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.