Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 2

November 11, 2015

As I explained last time, I think there should be open debate in teaching. I think this is true even if ideas are debated in front of new teachers and trainees. I think this is true even if contentious things are posted to websites by people who don’t agree with them. I wouldn’t phrase this as being about freedom of speech, but about freedom of thought. To form our own opinions, we need to hear and think about the alternatives. J.S. Mill captures this idea well in On Liberty:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

We learn from debating our opinions. We learn most about our opinions from debating those who are the most insightful critics of them. Those opinions which cannot be defended, should not be believed. There are plenty of debates in teaching, but that does not mean that good ideas require protecting from the alternatives. We should feel confident that our best chance of getting to the truth is from debate, not from its absence.

This is particularly important when many of the “authorities” in education have been spreading some of the worst ideas. Brain Gym, learning styles, discovery learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy and many others fads, have all been promoted by those who were meant to have been “experts” in teaching. A supposedly “expert” perspective on education, is not always one that is honest, fair or true. Perhaps one of the ironies in criticism of both Starter For Five and Labour Teachers is that those calling for views to be censored so as to enforce an editorial line are those least likely to agree with my selection of posts if I were to enforce my opinions. Those who want to end the debate, never want it to be their side that is silenced. Indeed, often the demand that I censor views they don’t like is combined by an unevidenced and untrue allegation that I must also be censoring the views they do like. The possibility that I might share all points of view is seemingly unimaginable to some.

The years between 2004 and 2010 were some of the worst for debate in teaching. The National Strategies, government guidance, the GTC, local authorities, teacher trainers and the inspectorate generally stuck to a remarkably narrow range of views. Learning styles were in. Group work was in. Teacher talk was out. Prolonged practice was out. And the management systems in schools gradually converged to emphasise compliance and conformity to this model. It became possible for a teacher whose classes were learning (and doing well in exams) to be told they were teaching the wrong way and even be forced out of their position. Even things that were abundantly obvious, like the failure of inclusion, the breakdown of discipline,  the money wasted on interactive whiteboards or grade inflation in exams, were considered unmentionable for teachers, even if they made it into the media. The legacy of that time is still with us in many schools and among many managers. But many teachers no longer feel obliged to play lip service to any of it, particularly on social media. We can (generally) say in public what we believe, and we can challenge each other when we disagree. This is our greatest safeguard against those who would happily see the system return to where it was in 2009. It’s the best chance we have for a system that improves because new ideas are tried and tested. Open debate among teachers is also the greatest protection we have against the next fad being imposed on us. The question: “Is this the next brain gym?” will be addressed to anyone publicly recommending a gimmick, as long as we are free to ask that sort of question.

Let’s keep the debate going; let’s encourage it. I am not threatened by hearing the opposing view, only by having my view silenced. If you don’t feel the same way – if you feel uncomfortable being disagreed with – then you should consider the possibility that it’s because you know your stated beliefs will not hold up to scrutiny.


Next time I will consider some of the reasons people use to justify silencing debate.



  1. I applaud your enthusiasm for professional debate about this Andrew, and your summary of the 2004 – 2010 period should be compulsory historical reading for people working on school reform now. But I don’t think it will even generate a blush amongst the guilty precisely because… unlike in Mill’s era, when intelligent, articulate prose and speech were the dominant discourse of politics and leadership, what we now have is a discourse determined by the media and technology.

    Social media has recreated a situation only seen once before in this country, when a sudden outburst of cheap printing allowed anyone with a chip on their shoulder to air it widely, via the political pamphlet. That ended in the English Civil war.

  2. For so many, allowing open debate and considering objective evidence would force acceptance that decades of their professional lives had been a sham. Of course they want to shut it down.

    If I were them I’d demand a safe space immune to the intrusions of facts…which are by their very nature intrusive and inconvenient and, as such, triggering to those of an entitled bent who don’t expect to have to justify their worth. That seems to work elsewhere.

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. […] Teaching in British schools « Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 2 […]

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