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A Petition Against Passing Off Blogposts as Petitions

May 2, 2013

We, the undersigned, note with concern the rather disturbing practice of declaring a blogpost to be a petition and getting people to sign it. In particular, these two blogposts “Calling all teachers”  and “Calling all parents” by Debra Kidd, have been passed off as petitions and been widely circulated and publicised as a result, in a way that I suspect would not have happened if they had been presented simply as blogposts.

A petition should be a simple and clear statement of a position, followed by a list of supporters of that position. It should not be an argument for that position. It should not be a collection of arguments such as one might find in a blogpost. Here are the main reasons why:

1) It is entirely possible to support a position without endorsing a particular specific argument in favour of it. If you ask people to endorse an entire blogpost you either risk losing those who cannot endorse every argument or only gaining the support of those who lacking either reason or honesty (or both) will endorse any argument for their position, no matter how flawed.

So for instance, it is hard to believe that anybody with an open mind would endorse the following claim from the “Calling All Teachers” blogpost:

Michael Gove has used, frequently, the words of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham to support his notions that the curriculum should be based on the acquisition of facts. Gove’s interpretation of this idea is that the curriculum should consist of nothing but facts, but Willingham argues in much of his work, that critical thinking is essential in learning and that all knowledge learned should be supported by thinking. Futhermore, he warns that in the United States, a similar programme led to teachers ‘giving children lots and lots of facts at the expense of critical thinking.’ Far from attacking thinking skills, as Gove suggests, Willingham values them, when taught within context and points out that ‘we’d love to test critical thinking if we knew how to test critical thinking. But we really don’t. So what we tend to do is test factual knowledge.’ While it is clear that Willingham supports a focus on knowledge, he voices concerns about high stakes testing and the isolation of the teaching of knowledge into rote facts.

The idea that Willingham and Gove disagree about the relative merits of knowledge and thinking skills is something that simply cannot be demonstrated from anything they have ever said. Instead we have two misleading summaries of their opinions (misleading in different directions) used to create a wholly bogus disagreement. Now, this sort of distortion isn’t exactly rare in blogposts, but for thousands of people to sign it just gives away that the people signing it are either unconcerned about, or unaware of, the quality of the arguments they are endorsing thereby undermining the value of their conclusions.

2) An argument is not strengthened by the number of people endorsing it. When a blogger puts forward an argument then it should stand or fall on its own merits. The number of people who endorse it has no bearing on the strength of the argument. So, for instance, returning to the Dan Willingham example, it does not matter how many thousands of people endorse this particular interpretation of Dan Willingham’s views. There is only one authoritative voice on the matter of what Dan Willingham thinks. The interpretations contained in the two pseudo-petitions are, to say the least, dubious.

They eventually led to this exchange:

Even with the most charitable explanation of Debra Kidd’s claims, at the very least suggests truth in this matter may not belong to the person with the longest list of names.

3) Sometimes the list of names can undermine the message. “The Calling all Teachers” blogpost has been repeatedly referred to as representing the views of teachers. Apart from the fact that most teachers won’t have signed it (and plenty of us were somewhat appalled by it) this really doesn’t give the true flavour of the sort of person who signed it. I don’t have time to go through the whole list, but of the list on the original blogpost we actually see who the petition really represents. There are a lot of teacher training types, a lot of SMT, a fair few consultants, but what is most staggering is the extent to which teachers have written down more than subject or sector. A huge proportion have put down their promoted post, whether they are an AST and, in some cases, what books they written or initiatives they led.

Take your time and have a look through the list. There are plenty of teachers in there but this is not the voice of the staffroom. This is the voice of the office, sometimes a school office, quite often an office in a teacher training establishment or an education business. Very often an office with a pretentious title on it. Here are some genuine examples of some of the self-descriptions given by people who “signed” the petition:

  • Teacher and author of ‘Teaching Mathematics Creatively’ – Secondary and Cultural Sector
  • Creative Projects Co-ordinator, Make Believe Arts. International.
  • Every Child Counts Teacher Leader, Derbyshire
  • Creative Practitioner – Cultural Sector
  • AST and author of ‘Oops – helping children to learn Accidentally’
  • Philosophy For Children Consultant and Trainer
  • AST Primary Drama and Mantle of the Expert Consultant
  • E-Learning Consultant
  • Teacher of Exploration (Maths / Humanities)– Secondary
  • Geography and Learning to Learn, Secondary Academy
  • Ex Teacher, Consultant for Excellence East, Policy Adviser for Gifted and Talented
  • Teacher Trainer and Neurodiversity Consultant

This is a list for those who are playing, or have played, the game. Teachers should steer clear, just as they’d steer clear of anyone in the staffroom who, without prompting, let people know they were an AST or a consultant.

For these reasons, we the undersigned, recommend an immediate end to the madness of making blogposts into petitions and call for the immediate execution by firing squad of anybody who has the word “creative” in their job title.

If you would like to add your name to this blogpost, then you clearly haven’t read this one either. For pity’s sake.

7 comments

  1. I tend to agree with some of what OA has to say and some of what Debra Kidd has to say regarding education, knowledge and thinking skills.

    I am rapidly becoming an advocate for homeschooling and I am looking currently at how some different sort of educational model could be developed, a bit like the way that business models have changed/developed with the invention of the internet.

    I am personally getting tired of the whole thing and thinking about getting away from teaching which is becoming toxic as a job.

    I do find it fascinating to see two blog posters go head to head and fight it out on here.

    We had OA quoted as a favourite by Gove last week and now Debra Kidd is slagging Gove off and OA coming to his rescue. You couldn’t make it up.

    I can’t wait for the next round, and if the issues did not have such serious implications for young people I would laugh. As it is I feel like crying.


  2. Willingham may not have commented on Kidd’s reading of his work but he has commented on Gove’s reading of it.

    http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2013/02/the-science-in-goves-speech.html


    • Heather, his comments are below and, just for the sake of clarity, they were written last month. As you can see, Daniel Willingham is not familiar with the proposed changes to the National Curriculum, so is not in a position to either agree with, or disagree with them.


      • So, Debra, which bit of this paragraph of Willingham do you not understand?

        ‘Gove is right. And he’s right to argue for a knowledge-based curriculum. The curriculum is most likely to meliorate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students because a good fraction of that difference is fueled by differences in cultural capital in the home–differences that schools must try to make up.’


  3. To clarify…

    Hi Debra
    Thanks for your note.
    There are a couple of reasons that I’m trying to stay out of education matters that are particular to England and Wales.
    1) I don’t know your system at all–the classroom culture, school culture, circumstances under which teachers work, etc.
    2) More generally, I have argued that people with some expertise in one aspect of education are often too quick to weigh in on issues that are outside their areas of expertise. This practice is seldom helpful. My expertise is in cognitive science so there are many aspects of curricular design that I don’t know well. I know still less about policy matters.

    So I have not read and commented on the new curriculum. (I wouldn’t have had time to read it carefully in any event, due to my own responsibilities in the last few months.)

    All that said, I certainly agree with the position that (1) the goal of education is not just to know stuff, but to know how to deploy that stuff to solve problems, be creative, etc. (2) knowing how to think in this way requires instruction and practice and won’t arise spontaneously if you know enough stuff; (3) thinking skills are largely subject-specific (i.e., good thinking in math is not the same as good thinking in history); (4) thinking skills require and are intertwined with domain knowledge.

    Best,
    Dan

    On Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 8:31 PM, Debra Kidd wrote:
    Dear Professor Willingham,

    You may be aware of a little furore in the UK about a letter I have written in response to Michael Gove’s claim that many of the teachers and academics in Britain are ‘Enemies of Promise’. I know that you are an admirer of Michael Gove’s belief that knowledge is crucial in education and it is not a position I disagree with. In fact I have long opposed the teaching of thinking skills which is not rooted in the context of knowledge – it seems pointless to me but I know that many disagree. Sorry, I digress…

    I have quoted you based on an article I read in The Guardian newspaper in which you voiced concerns about how such policies had been implemented in the United States, leading to rote learning and dull teaching. I think this is something that teachers in the UK are concerned about. We are also concerned about the emphasis on a knowledge based curriculum without accompanying emphasis on skills. I know you said we cannot test critical thinking skills, but we should surely at least facilitate the use of them? In any case, I want to make sure that I understand you correctly. Are you saying that knowledge AND critical (and presumably creative/generative) thinking skills are important? This is my reading of your work.

    I am not asking you to support my letter – it would be inappropriate for you to do so, but I also do not want to be completely misrepresenting your work. I seek your advice.

    Thank you

    Debra Kidd

    Teacher.


    Daniel T. Willingham
    Professor, Director of Graduate Studies
    Department of Psychology
    Box 400400
    University of Virginia
    Charlottesville, VA 22904


  4. Debra, As I said in reply to your email last month there is nothing in Willingham’s statements that contradicts Gove’s position. Are you conceding that Gove’s public statements on the interplay of knowledge and skills are in line with Willingham’s ideas? I think since reading Willingham’s blog you have conceded this but no one would know this from your original blog. Willingham clearly states that in the speech where Gove went into the importance of knowledge and skills that ‘he got the science right’. However, that does rather take form your rather sweeping claims that Gove intends his curriculum to consist of nothing but facts.
    I am guessing that what you are really arguing is that despite Gove’s intentions, when you look at the curriculum you see ‘nothing but facts’. Please do reference curriculum areas where you see this to be the case, I haven’t found any.


  5. Andrew, I’m pretty certain somewhere in the annals of your blog you’ll find my expressing despair at the routine way so many teachers mistake what are in reality their personal political opinions, for educational arguments. This “petition” exemplifies the problem.



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