problem with when people they agreed with were doing it. This also reminds me of a “Trojan Horse” school being criticised for something that, while questionable, was praised a few months earlier. As far as possible, we should criticise others on matters of principle only after we have set out the basic principles we expect all to follow, defended those principles in debate, and tried to live by them ourselves.
A further complication is if those making the criticisms are doing so from a position of unchallenged power, then debate is more difficult. I do think “unchallenged” is important here. Politicians have power over education, but nobody thinks twice about arguing against what they say. Arguing with your own SLT, or, if you are a school leader, criticising OFSTED can be far more scary. Anything endorsed by the inspectorate is very difficult to argue with, as schools and teachers have found to their cost. I don’t think anything did more to suppress open debate than the period between 2004 and 2012 when OFSTED became the official enforcer of progressive education. And it is simply not good enough for people who are not without power and influence to paint themselves as the victims, or to appeal for pity in order to strengthen one’s debating position. One protagonist in the Twitch-hunt decided to share the fact they were a victim of child abuse, while condemning others for expressing their opinions. How could that ever be relevant? Another proved that those they disagreed with represented “the establishment” by observing that some of them were white, male and straight. It can be difficult to establish who does or does not have power, but these sorts of arguments do not help. Those of us who feel pretty powerless in real-life, but have a significant following on social media, should be aware that we may have power of sorts, although those complaining of “loud voices” on Twitter need to state their complaint in less metaphorical terms.
In addition to the openness of debate, the second distinction between debate and a witch-hunt is the personal nature. We need to be quite clear that criticising somebody’s publicly expressed opinions, or their public behaviour, is acceptable. Criticising their character, even when it is revealed by those opinions and actions, is not. There is a lot of confusion about this. Sometimes legitimate criticism is taken to be personal. For some, their educational ideas are so personal that they are insulted to hear them challenged. For others, their sense of self-worth is so bound up in their teaching practices, that to have those practices challenged is to be told that they are worthless. This is unfortunate, but should not be allowed to stop those debates. Ideas and practices must be challenged, it is only by refuting such challenges that they can be established to have any worth. In particular, people who claim things that are untrue, whether through deliberate deceitfulness, indifference to truth or simply through error, should be challenged. If it is clear they knew what they were saying was not true then it is acceptable, and not an insult, to say that they lied. Similarly, true but misleading claims, must be challenged openly and explicitly. And it is no defence to appeal to one’s personal feelings when one is wrong in a matter of fact or reasoning. If you feel bullied when people point out you are wrong, then you need to put more effort into avoiding being wrong and learn from those mistakes, not demonise those who point it out.
As well as being able to take criticism of ideas and behaviour as not being personal, it is also important to refrain from personal criticism when attempting to criticise ideas and behaviour. Don’t call somebody with stupid ideas “stupid”. Don’t even call a person caught lying “a liar” if you can avoid it (although if they say “are you calling me a liar?” then so be it). If the same behaviour can be described in words with a stronger or weaker implication about the the person doing it, then pick the less personal option. Never use an ad hominem argument, i.e. one that rejects an opinion or argument on the basis of who made it. Do not refer to somebody’s race, class or gender in debate if they do not bring it up. Do not make everything that happens in a debate about you personally. Don’t put anyone in a position where disagreeing with you entails making a claim about themselves, or a claim about you. We should mainly be debating ideas. Sometimes we have to debate how to debate, but we should avoid debating people.
Finally, the third feature of a witch-hunt, is that unlike a debate, you can’t easily drop out of it. Even when you block those doing it, they still attempt to engage with you. Even when you ignore their accusations, they are guaranteed to be repeated to you. Even when you have proved somebody to be wrong, you are faced with an ongoing discussion about how, despite them being wrong and you being right, you are still at fault. It can only end with them giving up, or you being completely silenced or completely excluded. In the school context, it may be a situation where a person with the wrong opinion will have to leave.
I realise I have referred a lot here to recent Twitter debate but this is not an attempt to restart it. I genuinely hope people can see general advantage to abiding by the following three principles in education debate and controversy:
- People are able to, and are encouraged to, answer criticisms;
- Debate centres on substance not personalities;
- People can leave the debate freely i.e. without significant cost.