I appear to have forgotten to share this last month, so I’d better do that now. A few weeks back, Schools Week published my review of the best blogs of the week.
Continued from Part 2 here.
Since I wrote part 1 of this series of posts there have been a number of blogposts from teachers appearing (for instance, here, here and here) commenting on teachers’ use of social media. All three of those posts are noticeable because, on the one hand, they described insults and personal attacks online, but also described those who simply disagreed with them, were negative or (in one of the posts) just used the wrong tone. The authors of the posts drew no clear dividing line between correspondence where they disliked the style or substance, and correspondence that was insulting, personal and possibly even criminal. Even worse examples (which I won’t link to) of failing to distinguish between these types of behaviour have appeared on social media since then, where named individuals (including me) were directly (and indirectly) accused of abusive behaviour without even one actual example being provided.
If the line between debate and abuse is being muddied, the most obvious reason is that while people wish to silence debate, there is still some degree of embarrassment connected to simply saying “I don’t like it when people disagree with me”. People feel obliged to give some greater objection, no matter how unjustified.
Here is a quick guide to the most common ways in which people in education seek to demonise a challenge to their ideas.
As I explained last time, I think there should be open debate in teaching. I think this is true even if ideas are debated in front of new teachers and trainees. I think this is true even if contentious things are posted to websites by people who don’t agree with them. I wouldn’t phrase this as being about freedom of speech, but about freedom of thought. To form our own opinions, we need to hear and think about the alternatives. J.S. Mill captures this idea well in On Liberty:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
We learn from debating our opinions. We learn most about our opinions from debating those who are the most insightful critics of them. Those opinions which cannot be defended, should not be believed. There are plenty of debates in teaching, but that does not mean that good ideas require protecting from the alternatives. We should feel confident that our best chance of getting to the truth is from debate, not from its absence.
This is particularly important when many of the “authorities” in education have been spreading some of the worst ideas. Brain Gym, learning styles, discovery learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy and many others fads, have all been promoted by those who were meant to have been “experts” in teaching. A supposedly “expert” perspective on education, is not always one that is honest, fair or true. Perhaps one of the ironies in criticism of both Starter For Five and Labour Teachers is that those calling for views to be censored so as to enforce an editorial line are those least likely to agree with my selection of posts if I were to enforce my opinions. Those who want to end the debate, never want it to be their side that is silenced. Indeed, often the demand that I censor views they don’t like is combined by an unevidenced and untrue allegation that I must also be censoring the views they do like. The possibility that I might share all points of view is seemingly unimaginable to some.
The years between 2004 and 2010 were some of the worst for debate in teaching. The National Strategies, government guidance, the GTC, local authorities, teacher trainers and the inspectorate generally stuck to a remarkably narrow range of views. Learning styles were in. Group work was in. Teacher talk was out. Prolonged practice was out. And the management systems in schools gradually converged to emphasise compliance and conformity to this model. It became possible for a teacher whose classes were learning (and doing well in exams) to be told they were teaching the wrong way and even be forced out of their position. Even things that were abundantly obvious, like the failure of inclusion, the breakdown of discipline, the money wasted on interactive whiteboards or grade inflation in exams, were considered unmentionable for teachers, even if they made it into the media. The legacy of that time is still with us in many schools and among many managers. But many teachers no longer feel obliged to play lip service to any of it, particularly on social media. We can (generally) say in public what we believe, and we can challenge each other when we disagree. This is our greatest safeguard against those who would happily see the system return to where it was in 2009. It’s the best chance we have for a system that improves because new ideas are tried and tested. Open debate among teachers is also the greatest protection we have against the next fad being imposed on us. The question: “Is this the next brain gym?” will be addressed to anyone publicly recommending a gimmick, as long as we are free to ask that sort of question.
Let’s keep the debate going; let’s encourage it. I am not threatened by hearing the opposing view, only by having my view silenced. If you don’t feel the same way – if you feel uncomfortable being disagreed with – then you should consider the possibility that it’s because you know your stated beliefs will not hold up to scrutiny.
Next time I will consider some of the reasons people use to justify silencing debate.
You may be aware that I am involved with a number of blogs other than this one. The Echo Chamber family of blogs shares links to other people’s posts, either on the basis of my preferences, or in ways that might be useful for particular audiences. I also edit/co-edit two blogs that take regular submissions from other people:
Both of these blogs take an inclusive approach, not requiring adherence to any editorial line, only to the guiding principles of the blog. Labour Teachers is open to teachers on any wing of the Labour Party, and so might contain differing views on any number of issues that Labour supporting teachers might reasonably disagree on. I have never rejected a post for Labour Teachers on the grounds of it being something I disagreed with. If it comes from a Labour supporting teacher, is a reasonable length, and hasn’t been published before, it goes on the site. This caused all sorts of accusations to begin with. People would wait for a post they disagreed with (usually something traditionalist on education or centrist on party politics) and denounce, not only the author, but Labour Teachers for being a right-wing conspiracy. My favourite accusation was the claim that the blog was a “false flag” operation, just pretending to be Labour. Much of the vitriol came from people who weren’t even in the Labour Party at the time, but considered themselves authorities on what principles the Labour Party should have. Curiously, nobody seemed too concerned about any posts that were left-wing or educationally progressive. The mere fact that certain views were not censored was enough to taint the whole enterprise. When this blogpost sharing a mix of reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest was published, one tweeter took a screenshot of the most anti-Corbyn comment and shared it as the views of Labour Teachers, despite the same post also including very positive reactions to Corbyn’s victory. The idea that one might tolerate a range of opinions within the same blog was simply not considered.
At the time I put it down to the peculiar prejudices and paranoia often found in left-wing politics which seems to attract people unable to grasp the idea that somebody could disagree with them without being either evil, right-wing or engaged in a plot to subvert the Labour Party. But now I have the curious case of Starter For Five. As I explained when it began, the original idea was that if new teachers or trainees wanted advice on a teaching topic they’d be able to find it “from several experienced teachers”. This was never meant to be one person’s opinion on what trainees should think. You could read somebody’s advice and reject it, offer your own advice on the same topic or add a comment beneath it. It was crowd sourced advice that was to reflect the diversity of the crowd. Again, I have never censored a post simply because I disagreed with the content. And again, people have failed to get this idea.
A huge Twitter row has erupted since a post advising teachers not to believe KS2 results are accurate or useful. The fifth point is phrased in a way that’s rather blunt, but the post contained nothing that hasn’t been said by many secondary teachers, and most of it by a fair few primary teachers too. It was not an attack on anybody. It was advice. Whether it is good or bad advice is up to those reading it to decide, but it fitted the criteria for the site exactly.
Some primary teachers decided to take personal offence. I don’t particularly understand this. When the shameful inaccuracy of GCSE coursework and controlled assessments came to light in the last few years, I not only didn’t take offence, but I helped publicise it. The truth was more important to me than shielding teachers in my own sector from blame and responsibility. The truth was more important than arse-covering. And there was very few arguments claiming that this post was not true (and there were good reasons to believe it) only that it was offensive, and showed a hidden agenda on the part of those of us behind the website. Basically the same complaint as with Labour Teachers:
So that’s the background. That’s why I feel the need to defend the value of open debate in education and my efforts to make that debate open. I will attempt to make this defence in Part 2.
A while back on Twitter, there was some discussion of the plans for a new professional body, the College Of Teaching. Having understood the idea was largely the brain child of the House of Commons’ education committee, who recommended it in their report on “Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best” in May 2012, I was surprised by this exchange:
At the excellent Politics in Education Summit which I attended last Monday, (I don’t think anything from that has been put online, so please be aware that what follows is mainly from my notes/recollections of myself and others who were there), Angela MacFarlane of the College Of Teachers, one of the groups setting up the College Of Teaching used a slide with a timeline suggesting that the current process started at a meeting of teachers in February 2012, and claimed:
There has been a lot happening over a long period of time and the most recent debate around the need for such an organisation dates back to February 2012 and it was not initiated by government, actually, the debate was ongoing before government got involved. The recommendation from the Education Select Committee was very helpful but, of course, it actually derived from the evidence they were hearing from people who were coming and giving their testimony…
The Claim Your College site gives a chronology which claims “The idea of a new College of Teaching was first broached at a Headteacher Residential held by the Prince’s Teaching Institute (PTI) in 2012” (this seems to be the February 2012 event) before acknowledging the role of the Education Committee of the House of Commons.
The discrepancy with the mention of 2011 in the earlier tweet seems to have been an error, and when I investigated it, it was indicated, again, that the idea for the College Of Teaching was suggested at that same event in February 2012:
So it would appear to be the case that the idea came up among teachers in February 2012, and was then fed into the House Of Commons Education Committee’s consultation on attracting, training and retaining teachers, leading to the committee endorsing it. And that this is the version of events shared by some of the people involved in the formation of the College.
Unfortunately, there’s a little problem with this. Even if the February 2012 conference is where the name “Royal College Of Teaching” was suggested, the idea for a new professional body was being suggested by a politician in the weeks beforehand. If you look at the minutes of the education committee’s evidence gathering sessions in January 2012, you will find one session where Conservative MP, Neil Carmichael directed the following to educationalists Alison Kitson and Chris Robertson:
Neil Carmichael: That is a really interesting point that you have just raised about the parallel between teachers and doctors, and indeed lawyers. The one thing that teachers do not have, which the others do have, is a professional body to represent them and effectively corral the very things you are talking about. Have either of you thought about the fact that the teaching profession might benefit from having an effective professional body looking at the issue of training and professionalism and career development on their behalf for them, rather than allowing teachers effectively to be subjected to a huge variety of options and possibilities, as currently happens?
Neil Carmichael: You are making the assumption that this would be something created by Government for teachers. It does not necessarily need to be, and perhaps should not be, created by Government. It should arise from teachers wanting to have a professional body to look after their profession, in their interests, and obviously, as Graham quite rightly pointed out, the interests of pupils too. Fundamentally, this is a question of how teachers themselves want to see things happen.
Later in that session, this time addressing representatives of the College Of Teachers who were giving evidence about their plan for “Chartered Teachers”, he made the following comments:
Neil Carmichael: We seem to be heading in the right direction, because there is a strong consensus developing that we do need to go down a professional approach to teaching, and a professional body to represent teachers. It would be best if that were organic through teachers.
Neil Carmichael: It is interesting; this Committee is coming up with something that could be quite a significant policy initiative, so let us develop it. … There are … 460,000 teachers in England, as far as I know. That is quite a big number that we have to get involved in this process. I think Graham [Stuart, the chair] has asked the question already, but I will ask it: how do you think we can move in the direction, if this is the direction that we want to move in, to get those 460,000 involved in a professional body?
At another session a week later, and still a week before the PTI meeting “invented” the idea, Neil Carmichael asked Michael Gove, as secretary of state, the following question:
So moving towards a professional body for teachers might be a way forward-to encourage them to take charge of their own destiny?
Now given the fact the Education Committee’s support for the College Of Teaching is seen as pivotal, and given that the idea of a new professional body was being raised by that committee in the weeks immediately before the PTI meeting where headteachers are meant to have come up with the idea, I’d suggest that Neil Carmichael MP (now chair of the education committee) be given more credit for getting this idea off of the ground.
And why does it matter who came up with the idea, politicians or teachers? It matters for two reasons. Firstly, because The College Of Teaching that is currently being proposed is not in any way a grassroots organisation. It’s an education establishment body set up by the vested interests, that so far has shown little interest in teachers, particularly those who aren’t SMT. The myth that teachers began this process is necessary if teachers are to be convinced that the College Of Teaching is something other than an attempt by the usual suspects to cash in on political good will.
Secondly, if the College Of Teaching was the child of the education select committee, then it is worth considering what evidence they found that it was needed and how much of that evidence came from people who wanted a new regulator, or a new way to judge and classify teachers, rather than a new voice for teachers. The point and purpose of a new professional body for teachers has always been confused and unclear. The actual circumstances of its birth, rather than the myth, serve only to highlight this.
This is my contribution to the Starter For Five website, which collects advice for new teachers.
Originally posted on Starter for Five:
Name: Andrew Old
Twitter name: @oldandrewuk
Subject taught (if applicable): Maths
What is your advice about? Teaching Maths
1: Do not attempt to teach “conceptual understanding” of something unless you have first checked with somebody with a maths degree that *you* understand it.
2: Practice is the key to fluency. While questions should get harder, never shy away from setting dozens of questions on the same thing.
3: Sort out the basics first: time tables, number bonds and the standard algorithms.
4: There usually is one best way to solve a problem, so teach it and ask students to stick to it until they are good at it.
5: Teach algebra like it is a language, not a set of methods. Explain what is meant by “=”, “solve”, “expressions”, “term”, “find”, “substitute”, “rearrange”, simplify” etc.
In the last few months the extent of the patriarchal domination of education has been made clear by some brave campaigning organisations, willing to point out how rare it is to see a woman in a school, and how difficult it is to organise childcare for a job where you only get school holidays off. Below are the minutes of a meeting of one such group, the Judean Women Teacher’s Front:
“The education system is oppressing us. It’s oppressing us in every way. And not just us, but our mothers and our mothers’ mothers.”
“And our mothers’ mothers’ mothers.”
“Yes. And our mothers’ mothers’ mothers’ mothers.”
“All right. Don’t labour the point. And what have we been been allowed to do in the education system?”
“Oh yeah, yeah most teachers are women . Yeah. That’s true.
“And senior management”
“Oh yes… senior management. You remember how two thirds of deputy and assistant heads are women?”
“All right, I’ll grant you that teachers and senior managers are two things women are allowed to do in education.
“Well yes obviously most headteachers are women… headship goes without saying. But apart from teaching, senior management and headship…”
“Managing Ofqual, including being chair or CEO.”
“Yes… all right, fair enough…”
“Yeah. That’s got something like 8 women out of 11 members”
“All right… all right… but apart from teachers, and senior managers and heads and academics in university education departments and Ofqual’s managers and educational psychologists and the education select committee and civil servants in the department for education and general secretaries of teaching unions- at least 50% of the people in all these positions are women – what have women been allowed to do education?”
“What!? Oh… secretary of state, yes… shut up!”
Update (about 5 minutes after posting): Actually, before I get murdered for this, I will add a short justification. The only point I am making is that education is a field dominated by women. That doesn’t mean no sexism exists. It doesn’t mean every part of the system is perfect. But it does mean that there is plenty to celebrate. The contribution of women to education is enormous. Men could not stop women in education if they tried. So why on earth should anyone promote a narrative about women being excluded and marginalised in education? Why is education not held up as an example? Why is the fact that 65% of heads are women not something used to encourage women into management in other sectors? Why should women teachers ever be portrayed as a class of victims, rather than leaders and professionals making a difference?