The State of the Education DebateAugust 8, 2013
A few blogs recently have commented on current education debate in general, and on debate on blogs and Twitter in particular. I thought I’d comment on four of them here.
The one that perhaps stands out from the similar themes of the others is this one The Great Education Wars from 3D Eye. It stands out for simply denying the actual debate. Apparently:
In the ‘traditionalist’ camp were all those who believe that the main aim of education has always been, still is, and always will be, the attainment of high scores in time-limited, high-stakes tests and exams. These people also believe that through various efforts to ‘drive up’ exam scores we can measure students, teachers and schools.
The major exponents of ‘traditionalism’ were present in force at Wellington – Michael Gove, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Lord Adonis, and their various acolytes. Their sessions were extremely well attended, though not by me.
I’m quite happy to accept the existence of a “traditionalist” camp and a “child-centred” camp, although they are probably far less homogeneous than is assumed here. The trouble with this is that I cannot think of anybody in education who fits this particular description of the “traditionalist” viewpoint. While, perhaps, those of us more sympathetic to traditional teaching methods and the academic purposes of education are also more likely to think that testing may, sometimes, be a useful or even indispensable tool in assessing whether students are learning, I cannot imagine anyone saying that the exams are ends, not means,
I suppose this kind of fantasy from the “progressive” camp is not unprecedented, although it is rarely stated quite so confidently with the fact that the author has deliberately chosen not to listen to the people he then misrepresents. I think it is important to bear in mind that this is from a consultant working in schools, who has attended the Wellington festival and has written an education blog on WordPress. It’s worth observing that it is still possible to be engaged in the English education scene, including the online scene, and appear completely oblivious to what arguments are made by “traditionalists” or even, apparently, think of any good examples of anyone talking at Wellington with traditionalist sympathies other than politicians or their appointees.
It’s worth bearing this in mind when looking at the other three blogs, which all assume (although not necessarily in the same way) an established debate within education and within the education blogosphere and seek to criticise from the perspective of viewing that debate. However, I find myself disagreeing with all three of them in their critique of the “traditionalist” camp, particularly as in all three cases that camp appears to explicitly include bloggers, rather than simply the politicians and public figures who are taken to be the “traditionalists” in the 3D Eye blog.
The other three blogs are as follows:
1) Evidence in to action – winning hearts and minds by David Weston argues that partisan debate won’t persuade anybody and characterises both sides as too partisan.
2) Education, Twitter and the Herd Mentality by Michael Merrick argues that “the iconoclasts have become icons” and “emulates that which it sought to replace”.
3) False dilemma by Things Behind the Sun argues that by supporting each other through tweets and reblogs both sides put forward positions that miss the room for variety in teaching.
I think all three put too much weight on how loud and how prominent some more traditionalist teachers have been in social media and how limited their voices, if not their beliefs, actually are in most schools. Bloggers do not set the tone for what happens in classrooms. OFSTED do. The people who train teachers do. SMT do. Increasingly, consultants do. I don’t even think governments do. Most of the more traditionalist teachers I know have “conversion” stories, the moment where they realised they had been lied to throughout their training and CPD; that what they had been led to believe was good teaching wasn’t. I don’t want to paint the traditional viewpoint as that of a small minority, it may even be the majority, but for a while there, particularly after the progressives took over Ofsted, it was a very quiet voice.
Perhaps traditionalists are being heard now. But nobody is hearing it at my school. NQTs are still turning up believing that children must work things out for themselves in groups. “Lead Learners” are being appointed in schools for their ability to manage groupwork and speak in jargon. Nobody seems to be stopping Ofsted inspectors from condemning traditional teaching when they see it in schools. You only have to look at the debates over the new National Curriculum, or over the English GCSE regrading, to know how few teachers feel they can speak up in public from a traditionalist perspective. In real life I know far more history teachers who want a knowledge-based curriculum, or English teachers who knew the new GCSE was too easy, than I ever encountered in the media reports explaining the views of teachers.
Perhaps the tide is turning, but the priority is still just to be heard. What’s changed is that when it comes to Twitter and blogging. It is easier than it’s ever been to be heard and that this has happened at a time of political leadership relatively sympathetic to traditional teaching. Perhaps for those plugged into the internet and the blogosphere some of the retweets or the reblogs seem like overkill, but most teachers will never have seen anything by any of those bloggers and, in particular, nothing challenging the orthodoxies of the time. Working with several young teachers at the moment I’m amazed how many use Twitter and Facebook for organising their social lives but have no awareness of any of the supposedly prominent edubloggers and tweeters. If Michael Merrick thinks there are “new traditionalists” promoting each other than perhaps he was just a bit too used to there being no traditionalists and became too comfortable with it. If David Weston thinks that people won’t be persuaded by partisan arguments for traditionalist beliefs he may not be aware that many will not have even heard them expressed explicitly before or without immediate condemnation. If Things Behind the Sun thinks traditionalists only attend to blogs reflecting their own views, then he has missed the extent to which those blogs are still a novelty and how the opposing viewpoint has been described to us as the only permissible viewpoint for most of our careers. My priority (and this is why I ended up making The Echo Chamber fairly broad and inclusive rather than a propaganda outlet for one viewpoint) is simply to get the debate out there. I believe the arguments against progressive education, whether they are based on history, psychology, philosophy, experimental evidence or just teacher experience and a bit of common sense, are strong enough to win easily as long as they are heard.
This is not to say that any controversy is good controversy, and I was disappointed that David Weston suggested that traditionalists were as keen to get into the gutter as progressives when it comes to debate. His one example of a traditionalist being too partisan was a comment which had actually been deleted, and hardly compares with the willingness of progressives to condemn, not just the behaviour or arguments, but the good characters of others. But, as long as the ideas are freely debated, the more traditional ideas will win; of that I have little doubt.
Things Behind the Sun also suggested, and this is pretty common, the possibility that the whole debate is simply false. Do teachers not use a mix of progressive and traditional methods? Do they not combine a variety of values? While I think false dichotomies do often occur in education – the 3D Eye blog mentioned above being a perfect example – they generally tend to obscure genuine debates rather to create debates where none exist. While we might find that some of the questions raised result in differing answers within the same camp, and while sometimes we might put our ultimate aims on hold just to get through the day or to achieve temporary consensus, choices have to be made. While some of choices, like how much freedom kids should have, or whether kids can learn in groups, may depend to a degree on who you happen to have in front of you, it would be impossible to make an intelligent choice on such issues without having first decided on the more fundamental issues of what education is for and of what it consists. We will have to make choices about whether we do what will make kids smarter or what will make them happier. We have to decide whether what they need to know is what society values or what they (or their teachers) happen to like. We have to agree or disagree about the existence and teachability of various generic dispositions and skills which lessons might be given over to developing. There are no simple compromises and middle positions to be adopted over any of these issues. Ultimately, you will put yourself in one camp or another, or simply fail to have made up your mind.