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Shutting Teachers Up

March 11, 2016

Sometimes ministers (and their advisors) read blogs written by teachers. We know this. My chapter in Changing Schools presented a lot of evidence for this.

Some people really don’t like that.

Francis Gilbert, currently an education lecturer at Goldsmiths, wrote the following in a blogpost interview with Tom Sherrington:

Sherrington enjoys blogging and tweeting in his spare time; he doesn’t see it as work. He’s aware though that in recent years that a “tweetocracy” amongst teachers has emerged; a number of tweeting and blogging teachers like him, many of him [sic] are listed on the homepage of his blog, have assumed  dominance power over the educational debate. This Tweetocracy get invited to all the prestigious educational events – conferences, launches, policy discussions etc – while others are left out. My worry here is that educational academics have become so marginalized.

An editorial in the Journal Of Philosophy of Education by Robert Davis, who I believe is a professor of education in Glasgow, complained of:

Loose associations of teachers, parents, activists, lobbyists etc, communicating ideas and discoveries fashioned and formulated often beyond the academy (or at least beyond its orthodox educational wings) and shaped from out of the interactions of cyberspace itself. This new style of knowledge production is commonly (and sometimes intemperately) at odds with established educational opinion––exasperated by what it sees as habits of elite exclusion, protectionism and detachment from the ‘real world’ of chalkface educational concerns and challenges. It routinely berates the supposedly special interests controlling education faculties, peer-reviewed journals and learned societies, accusing them of obstructing change and stifling or invalidating popular and ‘evidence-based’ folk-wisdom insights into what actually works in the teaching of children, young people and adults…

…Several of the leading commentators and critics who have emerged through these new media now command significant and energetic followings numerically much larger than the memberships of many learned societies or the subscribers to academic journals. Their timelines and followers, moreover, routinely include the officers of influential think tanks, spokesmen for ambitious publishers and policy-makers by no means passive in their association with the informing concepts and objectives….

Andrew Davis, who is a research fellow in education at Durham and writer of the phonics denialist pamphlet “To Read Or Not To Read”, wrote in the newsletter of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain wrote the following about me (he didn’t actually think to contact me to say he had done so):

A well-known education blogger (who, I believe is a former secondary physics teacher) styled ‘OldAndrew’ (OA) developed a series of attacks on To Read or Not to Read. Many read his postings and some responded. I would never have given OA more than a moment’s attention, had I not learnt that he actually might be influencing education policy and was sometimes mentioned in Parliament….

He continued:

Anyhow, if people such as OA are actually influencing policy and media, then ‘real’ philosophers need to be out there even more than they are already, or so I believe, attempting to engage with intelligence, humour and restraint. It is far from easy, partly because what Bob Davis called ‘blogocrats’ have spent some years sharpening their skills in the kinds of interactions to which I am drawing attention.

The consistent theme here is one of educationalists, who consider themselves to be the experts, bemoaning that anyone would listen to teachers on social media rather than them.

But, of course, there are many reasons why teachers on social media might be worth listening to. Teachers work in actual schools, not theoretical ones. Some educationalists have not tried to teach a child in decades (sometimes never) and their ideas about how it should be done are pure fantasy. Teachers don’t have to follow an ideological line. Educationalists, by contrast, have a habit of signing up to doctrinal statements like this one. Teachers on social media are often actually trying to communicate a clear message. Educationalists are often just trying to prove how clever they are, even if it means saying things that are not understood. But most of all, teachers on social media have little reason to lie about educational issues. They are speaking to other teachers about things both they, and their audiences, encounter. By contrast, educationalists don’t even unanimously agree that telling the truth is a good thing even in principle. And don’t get me started on educationalists who claim to speak for teachers, claim that criticism of them is criticism of teachers, or who insist that they should have a place in a professional body for teachers.

Now I am sure I have offended loads of perfectly decent people in university education departments with all that, despite all the times I’ve added the words “some” or “often” or other qualifiers to suggest that what I have described above doesn’t apply to everyone. I do appreciate people in education departments who talk sense, listen to teachers and do good work. I am not actually suggesting that we ignore every educationalist. Everyone should be welcome to the debate. Everyone should be able to put forward arguments. Everyone should be able to put forward evidence. Everyone should be listened to. But it should always be the content of the argument, the quality of the evidence and the willingness to answer criticisms that counts. If Andrew Davis really wants to know why my arguments often persuade people, it’s because I’ll happily answer anyone who disagrees. I’ll happily listen to their argument and consider it and, if necessary, answer it. I’ll have the debate. Often I continue having the debate long after any sensible person would have called it a day. Perhaps if Andrew Davis tried answering his critics, rather than slagging them off behind their backs in a newsletter, he might manage to persuade people too. The real lesson here is not that educationalists are being sidelined by “blogocrats”, but that too many educationalists gave up listening to teachers a long time ago and are appalled to learn that we might still have a voice.

17 comments

  1. Great blog.


  2. Although I critique you from time to time Andrew, I’m shoulder to shoulder with you on this.


  3. The key point here is that it is the content of the argument that counts. When Guy Claxton debated with Daisy Christodoulou at Michaela, his main point was, “You should listen to me because I’m Guy Claxton and I’ve written a lot of books.” In contrast, Christodoulou actually made coherent arguments, young upstart that she is!


  4. An area I’m getting interested in is how indie artists have adapted now we don’t need the industry powers to access their work; singers, novelists, cartoonists…

    Many are taking the stand that they either sell their souls to what’s left of the industry, or create their own experience directly with people who resonate with their work. Reminded me of this – “It is far from easy, partly because what Bob Davis called ‘blogocrats’ have spent some years sharpening their skills in the kinds of interactions” – yep, and if people want to work with people, it might be worth them learning from those who have earned that attention, like OA has done.

    Indie artists are doing some amazing things too, so I’m hoping to feature some in the new ‘poems’ section of my blog soon!


  5. Entirely agree with the substantive point here: when teachers actually dare to be heard- or worse, risk having an opinion listened to by a policy maker- existing power structures react predictably, and somewhat jealously, to protect their power base. And others still simply react jealously: ‘why are they listened to, but not me?’

    I’ll defend Robert Davis of the University of Glasgow of the charge of protectionism, however: I know him, and his view (which isn’t contradicted by the quote here) is that these new voices, new pathways between teachers and policy makers, can be a good thing, and has the potential to revitalise the ecosystem of educational discourse. He’s been very supportive of this, as evidenced by his partnership with us on researchEd Scotland.

    Great post as ever.


  6. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that most of the bad ideas that infect our schools originated in universities, and that most of their authors had little or no experience teaching in schools–let alone in ‘challenging’ schools.

    Yet when I first became involved in education, I trawled the education stacks at UEA, and amidst the dross there were a few gems. In the field of reading pedagogy, it’s hard to imagine the counter-revolution taking place without Stanovich and Ehri (or Watson and Johnston). Even at UEA School of Education–where there are few names I’d rather not mention–the work of Terry Haydn has pretty well exploded Ofsted’s fanciful belief that discipline is at least ‘satisfactory’ in all but 1% of England’s schools.

    Education blogs have rather put me out of the business of writing for think-tanks, and I don’t doubt that they are much more effective because it’s not just policy-makers who read them. Nonetheless, there are questions that need answering that teachers are poorly placed to answer, and we can be thankful that there are still a few dons who are up to it.


    • I do agree with that. Hopefully things like ResearchED will help set a direction that is more positive for cooperation between teachers and educationalists. But I think there is a problem when teachers writing about what happens in education are seen as usurpers. The discipline of education is not well defined enough, nor are its standards consistent enough, for that kind of attitude to outsiders to be remotely justified. Do business or management departments in universities feel similarly aggrieved if a politician listens to somebody who runs their own company?


      • I honestly don’t think you have to worry too much about snooty professors who patronise teachers. History isn’t going their way, as their defensiveness demonstrates all too clearly.

        However, you are right to question the intellectual foundations of the ‘discipline’. After all, it’s difficult enough to reach any kind of agreement on what education is for. ECM is thankfully on the wane, but at the time of the Gilbert Review (2007), it appeared all but unstoppable.


    • Rhona Johnston and Keith Stanovich work/ed in Departments of Psychology, however, so are not strictly speaking education academics. In my opinion, a big part of this problem is educationalists who prefer to ignore their colleagues in psychology. I believe one of the witnesses for the Rose Report (herself a psychologist) was asked about this, and said she found it inexplicable. I get the impression that many education academics are similarly reluctant to take on board the findings of cognitive psychologists.


      • The Robert Davis article quoted above went on to complain about bloggers being influenced by neuroscience, and the Andrew Davis one went on to accuse those who criticised his evidence-free approach of “scientism”.


  7. People read blogs if they are interesting, and if they correspond with reality. I don’t agree with everything oldandrew writes, but he clearly has some idea what education is Actually like rather than theory. Educationalists do not, in my experience. These are the people who foist the latest and greatest drivel like Brain Dym. Whether they are stupid, rent seeking or both I do not know.

    Is Gilbert the same bloke who wrote three books about how awful things were then did a u-turn when it suited him ? I also vaguely recall he is one of those who wanted something different for his own child compare to what he wants for everyone else. Seem to recall a post here about those who came up with convenient excuses why their child needed to be in a private or selective school.


    • Yes – I read Gilbert’s books about his first teaching jobs – I wonder what caused the U turn in his thinking.


      • I’m sure the stress free well paid academic life with no actual responsibility had nothing to do with it.

        Sad. The first Book very good and sad, and would fit well here.


  8. […] Old wrote a blog post where he highlighted some of the criticisms levelled at teacher-bloggers by established researchers […]


  9. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  10. I’m not sure that people always read blogs because they “correspond with reality”. Quite often they’ll read them because they affirm their own reality – i.e. the echo chamber.

    That said, teachers don’t have a monopoly on blogging and tweeting. In fact, it might actually be quite helpful if some of these academics climbed down from their towers and engaged with the debate. Prof Steve Wheeler at Plymouth is one good example of an academic who does.


    • Nor should they. You are correct, but actual coal face teachers have a very well developed sense of reality. Theorists usually avoid actual children except in very closely controlled circumstances. Much like too many SMT



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