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Witch-hunt

November 5, 2014

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:

  1. People are able to, and are encouraged to, answer criticisms;
  2. Debate centres on substance not personalities;
  3. People can leave the debate freely i.e. without significant cost.
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The Unintended Consequences of Teaching Schools

November 2, 2014

The creation of specialist teaching schools was intended to move power from those ideologically motivated individuals in local authorities and universities, who followed every fad and fashion, to those in schools with a proven track record of success. Unfortunately the policy depended on the ability of OFSTED to recognise excellence in schools and the willingness of schools to be confident that they can retain outstanding status without second guessing OFSTED. The following blog, written by a teacher in a teaching school that’s overdue for inspection, suggests that this may not be working out as planned.

Principle vs Principal (or when scrutiny becomes lunacy).

Somewhere in the leafy depths of suburbia there is the a monster.

It’s called an Outstanding Teaching School. This creature is large and cumbersome, years of tradition and rigidity have made it old before its time. It’s sleeps through behaviour for learning dramas, A*- C % nightmares, Ebacc uptake worries and smiles sagely as fellow critters scurry to increase amounts of written work in books, create whole school inclusion policies, or you know, even improve results. The monster has been left alone, existing on the fat stored over a hundred years, for what can be done to create a more glorious and wonderful being? In fact, like a Biblical idol, all should look upon it in awe, grateful for its very prescence. It needs no one. Loves no one. It’s allegience is to itself alone.

What’s that? A new predator on the horizon? What could possibly take on this Outstanding Teaching School?

‘Keeping Teaching School Status’ stalks across the savannah, a jackal waiting to take down the least agile, the weakest. It’s teeth can slash a budget by hundreds of thousands, decimating the hopes and dreams of SLTs across the country. The jackal wears a coat of Osted, slobbers edu-tainment teaching practices and demands its followers fish clouds from the ocean’s depths.

Don’t worry. OTS has a plan.

OTS will trick KTSS, like a chameleon, it will change its colours to match those black and white tick boxes. OTS will outsmart that KTSS putting on a pretty dress and batting its false eyelashes. No one could possibly notice the muddy feet and broken toenails with such an angelic face to behold.

OTS’s swag new outfit is perfect for the occasion, it’s wearing KTSS’s colours – a show of support. A round of applause, ladies and gentleman, for the new designer on our catwalks:

  • Graded observations of tutor time
  • Monitoring of tutor’s oversight of students’ use of their planners
  • Numerous graded formal and drop-in lesson observations
  • Graded book monitoring with weekly follow ups
  • Monitoring of teachers’ planning
  • Reminder of the rules – the ones for teachers

Some parts of OTS couldn’t squeeze themselves into the tight sleeves of this outfit. The collar fairly strangled others. The scratches and bruises left seemed like they would never recede. But OTS must outrun KTSS. It has to, to survive.

The only question left to answer is – what will OTS do when principle wins out over principal?

That day is getting closer.

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A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground

October 26, 2014

I have updated this guide for the holidays.

This blog is about the state of secondary education. There is an introduction to it here:

And some reflections on it here:

Here is a summary of my main points:

Here are a few posts written purely for a laugh (although some of them perhaps make a point at the same time):

The following posts sum up what is typical in schools these days in various respects:

Behaviour:

Curriculum:

Teachers and Managers:

Special Needs:

School Life:

Miscellaneous:

As well as the advice for teachers included in many of the other posts, I have written advice specifically for new teachers:

These deal more directly with my own personal experiences, or the experiences of others:

I have also written a number of posts exploring and explaining how this situation came to be, discussing the arguments in education and suggesting what can be done.

Background:

Apologia:

Progressive Education:

Behaviour:

Initiatives:

Education Policy and Current Affairs:

OFSTED:

Teaching and Teachers:

Educational Ethics and Philosophy:

Education Research and Academics

Here are some videos I found on the internet which I thought were interesting, or relevant, enough to present in a blog post:

I wrote about some of the myths that are spread to teachers, often in INSET or during PGCEs:

I have also outlined what I would expect from schools willing to do put things right:

Here are my book recommendations:

This may be of interest if you are considering writing a blog:

You may also have found me…

I have also written sections in the following two books:

Please let me know if any of the links don’t work.

Finally, I can be found on Facebook (please “friend” me) or Twitter (please “follow” me).

If you want to keep up with education blogging other than mine, or to see some of these same concerns discussed by others, then you should follow my sister blog, The Education Echo Chamber. The blog is here. The twitter feed is here.

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Now We Are Eight

October 24, 2014

8thbirthday

Today marks 8 years since my blogging career began. A year ago I attempted to sum up the first seven years of blogging, but it feels a lot like there is more to report back on from the last year alone than from those 7 years. For a start, the total number of hits on this blog went over a million recently. As the blog used to appear in a couple of other places which wouldn’t be included in the total, the actual millionth hit could have been much earlier but was probably still this year.

There were two remarkably popular posts this year. The first, A Christmas Miracle – OFSTED Get It Right For Once, was simply an update on changes in the OFSTED handbook during the Christmas holidays and seemed to be popular mainly because it was the first place people heard the news. But it was also widely suggested that the changes reflected some of the constant campaigning over OFSTED that had been part of this blog for the previous 10 months. The other blogpost, one that still seems to get around 100 hits a day even now, was The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression which was a series of anonymous accounts of teachers’ experiences of stress and depression. Sobering reading, although I know some of those who contributed are much happier now. Its popularity says a lot about the profession.

This is the year that Michael Gove ceased to be education secretary. My comments at the time can be found here. He was a regular reader of this blog, and mentioned it in a number of speeches. Although constantly attacked for not understanding what schools or teaching were like, he had been in charge of his party’s education policy for 7 years and had built up a knowledge of the system, and the debates in education, that no other politician can come close to. He’d also made education one of the most important cabinet posts. It’s a shame to see it sink back into obscurity and for the debate to be once more dominated by those who don’t actually seem to realise what’s at issue. I mean, teacher’s oaths? Really?

This is also the year that I went public. As a result of others trying to expose me in an apparent effort to shut me up (how’d that work out for you?) and the fact that I had left my permanent job to go part-time, I decided to end my seven year run of being anonymous and made a number of public appearances. I’ve gone from being absolutely terrified of public speaking in a room of about 30, to really rather enjoying it and daring to appear before one audience that was in the hundreds. I’m particularly fond of discussions as I can get stuck into the debate and don’t have to spend hours preparing. I also like events where there are biscuits.

I’ve appeared in print (as opposed to only online) for the first time this year. Firstly, I wrote the foreword to Robert Peal’s Progressively worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Then, I contributed a chapter to Rachel Jones’s Don’t change the light bulbs: A compendium of expertise from the UK s most switched-on educators (it’s for charity, buy it!).  More recently I’ve written for Academies Week, firstly about my hobby of going to education events and secondly, contributing a round up of the best education blogs of the week.

I’ve met a number of people who are big in either education or policy for the first time this year, like: Doug Lemov, James O’Shaughnessy and Maurice Glasman (none of whom actually knew who I was at the time), Liz Truss (when still education minister), David Goodhart, Jonathan Simons, Mike Cladingbowl and Sean Harford. I also met television’s Vic Goddard and Oliver from Tough Young Teachers, and came within in a heartbeat of talking to Johnny Ball. I’ve also met and socialised with various education bloggers and tweeters, particularly by organising curries, and I have been doing my bit to try to help good new bloggers find an audience, particularly through The Echo Chamber.

And probably the most exciting experiences were my two contributions to Radio 4 programmes. Firstly, I shared my opinions in an episode of The Report about OFSTED and, more surreally, I was interviewed in my front room by Reeta Chakrabarti for One to One. Fortunately the programme makers edited me into some form of coherence.

No doubt, once I’ve posted this, I’ll think of some even more exciting blog-related activities from this year and add them in the comments. But it’s been an exciting year to be a blogger and a real change from the early years of blogging which mainly consisted of people telling me I should shut up because only bad teachers think there is anything wrong with the education system or progressive teaching. Here’s to the next 8 years.

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My Interview with the OFSTED Big Cheeses

October 22, 2014

I realise this has been available in another format for a while, but I have only just found it in a form I can embed on my blog. This is the interview I did with OFSTED’s Mike Cladingbowl and Sean Harford at ResearchED last month. It has been cut so that it misses out the bit where I say I’m going to take questions via Twitter, so it may look like I lost interest and started playing with my phone part way through. Honestly, I’m not playing Candy Crush, I’m just looking for questions.

Update: 22/10/2014 Actually, if I’m pointing out something about OFSTED I should probably also publicise:

1) My post about meeting Sean Harford in July, as I think a lot of people missed it because it was in the summer holidays.

2) The latest OFSTED clarification about what they want. Some particularly helpful comments in there about marking and observation that everyone should know.

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Has The Debate Moved On?

October 18, 2014

It’s very easy to think that the education world has been transformed. People who used to tell me to shut up because nobody agreed with me, now claim that I should shut up because nobody disagrees. OFSTED are no longer blatantly pushing the progressive bandwagon (although when you look up the consultancies some of their inspectors work for, it is still terrifying). Opinions, that at one point nobody dared to express openly for fear of pariah status, are now mainstream.

But there have been a couple of blogs recently that made me wonder. It was not that I disagreed with their contents (you can look here for some  things I’ve disagreed with recently) but that the writers didn’t seem to realise that what they were saying was going to be controversial. Perhaps they are unused to the internet, and the idea that if you say publicly something people disagree with you will, at the very least, be asked questions. Or perhaps they didn’t realise that many, many people would strongly disagree. But they were all views that made me think: “Did the writer realise that people would disagree strongly with this?”.

One was “Using Lego StoryStarter to Engage A-Level students with the Hitler Myth” in which a teacher described the great success of getting sixth formers to analyse Hitler’s public persona with the German people by use of Lego. I don’t know if the writer missed the controversy over teaching about the Nazis through the medium of Mr Men, but if they did, they clearly didn’t let it affect their choices. The two biggest objections raised then still apply. Firstly, it is infantalising, even more so in this case as it is sixth formers doing A-level, which is meant to be a step to university level study. Secondly, it is poor taste. These are events that led to genocide, not a children’s story. It’s also noticeable that the work produced is not obviously of A-level standard (unless A-level history has changed drastically since I took it). While this might be understandable so early in the year, and I’m not attempting to criticise the students for their work, it seems to provide very little justification for the effectiveness of the method used. Yet the writer seems to have missed all this. He did write a response and as far as people who had criticised thc blogpost had seized on typos or were rude, it’s fair enough to object. However, the key objections, that this is not what sixthformers should be doing, was only dealt with by the defence of saying other people agreed it was okay, including colleagues and students. Perhaps it is acceptable in this teacher’s school; perhaps in behaving this way he was only following orders. However, it was his choice to publicise it and declare it a great success and one wonders how many parts of the education still give the impression that work that resembles play, even for sixthformers, is the best sort of learning.

The other blogpost,  “When swearing in class was a reason to rejoice #restorativepractice” was one that had me fuming rather than bemused. Written by a senior teacher it described how a disciplinary incident was dealt with. A boy has sworn at some girls in a class and upset them. Instead of being punished (some Twitterers tried to deny the absence of punishment, but in a subsequent post the writer makes it clear they object philosophically to punishing chilren), he was made to apologise. The girls did not accept the apology. The boy then became furiously angry, swearing at the blogwriter as well. Still no sanction was issued, but there was a promise to speak to the girls, and as far as I can tell there was an attempt to persuade them to change their attitude. The teacher appears to be entirely motivated by the fact that the boy has been labelled as having “Aspergers” (they don’t say who by) and that other students should make allowances for this. The girls are described as having “closed minds” for wanting the boy to be punished. Standing their ground at first, one eventually caves and accepts the apology. This girl admits she was angry because she had endured similar abuse in the past, and she is put in touch with a colleague who will helps students “manage their emptions”.

It still shocks me that any teacher could excuse such behaviour from any student. SEN is not an excuse for allowing children to be treated in ways that would generally be considered abusive. The denial of natural justice is infuriating. Treating the victims as if they were in the wrong, for objecting makes it worse. The gender politics makes it all even more disturbing; should girls really be told that when boys treat them badly, then an apology makes it okay? The follow-up post uses the false dichotomy I mentioned last time, of claiming that the alternative to letting kids get away with bad behaviour is “behaviourism” as if B.F. Skinner invented the idea of punishing naughty children. It combines this with a narrative of presenting badly behaved children as victims, an approach that’s dehumanising at the best of times, but particularly inappropriate in a case where the actual victims were treated so badly. But the author’s position is clear, she will not punish children:

If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream.

It’s still one of the most shocking posts I have ever read. If I was a parent at that school I would be looking for somewhere safer for my children. It’s probably the first time I’ve read a blogpost and thought, despite everything, “OFSTED should do something about that”. That a senior teacher in a secondary school could behave like this worries me. That they thought they should share it with the world on a blogpost is just stunning, and does leave me, again, wondering how many schools proudly still have a culture that the right to “inclusion” trumps the right to be treated decently by one’s peers?

I’m sure that there will be no shortage of people who accuse me of misrepresenting the posts, even though I’ve linked to them and would encourage everyone to read them to see if I’m being honest. I’m sure there are those who will advocate the principle of never criticising what somebody else does or writes about, for fear of being negative*, even though debate would be impossible under such a constraint. However, I did think it was important to get these posts out there. They celebrate dumbing down and lenient discipline of a sort that teachers too often claim is only an invention of the Daily Mail and Tory politicians. Most of all they show that there are fundamental differences of value within teaching, that should make us question the idea that any institution, or any oath, or any curriculum, could ever represent the views of all teachers.

 

*Whenever I disagree with her, Sue Cowley usually claims not to be saying what she appeared to be saying no matter how unlikely this actually is. If she claims that in this case, then please just take this as a general point, rather than one specific to her.

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Avoiding the Difficult Choices in Education

October 12, 2014

I wrote this post about a week ago, and it largely follows on from my attempt to attend a large number of education events in a short period of time, described here.  A number of comments I heard about education over that time gave me pause for thought and for similar reasons.

The first was during the Battle of Ideas panel discussion that I was involved in. Emma Knights claimed that there wasn’t a debate over the role of knowledge in education, at least not in schools. (With hindsight, the two of us on the panel who did object were also the only two who are currently employed as teachers).

The second was in reading this article from Academies Week about Nicky Morgan, in which she adds “the fifth priority” of creating well-rounded youngsters “emphasising character, resilience, grit” to the other priorities of her department.

The third was during a “Policymeet” on the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, when Ty Goddard from The Education Foundation, claimed that some of the debates in education should be re-evaluated as “false dichotomies”, and seemed to give many examples, such as knowledge versus skills, academic education versus vocational education. I was not the only person present who was sceptical about this:

I’m not claiming any of this is exceptional. With regard to the “fifth priority”, in education you can set lists of priorities so long that it would be easier to say what isn’t a priority. You can design a curriculum with dozens of aims.  You can give out so many prizes that nobody actually feels rewarded. You can promote almost every teacher in a school without giving them any actual power. When people don’t want to make difficult choices they often find that choosing everything is almost the same as choosing nothing. Like giving a child a 17th final warning, you can create the illusion of making a decision without actually committing yourself to anything.

Similarly, when there are apparently stark choices, (including those relating to knowledge) it is easy to claim that they are “false dichotomies”. Don’t know whether small children are in school to play or to learn? Just claim that they learn best through play. Don’t know whether schools are for education or for socialisation? Just claim children are educated best through socialising. Don’t know whether children should be learning academic subjects or concentrating on hobbies? Just claim that everything is academic. Or nothing. It amounts to the same thing.

There are some genuine false dichotomies in education. There are options that are too vague to be meaningful (like educating the whole child, or encouraging creativity in maths). There are times when certain choices are hidden in order to make an unpalatable position seem the best option. For instance, anyone who wants to let kids get away with bad behaviour is likely to claim the only alternative is a philosophy of “behaviourism”. Or those who want it to be okay for kids to learn nothing, will claim that the alternative is a system driven only by exams. But in cases where we have a choice of what to teach, or what to spend resources on, the choices are unlikely to be false dichotomies. People will have to choose what money is spent on and what is taught in lessons.

All of the examples that I started with, seem to come down to an evasion of difficult choices. And perhaps this is why bureaucracy thrives in English education. For a system to function effectively people do have to decide what they are aiming for. They have to decide what gets priority. They have to commit themselves to their decisions. I am always been sceptical when people claim the NHS faces infinite demand that means resources have to be rationed. But in education, there is always more we can do. We cannot do everything. We cannot prioritise every child and teach every desirable personal quality. Sugar paper, post-it notes and brain-storming might generate lists but they don’t generate decisions. In the system we have, people become unpopular not by making the wrong choices, but by making any choices at all. In systems where nobody chooses what it is that must be done first, nothing gets done, and afterwards people try to find somebody to blame for not doing it.

It is important not to pretend there is no debate to be had. There is debate over everything and there needs to be. There are people we should argue with.

These are real debates, and while I don’t doubt there are those will try to dodge them, telling me that nobody meant what they appeared to be arguing, or that none of the apparent conflicts are actually real. But I cannot accept this. The differences in opinion are real and important. So please: make a decision; choose a side; express an opinion. It’s the only way anything gets done.

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