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The State of the Education Debate

August 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.

10 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. “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.”

    You present several false dichotmies here yet again. Simply repeating the mantra that these are not false dichotmies will not make it so.

    Those teachers who do find a middle ground (even though you may keep on telling them that they haven’t) probably just find the whole thing increasingly tedious.


    • I simply point out questions where there is no obvious middle ground. We will have situations where we choose between making kids happier or smarter. We will have to select criteria by which we consider knowledge worth teaching. We will have to decide whether certain skills can, or cannot, be taught. Hard to see how any of these dilemmas can be resolved by compromises – which is presumably why you make your patronising reference to teachers who have found the middle ground without actually describing it.


      • If the middle ground is for fun only to be used when it is an effective approach then I’m not at all sure that is especially contentious and it doesn’t seem to be the choice OA is talking about anyway. My impression is that he talks about choosing when the options are between a strategy which is fun but not very effective or a strategy that is, well, boring possibly but not enjoyable anyway, but effective.
        I think I know what that middle ground might be in practice. When my kids needed to learn their times tables I did try CDs (kids didn’t enjoy them) and games (could use to reinforce, not so much to learn and they got boring long before kids had enough practice). In the end I was faced with the reality that fun was not going to cut it but my children still needed to learn their tables. This is not an unusual situation in teaching. Perhaps that middle ground meant that teachers should mix some fun but less effective strategies with some homework, leaving the parents to do the dirty work. Given that many children don’t learn their tables I think this is a common compromise.
        I come across plenty of people arguing that ‘learning should be fun.’ Perhaps the middle ground is to believe most learning can be fun. But then that no longer sounds like middle ground and more like believing you can have your cake and eat it.


        • “My impression is that he talks about choosing when the options are between a strategy which is fun but not very effective or a strategy that is, well, boring possibly but not enjoyable anyway, but effective.”

          “In the end I was faced with the reality that fun was not going to cut it but my children still needed to learn their tables.”

          I think the second comment quoted above sums up the situation very well. YOU faced the reality that fun wasn’t going to cut it with YOUR kids learning THEIR tables.

          Teaching and learning is a complex issue which is affected in some way by many factors including (but not restricted to) the folllowing…

          -teacher
          -learner
          -content
          -context
          -physical environment

          You made the decision that your kids needed different strategies to help them learn more effectively and you decided that the new strategies would be less fun. Another teacher in a different situation might find that their kids learn more with the strategies you have dismissed.

          You also seem to try to set up with OA’s assistance another false dilemma. Fun but ineffective vs effective but lacking fun.

          In my experience most teachers will choose effective methods over ineffective methods when increasing learning is the objective.

          Clearly for many, the objective is not effective learning but survival, maintaining mental health and the myriad of other motivators produced by misguided evaluators.

          Fun can improve motivation therefore increasing effectiveness of learning.

          Is it possible that teachers (especially science/maths perhaps) have a view of learning that is too black and white and lacks an understanding of the fact that learners are more often than not human beings and behave like people rather than robots. They tend to see choice of teaching strategy a bit like times tables. 6 x 9 = 54. Fun x pupil = ineffective, boredom x pupil = effective and will be so at all times in all cases.


          • Your last paragraph doesn’t describe any teachers I come across. In the world of teaching I guess some teachers must think boredom = effective teaching. Maybe it was a common problem fifty years ago? The debate in this thread is over the other extreme, thinking learning must largely be fun even when this sacrifices effectiveness. I have come across that assumption frequently.
            I can’t work out how any of the rest of you answer counters my previous points. I don’t have any problem with teachers using the most effective strategy for their context and with their kids. You just seem to dodge the issue under debate.


          • I believe you simply raise just another false dilemma.

            I was just responding to your post. You said….

            “My impression is that he talks about choosing when the options are between a strategy which is fun but not very effective or a strategy that is, well, boring possibly but not enjoyable anyway, but effective.”

            These are not the options most people find.

            Most teachers choose effective activities and some are fun and some are boring.Some are effective and some ineffective. Some are boring an ineffective and some are fun and effective.

            What makes you think that theachers choose between fun-ineffective and boring-effective and tend to choose the former over that latter.

            Most of what you say I cannot counter as it is simply your personal reflections of your experience of realising that fun-ineffective didn’t work with some kids and you saw the light and changed your tack. Describes the life and times of many teachers, it’s what we do. However we don’t all contunaully make the choice that you suggest we do. Not in my experience anyhow.


          • “What makes you think that teachers choose between fun-ineffective and boring-effective and tend to choose the former over that latter.”

            Can you please avoid addressing straw man arguments like this?


  3. […] mean we can get away with a “let’s just say everyone is right” approach. As a recent blog by AndrewOld pointed out: at some point in education we have to make actual decisions – will we worry about kids being […]


  4. […] 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…  […]



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