Are teachers filthy, rotten liars?

May 20, 2017

Another Twitter poll, and a result that surprised me. It actually came out of a conversation about SEND interventions and was used to defend interventions that had no evidence of effectiveness, but might work as placebos. I think that lying to kids, particularly kids with special needs, is not really on. I was surprised to see it justified with the appeal to the claim that deception was part and parcel of what we do. I didn’t refer back to that context with the poll, because I was more interested in the general principle. I was not expecting so many people to say “yes”.

The charitable interpretation is that a lot of the “yes” votes were basically honest people who have a very heightened sense of what it means to deceive and a willingness to consider “part and parcel” to refer to events that would not happen every day. Although the dictionary does say the word “deceive” means deliberately misleading somebody, particularly for personal gain, some people interpreted “deception” to include such things as teaching simplified models in science, or not letting your students know when you are unhappy. Teaching is often viewed as a performance, and some took that to mean a deception. Others seemed to think some types of encouragement were deception. Additionally, there are times when it might be right to lie to protect children (for instance to maintain confidentiality about another child), and although these might be exceptions perhaps people who are sensitive to these things see them as “part and parcel” of teaching rather than the exception to the rule.

All of these are fair enough, although it does concern me if they lead to teachers thinking it is okay to routinely lie, particularly when, as in the case of bogus SEND interventions, it is pretty close to a confidence trick. Another issue around lying is one I blogged about here when some hoax event (alien landing, murder, pencil case theft) is staged  in a primary school to prompt writing, something that has backfired a number of time when it has led to kids complaining about being scared

My least charitable interpretation of what is going on here is to remember all those teachers and managers who condemn the use of sanctions and  explicit rules to control behaviour, and instead talk of motivating and inspiring the kids. I wonder how often in practice this actually amounts to dishonest manipulation? If teachers are expecting to win kids over, rather than be an authority figure, could this not lead to teachers feeling they can say anything, true or not, to get them to go along with what teachers want them to do? The complaint that child directed education might actually mean subtle manipulation of children towards adult ends is one that was often made of Rousseau. The best expression of this idea is probably in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where a manipulative teacher forms a destructive bond with a group of students. It worried me about how casually some teachers talked of deceiving kids in order to motivate them or give them confidence, as if we are meant to be controlling their feelings rather than their actions in school. I don’t think it is healthy if we feel guilty about punishing kids, or telling them what to, but perfectly comfortable with getting them to comply with our wishes through lying and manipulation.



  1. I don’t know if I was the only one to suggest in response to the poll that sometimes we give models we know aren’t accurate, as a step towards better understanding. It’s hard, of course, to imagine a blunt tool than a Twitter poll. It would be easy to set up, for example, a Google form giving some of these options and inviting teachers to complete with a tweeted link. Why not take the best natural step?

    • You weren’t the only one. It was the general principle I was most interested in, as there were people taking it as a given rather than a harsh description of some fairly uncontentious activities.

  2. Lying to SEN kids is appalling, but it’s almost built into the DNA of the system. Teachers rightly assume that confidence is as essential to learning as it is to any other human enterprise, but they seldom understand that the teaching practices advocated in ITT and CPD are often disastrously wrong. Consequently, they locate the roots of failure in the child, never stopping to think that there must be something terribly amiss with a system that assumes that 20% of our children have a learning difficulty. Kids pick up on this assumption–this failure is central to their lives, so it would be strange if they didn’t.
    I use a different approach. When I assess pupils with poor literacy skills–which is mostly a matter of using simple tests to find out how far behind they are–I always tell them that I was trained as a military instructor before I became a teacher, and that military instructors can’t afford to get things wrong because soldiers play with dangerous toys. If one of my soldiers blows someone up with a hand grenade, it would be my fault for not teaching him how to use one properly. And it’s the same way with teaching children to read: if my teaching doesn’t work, I’m not a very good teacher. So it’s my job to make sure that you don’t get confused and discouraged.
    Needless to say, my teaching is focused solely on the skills that need to be learned. The notion that children with differing problems need a bespoke approach is just as fallacious as the VAK fantasy. All the labels that we paste on SEN kids is based upon the assumption that they all need a personalised learning plan. This faux professionalism does nothing but create mountains of pointless work and focus everyone’s mind on failure and disability.

    • Tom – on a recent blog you commented that observing young children in the EYFS was ‘pervy’. Can you explain what you meant by that?

  3. I think small deceits in a classroom are a sometimes necessary but not ideal consequence of the nature of the work. The bigger and more concerning lies come from higher up the food chain when schools task hopelessly inexperienced and over burdened teachers to take on areas beyond their scope. To wit, careers and academic advice, now relegated to a box ticking exercise, uniformly recognised as being beyond awful by everyone but an area which schools continue to lie about. Small deceits seem like small fry when stacked against the very real long term damage caused by reckless and woeful advice.

  4. The trouble with a short question like deception is part of the job is that there is a lot of meaning we have to extrapolate. I have in the past argued to colleagues that a definition of manipulation (to alter or change) is part of our job and in that sense there is some overlap with deception.
    Overall I don’t think this is a great way of phrasing the question which is more to do with controlling the when and how students acquire new information and ideas. Tools to limit or delay this are useful to prevent overload but obviously allow opportunities for inappropriately restricting or controlling students. (Which is where ideology jumps in).
    Hope this makes sense.

    • 2nd paragraph should say “how the question has been interpreted which is more to do with…

    • I quoted the statement from somebody who was appealing to it as if it’s a fact.

      • But the poll question did get interpreted in lots of different ways. i am just struggling to see the point of a poll here though I confess I am not a big fan of them in general. You could have discussed the statement first then chucked the poll in if you wanted.

  5. How about this from Katharine Birbalsingh:

    “If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that.” [https://tomisswithloveblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/david-didau-unwittingly-argues-for-selection/]

    Is motivating children through this approach something we shouldn’t do?

    • Not sure I quite understand the question.

      • Isn’t that a form of lying to children? Is it permissible? I personally think so, if we are to engage and motivate them into making the most of any education of any kind in a world of other people just like them.

  6. Is it an example of a beneficial deception? A group delusion encouraged as a motivating culture.

    • If you’re responding to my comment Michael, then I would say ‘yes’. As a culture we have to induct chlldren into our norms, and accepted beliefs, and encourage them as new entries into a world of around 7.5 billion other people into thinking that everything is worthwhile playing for.

      In other words, we have to persuade them that our way of seeing things is worthy of their attention, and that they both have something to strive for in their lives, and that and what we have to offer them is the key to that – even if our eventual goal is to set them free to live their lives in the ways in which they personally wish to. We have to overly sell them a particular perspective suitable for a naive and young mind. Neither telling them the absolute truth as we believe it to be for most teachers, nor denying, from the word go, that there is any real thing as ‘truth’ is – to my mind – the best way forward.

      • I see the argument.

        • Thank you! It’s rare you see that kind of response, and I pledge to reciprocate at some point 😀

          • Don’t say that. I might make a stupid point.

  7. What we need is more homeopathy in chemistry lessons.

    • Ok – I’m not going to jump for that one :-D

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