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Witch-hunt

November 5, 2014

There was a bit of a fuss over the last few weeks on education Twitter. It consisted of large groups of Twitterers simultaneously denouncing a series of targets in ever more intemperate ways. It began with Uncommon Schools being criticised for their training videos which showed children being trained to follow a routine in class. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then Rob Peal was criticised for this brilliant book review. Then I was criticised for having argued with people on Twitter. Then John Blake was in the firing line for minor acts of snarkiness and the suspicion of being posh. Then me again, this time for being a man who argued with people on Twitter. Then a maths teacher, with a couple of hundred followers, was targeted for the crime of not liking some maths homework she’d seen. Then it was me again for denying that I was privately educated (don’t ask). Eventually, the mob started to turn on itself and people were throwing abuse at the some of the most non-confrontational people on Twitter. Then, with a couple of people quitting Twitter, it all seemed to die out.

I don’t know if anyone has learnt anything from the saga. In terms of Twitter, I am going to be very careful to make sure that, when I criticise something, I stay around to make sure the people who agree with me don’t act the same way as that mob. I’m also going to be careful what I share about my own life on Twitter, and to add more smilies when I make jokes about how great I am, as the mob seemed to make great use of of both unhappy times in my life I’ve talked about honestly, and my arrogant persona.

However, it did lead me to reflect on the conduct of educational debate again. The witch-hunt analogy appeared very early on when describing the public denunciations – I went on to label the whole business as “the Twitch-hunt” – which reminded of some of the arguments over Trojan Horse which was described as a witch-hunt by some of those accused. Because education has been dominated by a fairly narrow orthodoxy, it is easy to paint opposing views as heretical. One recent lead article in an education journal talked of  “mainstream educational thought” being challenged by “blogocrats”, as if voices from the staffroom becoming heard on social media were an unwelcome contaminant to a debate which should only ever take place between office-dwelling experts. But considering that even opinions that were once beyond the pale can quickly become the accepted wisdom in the social media age, how do we ensure debate does not become a witch-hunt against dissent and difference? I think there are three key distinctions between a debate and a witch-hunt.

The first is that for a debate it must be possible to answer criticisms. If twenty people have a go at one person, then debate becomes difficult. I’m good at arguing with a lot of people at once, but even I struggle to keep up with answering the comments on my blog. This can become self-reinforcing if those who disagree, having got the false impression that they speak for only a tiny minority, keep their opinions to themselves. Don’t argue against people’s ideas behind their backs, or for that matter, in the third person when they are still part of the discussion. Right to reply should not only be a given, it should be encouraged. If criticism is vague or highly subjective then it is hard to argue against it; a lot of the criticism of Uncommon Schools consisted of little more than people saying “I don’t like the look of that”. Don’t introduce notions of politeness that, if taken seriously, would end debate. Polite disagreement is not a contradiction in terms, but if there is a conflict between civility and debate, let’s favour debate. Similarly, complaints about “tone” are unhelpful when we all naturally imagine all sorts of things about our own tone and the tone of those who disagree with us. If criticisms seem arbitrary, they can be very hard to answer. Certainly a lot of the flak aimed at me was for doing things (like arguing) that others had no problem with when people they agreed with were doing it. This also reminds me of a “Trojan Horse” school being criticised for something that, while questionable, was praised a few months earlier. As far as possible, we should criticise others on matters of principle only after we have set out the basic principles we expect all to follow, defended those principles in debate, and tried to live by them ourselves.

A further complication is if those making the criticisms are doing so from a position of unchallenged power, then debate is more difficult. I do think “unchallenged” is important here. Politicians have power over education, but nobody thinks twice about arguing against what they say. Arguing with your own SLT, or, if you are a school leader, criticising OFSTED can be far more scary. Anything endorsed by the inspectorate is very difficult to argue with, as schools and teachers have found to their cost. I don’t think anything did more to suppress open debate than the period between 2004 and 2012 when OFSTED became the official enforcer of progressive education. And it is simply not good enough for people who are not without power and influence to paint themselves as the victims, or to appeal for pity in order to strengthen one’s debating position. One protagonist in the Twitch-hunt decided to share the fact they were a victim of child abuse, while condemning others for expressing their opinions. How could that ever be relevant? Another proved that those they disagreed with represented “the establishment” by observing that some of them were white, male and straight. It can be difficult to establish who does or does not have power, but these sorts of arguments do not help. Those of us who feel pretty powerless in real-life, but have a significant following on social media, should be aware that we may have power of sorts, although those complaining of “loud voices” on Twitter need to state their complaint in less metaphorical terms.

In addition to the openness of debate, the second distinction between debate and a witch-hunt is the personal nature. We need to be quite clear that criticising somebody’s publicly expressed opinions, or their public behaviour, is acceptable. Criticising their character, even when it is revealed by those opinions and actions, is not. There is a lot of confusion about this. Sometimes legitimate criticism is taken to be personal. For some, their educational ideas are so personal that they are insulted to hear them challenged. For others, their sense of self-worth is so bound up in their teaching practices, that to have those practices challenged is to be told that they are worthless. This is unfortunate, but should not be allowed to stop those debates. Ideas and practices must be challenged, it is only by refuting such challenges that they can be established to have any worth. In particular, people who claim things that are untrue, whether through deliberate deceitfulness, indifference to truth or simply through error, should be challenged. If it is clear they knew what they were saying was not true then it is acceptable, and not an insult, to say that they lied. Similarly, true but misleading claims, must be challenged openly and explicitly. And it is no defence to appeal to one’s personal feelings when one is wrong in a matter of fact or reasoning. If you feel bullied when people point out you are wrong, then you need to put more effort into avoiding being wrong and learn from those mistakes, not demonise those who point it out.

As well as being able to take criticism of ideas and behaviour as not being personal, it is also important to refrain from personal criticism when attempting to criticise ideas and behaviour. Don’t call somebody with stupid ideas “stupid”. Don’t even call a person caught lying “a liar” if you can avoid it (although if they say “are you calling me a liar?” then so be it). If the same behaviour can be described in words with a stronger or weaker implication about the the person doing it, then pick the less personal option. Never use an ad hominem argument, i.e. one that rejects an opinion or argument on the basis of who made it. Do not refer to somebody’s race, class or gender in debate if they do not bring it up. Do not make everything that happens in a debate about you personally. Don’t put anyone in a position where disagreeing with you entails making a claim about themselves, or a claim about you. We should mainly be debating ideas. Sometimes we have to debate how to debate, but we should avoid debating people.

Finally, the third feature of a witch-hunt, is that unlike a debate, you can’t easily drop out of it. Even when you block those doing it, they still attempt to engage with you. Even when you ignore their accusations, they are guaranteed to be repeated to you. Even when you have proved somebody to be wrong, you are faced with an ongoing discussion about how, despite them being wrong and you being right, you are still at fault. It can only end with them giving up, or you being completely silenced or completely excluded. In the school context, it may be a situation where a person with the wrong opinion will have to leave.

I realise I have referred a lot here to recent Twitter debate but this is not an attempt to restart it. I genuinely hope people can see general advantage to abiding by the following three principles in education debate and controversy:

  1. People are able to, and are encouraged to, answer criticisms;
  2. Debate centres on substance not personalities;
  3. People can leave the debate freely i.e. without significant cost.

34 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Hi Andrew,

    The main problem is the nature of Twitter itself as a debating forum. One of the problems with electronic communication in general – and very well documented – is that in removing body language, an important contextual aspect of the message is gone. People say things electronically that they would never say to someone face to face. Twitter exacerbates this as the brevity of the message requires people to “read between the lines”. It is inevitable that if you have a particular perspective you will read different things into the message than someone else with the opposite perspective. Emotions then drive responses in a positive feedback loop and you get a flamewar. While I agree with your 3 principles, I very much doubt they will last in a public forum like Twitter. Twitter is a fun way of sharing ideas and comments, it is hopeless for rational debate. In the end if you use twitter for debate and post emotive (to others) stuff that might be perfectly rational to you, don’t be surprised at the emotional response. Emotion is self-evidently an important consideration. That applies to both sides. If you are worried about getting ganged up on or having your personal life dissected I’d say stay out of politics, it goes with the territory. Indeed if anyone has left Twitter because of this it’s probably a wise decision. There is life beyond Twitter.


    • I’m a bit baffled as to what you mean here. I agree that emotional context is often unclear on Twitter, I just can’t see why that is bad for rational debate. The issue is not a lack of emotional context, it’s that people who cannot (or don’t want to) debate rationally feel obliged to imagine an emotional context to react to.


      • It’s not bad for rational debate, it ensures that there won’t be rational debate on Twitter any time soon. Your requirement for a two way debate to fit a particular set of logical rules devoid of emotion, ideally black and white and not open to interpretation might work if you had an impartial adjudicator and were discussion mathematical proof. Even in debates about something scientific – I had an extended one with a religious fanatic on special relativity a while back – it is very difficult even on a discussion forum with unlimited text and something where you can arrive at a simple logical empirical proof. On Twitter in a social psychology context it’s just not going to happen. People that you judge to be emotionally irrational don’t see themselves as such so it really doesn’t matter what you say to them they are still going to argue the toss, take their ball home and try to discredit you and you are going to retaliate with language that you think is logical and they think is provocative. All quite entertaining but I don’t think it is going to resolve very much. Let’s give it a few weeks and see if I’m wrong ;-)


        • I’m not judging people to be emotionally irrational. I think the “emotion/logical” distinction is largely bogus. It is possible to be passionate and logical, it is possible to be coolly irrational. Most of the people who attack me for being too rational and lacking in sympathy one moment, would attack me for being unprofessional or intimidating for expressing my genuine feelings the next. It’s not about different ways of arguing, or different personality types; it’s about good or bad arguments.


          • I agree that logic and emotion are both important in what are essentially political arguments. That’s really the point. The purpose of education is value laden, it is not like a mathematical proof starting from fixed agreed axioms. That is why education is not a science. Bits of it are but a lot of it never will be. An assumption that the purpose of education is agreed is a significant flaw. Any argument is bad if it is based on a set of axioms on which there is no agreement. Back in the days of Usenet in the 90s the flamewars were common, Twitter just makes it more likely because of the restriction on contextualising any points made.


          • As somebody who spent a lot of time on Usenet in the 90s, I think Twitter has far less flamewars because we choose who we follow and can block those who respond in an unacceptable way.


  3. Could not agree more.


    • I’m not sure I really want to wade into this, but, I think a big part of the problem stems from underestimating tone.

      Yes, tone is subjective, and hard to judge, but nonetheless it is generally clear when people are being snarkier than others.

      Although tone doesn’t affect whether you’re right or wrong, and it is hard to judge, being too bullish in critiquing an argument will make a healthy debate less likely. Criticism will deteriorate rapidly when people feel it is patronising and snide.

      Perhaps lack of body language comes into it, but I know people who have a habit of getting into heated arguments in person. I suspect the tendency will show itself in both mediums. I’m one of those people.

      Also, some of it must come down to people expecting to persuade others of the validity of their views when it’s just not going to happen. I’m quite left-wing politically. I can’t set out to persuade a staunch Tory of my views. I might still civilly disagree with them if I retain composure though. If people are staunchly progressive or traditionalist (as opposed to somewhere in between), then a debate just isn’t going to end in agreement.


      • The problem with tone is that once you have decided to think ill of somebody, then something negative can be read into anybody’s tone. Speak too formally and you’re pompous. Speak too informally and you’re rude. Express scepticism about something and you are being negative. Express certainty about something and you are being opinionated. Criticise ideas concisely and you are being snide. Explain why something is wrong in simple language and you are being patronising. Express your disgust and you are being intimidating. Stick to the facts and you are being unsympathetic. Sometimes you can get contradictory accusations at once. During the Twitchhunt I was condemned both for my deliberate efforts to hurt people’s feelings and my simultaneous lack of awareness of other people’s feelings.

        Once people are playing the “objection to tone” game, you can’t win. It’s pointless to try. Just say what you mean, and use humour if you can, and see if they care to address the content. If they want to, they will despite your tone and if they don’t want to, they’ll object to your tone however you say it.


  4. I somehow managed to miss the excitement of the debate. However, my one observation about the slightly hostile twitter engagements I have seen is the lack of understanding (on both sides) of different ethical standpoints. That is, in many cases those involved don’t realise that they have fundamentally different views on what it means to be ‘right’ (or even really understand their own views on the subject).
    To be more concrete, some might regard the method that shows the best end result to be automatically the best (this, for example, is the argument for phonics). Others will feel that this is wrong as focussing on one end will distort the process (e.g. a focus on decoding to the detriment of the many other tangible/intangible aspects of reading).
    Because the views expressed conflict with deeply held beliefs, they are generally perceived as attacks rather than debates. This is then exacerbated by the 140 character snippets, remote communication, mob behaviour and polarised standpoints.
    I guess in summary, I think a forth rule might be useful: Appreciate that what is of substance from your point of view, may not be very persuasive if those who disagree are actually concerned with something else entirely.


    • Differences of value and ideology can, of course, make productive discussion difficult. But one thing that came out of the discussion is that many have no recognition that they are expressing values that aren’t universal, or an ideology that is contestable. Instead people just got very angry at anything said or done that conflicted with their values, and assumed that their upset proved that they had grounds for their objection.


  5. As a newcomer to the ‘blogosphere’ I have been rejuvenated by the focus on up-to-date pedagogy, the generosity of others in sharing their ideas, and the commitment to making a difference for young people. I’ve learned so much in a couple of months. It’s vital that ‘politics’ doesn’t turn this into a cynical old-style staff room environment.


  6. The rational part of me finds much to like and agree with here. But there is this nagging doubt about a point being missed.

    There have always people who took great delight in their performance at the school debating society, or for whom the high point of the week was popping along to the university union to demonstrate their intellectual prowess, with careful rhetoric and witty banter. However there have also always been another camp who found that approach to debate far too cerebral, formulaic, archaic, and largely the province of people who were completely up themselves. The latter preferred a more fluid discussion which was less dispassionate , more fuelled by passion and emotion, driven by sincerity and belief rather than philosophical elegance and sophistry. They used to head for the union bar rather than the debating chamber.

    Gove was a classic example of the former, and it was of little surprise that a group of bloggers of apparently similar hue rose to prominence during his tenure at DfE. I would suggest that you, Andrew, are probably one of this group of intellectual debaters?

    But twitter is NOT the school debating society. The rules here are messier, the debate less cerebral, and emotion plays just as large a part as rational argument, whether we like it or no. Whilst I like and commend much of your rationale, I think it may fail in practice because of the importance of emotion and tone to many of those on twitter, and who resent being treated as if those who chaired the debating society have a right to chair debates on twitter too.

    I recognise I am a hopeless case, caught vacillating midway between the rationalists and the emoters. I admire and envy your ability to reason and debate, whilst also recognising and often responding to that absence of emotion and dodgy ‘tone’ that drives others to distraction. Twitter exchanges would suggest I am not alone.

    This divide existed long before there were blogs and twitter. Each side tends to deride and even despise the other for having a different approach and set of values. Hence terms like ‘blogocrats’ being used by one side, whilst the other uses that superior intellectual tone that would probably attract a punch on the nose if attempted in a pub discussion. Is twitter a debating chamber, or a pub discussion? Actually it’s neither and yet it’s both. So I suspect the divide will continue…

    But it will be a sad day if EITHER faction makes life on twitter unbearable for the other….


    • I’m not sure this student union v. pub distinction is at all useful. It just sounds like a way of having a pop at OA because he points out when an argument doesn’t work and can argue cleverly. In pub or union you may just be trying to win your point or show off how clever you are (whether using rhetorical skill or witty banter). Or in both situations you may be trying to seek the truth.


    • I am sure there is room on Twitter for both emoters and debaters, so long as both stick to their respective patches. When we debaters start filling our blogs with really bad poetry, then go ahead and shoot us down. The problem comes when the emoters claim that they are *right* and seek to influence policy on the basis only of their emotions.

      Nazis, racists and homicidal lunatics often seem to be emotionally very committed to their different world-views. And we are probably all susceptible to anger from time to time. On the other hand, there are also fantastically positive emotions – but my point is that it is not possible to distinguish between positive emotion and negative emotion by emotion – only by reason. Once you leave reason behind and jump on the magic bus of emotion, there is no knowing where you will end up – however benign your starting point. That is why losing yourself to the crowd has always been regarded as dangerous – and there is much about Twitter that seems to me to replicate the behaviour of the crowd.

      It is also worth pondering the tendency of the emoters to dismiss as sophistry the rational arguments of the debaters. The original meaning of the word was the opposite: the Greek Sophists were those who argued by rhetoric – i.e. by persuading their audience through emotion, as do modern advertisers. But the modern emoters have changed the meaning of the word “sophist” to turn it back on their accusers in a way that (as Wikipedia points out) would have delighted the original Sophists.

      There may of course be specious, clever-dick arguments around. But on the other hand, there are many valid arguments that are highly esoteric and that take a great deal of mental effort even to understand. So the only way of distinguishing between the rational and the specious is by giving the argument careful, reasoned consideration – i.e. by becoming a debater. If you dismiss as sophistry anything that does not immediately grab you in the guts, then you will have to write off most modern modern philosophy, science and maths.

      I agree with you, Tony, that the mechanics of attracting followers on Twitter tends to favour the emoters rather than the debaters. Most people support what they already agree with. But you do not have to use Twitter as a medium for attracting hoards of devoted followers. The debaters will be happy with just a few interesting interlocutors. And if these follow the basic rules of debate, as Andrew has been describing them (paying particular attention to the principle of charity, as he describes in his ResearchEd speech) I think the discipline of Twitter’s brevity can be helpful – particularly when complemented by longer blogs (to which, as you know, I myself am susceptible). So apologies for this over-long comment.

      Crispin.


      • The snag is that most debaters consider their arguments free from emotion and most emos think they are rational debaters ;-)


        • Sure – we are all crazy mixed-up animals, as Zephod Beeblebrox’s private brain-care specialist said of the Ravenus Bugblatter Beast of Traal. I was playing along with Tony’s not entirely unreasonable division of the world into sheep and goats – Socrates did the same, after all.

          Given that the world is not quite as simple as that, I would say that when discussing right and wrong, those who see themselves as emoters should try and give non-rhetorical, straight answers to arguments that are put to them; those who see themselves as debaters should try and examine their basic premises; and everyone should *aspire* to discuss issues in a predominantly rational tone. None of us will achieve perfection – but it would help if we could agree in the direction that we should be headed – and I think Andrew’s recent exposition of online debating etiquette is a good guide.

          My only disagreement is when (in his RED14 talk), Andrew identified “agreeing to disagree” as a proxy for relativism. I use it to mean “I think I’m right and you’re wrong, but I don’t think further discussion between us is going to be productive right now” – with the proviso that that decision might change in future.


    • This appears to be pretty much the *exact* sort of bad argument that I was criticising.

      Firstly, it is not clear how one would demonstrate whether people who agree with one are “debating society” or “union bar” types. So it is impossible to answer the argument even if it were to be utterly factually wrong. Secondly, it is entirely personal. You are judging the people, not the ideas. Frankly, you couldn’t have just called me an “asshat” for how much you’ve actually engaged with my argument.

      However, there is one thing that may be genuine confusion on your part. You may be confusing the rules of logical argument, with the rules of a debating society. They are not the same thing at all. When we commit ourselves to logical argument, it is not in order to win debates, or to perform. It is because logical arguments are those that have regard for truth. I have little time for bad arguments, not because they are bad performances, but because bad arguments lead to wrong conclusions.


      • I suspect this one is also destined to loop unresolved. :) My point exactly was, whether you like it or not, many on twitter DO judge people as much as or alongside their ideas. Not everyone is ‘committing to logical debate’ (your rules), but may be just as happy to be attacking ‘ad hominem’ (their rules). Judging the people based on their arguments is OK in their book. You will never accept this, but they will always think this arrogant of you. Impasse….

        Their ‘truths’, for example, may not be based on judging the Conservative party based on actual statements in the Tory manifesto, they may just decide David Cameron is a self-serving twat lacking credibility or leadership and therefore wish to attack the Tory party for choosing him as their leader. Playing the man not the ball maybe, but you decrying it does not change the way of the world. But your insistence on setting the rules clearly infuriates them, and your saying what constitutes good and bad argument may be factually correct, but serves to infuriate them more? (For the record, having been accused of just such a bad argument, I should declare I am sitting here smiling, not infuriated).

        My division was pathetically black and white and simplistic to make a crude point; the whole thing is obviously more complex. People are rarely entirely ‘committing to logical debate’ on a set of irrefutable truths, but often swinging erratically between extremes of logic and emotion, some swinging more erratically than others.

        Debate is generally political rather than scientific, rarely are there truths but more often opinions, some likely to be more valid than others in certain circumstances – best we can hope for. As a scientist I may regret this, but equally I think it is incorrect to believe that all good arguments are based on ‘truths’, and that good arguments always lead to correct conclusions. Hey ho…


        • In politics we elect people precisely because we think they will make better judgements than their opponents. Who they are is important.

          However, if somebody tells you on Twitter that you are wrong, it is unlikely that they are trying to win your vote. Their character is utterly irrelevant to whether you are wrong or not. At which point you can take an interest in whether you are right or wrong, or you can pursue them for crimes you have invented because you don’t like being challenged. The difference between those two courses is about as basic as it gets. One is the reaction of somebody with an interest in truth, the other is the reaction of the bullshitter.


          • Ah… a penny drops at this end (sorry if I am being irredeemably slow). It was this polarisation of yours that I hadn’t grasped. You believe that EITHER they are interested in pursuing truth when challenged, OR they are interested in pursuing you as they don’t *like being challenged*?

            I would suggest that we have again come full circle, and there is a third option… that they are happy to BE challenged, but resent the TONE with which you challenge them. So they pursue you on tone, NOT because they don’t like being challenged. Then they get unfuriated as you reject this suggestion, and it all ends in tears?

            However I have read your take on this tone issue on several occasions previously, and know that this also is, in your book a *bad argument* :) But I would suggest that analysis of the twitter streams involved would evidence their comfort with being challenged from many directions, if with occasional irritation at the language and manner of it. I therefore dispute the truth of your polarised premise. In a non-infuriated way :D


          • So just to check, you think there’s no contradiction between expressing personal resentment about somebody, and actually debating the content of their argument? Even with 140 characters at a time? Is this even if the resentment takes the form of personal attacks?


          • Whoops – we seem to have run out of Reply levels?

            So this in response to November 19, 2014 at 9:38 pm
            “So just to check, you think there’s no contradiction between expressing personal resentment about somebody, and actually debating the content of their argument? Even with 140 characters at a time? Is this even if the resentment takes the form of personal attacks?”

            1. I do NOT endorse their resorting to personal attacks, though I do oftimes recognise the infuriation and anger that can drive people to this.
            2. I don’t think 140 characters allows for sufficient space for the necessary nuance, as you have argued well elsewhere.
            3. People can debate the content of the argument, or express personal resentment, or occasionally do both. This is not ‘a contradiction’ but an observation.

            And my observation on the personal resentment aspect is that sometimes this may be knee-jerk trolling of the worst kind. However in debates amongst educators on twitter the personal attacks usually come only after a long series of increasingly heated tweets, as people fail to get over their points and become exasperated. It can sometimes seem that the other party is not listening? Or that they are responding in that unfortunate ‘tone’ cf many points passim.

            I think we all feel vaguely disappointed when the personal attack level is reached. But in my experience both parties will generally have contributed to the downward spiral that takes it there. ‘It takes two to make a fight’ #Clicheklaxon


          • You are completely missing the point of the post. The witch-hunt stuff didn’t take place after arguments spiralled out of control. It was an approach taken towards any available target, including bloggers not on Twitter and individuals relatively new to Twitter who had a low profile. I am not complaining about one person having a go at me (I block people who insult me) it was dozens of people denouncing me, and others, to the world. No debate. No opportunity for response. No gradual escalation. No engagement with the content of arguments. Just people realising they had a big audience in half-term and setting out to settle scores. And the excuse was always: “well, they shouldn’t have written that” from people who were hurling out condemnations and insults in every tweet.

            As to the more general point, given that we can only say one thing at a time, a comment on tone will always get in the way of engagement with content. You do have to prioritise what you comment on. You can’t actually have two debates at once with the same person.


  7. I find this much more constructive than I expected – and more than anything I think this reinforces my own beliefs about discussion on twitter. Put simply, Twitter is a great platform for sharing links and summary ideas. It’s a good way to reach out to people, for support or suggestions. It’s very easy to start an argument.

    It’s incredibly hard to finish an argument there. I too struggle to keep track of competing threads when I’ve argued – sometimes with Old Andrew! As soon as I realize that’s happening, I try to divert to a blog where I can explain in more than 140 characters, share useful links and, most importantly, provide a space for responses that can also be reasoned.

    The tone issue is important I think. I’m not trotting out some made-up percentages of how much we rely on body language and tone, but I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that we lose detail, and so make assumptions, when only text is involved. Emoji don’t really do the job, nor do adding HTML style tags. Personally I struggle with tone of voice and facial expressions too, but that’s just me.

    I stayed out of the argument, I think, apart from a couple of tweets towards the end about intimidation. It’s an idea I feel is important in other contexts where freedom of speech matters. It revolves around intent and can be summed up with two contrasting views on either side of a debate. Someone can feel intimidated or offended even if there was no intention to intimidate or offend.

    If someone is offended by my views, or by the way I express them, does that mean I shouldn’t share them? Does it mean I’m not right? (I hasten to add I’m often wrong and I don’t have any opinion about this specific argument.) Offence is subjective and, in many arenas, has been used to shut down debate. I’m thinking particularly of religious vs secular values here, but that’s one of my own hobbyhorses.

    For intimidation, it’s difficult to tell how much it was intended for any particular situation. We all have a responsibility to try *not* to intimidate, but how far should this go? I imagine Brian Blessed, just with his stature and voice, is pretty damn intimidating in person! On twitter, maybe we should all consider how what we type may be read by others as intimidating even if we had no intention. They may honestly feel intimidated even if we honestly intended not to come across that way. Feelings are hard to argue with, but that doesn’t mean the substantive points of the argument shouldn’t be made.

    You can see why I don’t think 140 characters is enough!


  8. So glad I don’t tweet. Apart from the ‘tweet in haste, repent at leisure’ syndrome, it must take up a lot of time following the storm and responding to it. And as IanH says, easy to start an argument, hard to finish it. A blog is a better medium for that.


  9. off topic, but do you have any views on the policy of moving disruptive kids to special classes off the school site, as in the story linked below, rather than on site (as happens at my daughter’s school) ?

    It strikes me as an outsider (though a governor for 10 years) that playing the bad boy will be less appealing if you can only show off at break to a dozen of your peers, rather than a whole school.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2200988/Fury-school-second-highest-expulsion-rate-England-builds-prison-block.html

    http://www.parentdish.co.uk/2012/09/10/schools-plans-to-build-prison-block-to-house-troublesome-pupils-causes-outrage/


    • Absolutely no point taking the most disruptive kids out of lessons then letting them cause as much mayhem as they like at break and lunch. In fact that’s often what their ideal arrangement would be and provides no incentive to improve behaviour. I’ve seen this fail again and again. Also no point having specialist provision but not specialist staff. Have heard real horror stories of teachers at mainstream schools conscripted to teach in “the isolation block”. Had some less than pleasant experiences of this myself.


  10. I think the problem with social media in general is many-faceted.

    Firstly, the faux-anonymity of Twitter creates a situation where people have an online personality where their attitudes seem to be made more extreme.

    Secondly this anonymity means that people feel they can hide behind a veil – we all know from situations like the Ched Evans affair that this isn’t completely true and that people who push too far can identified. That said though, the general feeling is that on Twitter it’s fair game.

    Thirdly debating skills are a lost art. Everything in today’s media or social spotlight carries an emotional element, whether it should do or not. Moral panics are prevalent these days, and actual rational discussion gets lost because of people’s need to maintain a front or fight for a ’cause’.

    As an example for my last point, take Michael Gove scrapping multiple entry. The way he went about it was poor, don’t get me wrong. Actually though, he was doing the right thing, getting rid of the game playing. But it’s Michael Gove, national hate figure, so automatically the debate is undermined.


    • On your last point, the polarisation of the debate into “hate Gove” also means that a more sensible practical solution is never discussed. I devised a system that I think is fairer and is applicable to pint scoring qualifications. We allow schools to designate an exam attempt as a mock. It is exactly the same exam as they would have got if it was the real thing and externally marked. If the school puts a sample of say 10 kids in spread across the cohort attainment range they will get a good idea of how the cohort would have done ie are they ready? They then only pay for 10 kids, not 200. Then they can do the “real exam” and if anyone does spectacularly and unexpectedly badly they can resit, again a handful at most not a cohort. I doubt blanket resits would get better result, and would be a lot more expensive but equally putting everything on a one off when anyone can have a bad day is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The point of all this is that while debate is locked up in polarised extremes, practical solutions will not get serious consideration.


  11. […] on Twitter and is aware of everything that goes on there. I may have fallen into that trap with my Witch-hunt post, although I’m hoping it made some points that were relevant to the education debate in […]


  12. […] have talked recently (see “Witch-hunt“) about personal attacks and bad arguments. It dawned on me that I am often subject to two […]


  13. […] for the other term, I’ve blogged about Twitter “witch-hunts” before. This phrase is the best way I know of describing a situation where accusations are […]



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