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Could Fad CPD Harm Your School?

July 29, 2020

A difficult question for any school leader is how best to use the time allocated for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) with some schools conspicuously getting it wrong and no easy answers as to who gets it right. One tendency that I have noticed, which I consider to be a mistake, is to ignore the context of one’s school and the needs of one’s own staff, in favour of what is currently fashionable. Sometimes this is just responding to the ideological climate of the moment, but at other times schools can respond to some gimmick that will soon be forgotten about, or something that has just been in the news.

All CPD runs the risk that, even if it seems fine on the day to the people in charge, it might make no difference in the longer term. There is also the ongoing problem of CPD that passes on false information (like learning styles or the predictive power of attachment theory) and bad practices (like Brain Gym or discovery learning). These difficulties are compounded when CPD is based on the latest fad. There simply may not have been time to evaluate the ideas or the effects of the training. At least with something well-established, you can ask prior recipients of the training if it was helpful; with the next big thing in CPD you might turn out to be the school that discovers its effects are unarguably harmful.

There are two current fads I am hearing lots about at the moment that I think are both partially based on myths and also potentially harmful.

1) Mental health training based on pandemic trauma.

There has been an overwhelming amount of nonsense about a mental health crisis in schools following the pandemic. For instance, this article in Schools Week claimed “child development experts are predicting a ‘national disaster’ as lockdown threatens to create a generation with mental health problems.”

Why might the ideas be false?

We have good reason to be sceptical of those claiming that lockdown has traumatised children. There was already a mental health fad in education, and a trauma fad. During the pandemic a number of people I had previously associated with the idea that schooling caused children to be mentally ill, began arguing that lack of schooling would cause children to be mentally ill. Anyone making claims about the psychological effects of lockdown based on attachment theory, developmental psychology or anything else with no proven record of predicting the prevalence of mental health problems in the real world can be assumed to be a charlatan. Psychiatric epidemiology – the study of the causes of mental disorders in society – is an academic discipline not a hobby. While the mental health of some children may have been harmed by bereavement; being confined to a home that was already a psychologically unhealthy environment, or reduced support for existing mental health conditions, there is good reason to be sceptical of any claims about a Covid mental health crisis.

Why might the training be harmful?

I don’t want to overstate the risks here, as far I know nobody has good evidence that even the most extreme and alarmist talk about mental health in a school causes harm. However, we can’t rule out that children’s mental health could be affected by their perception of mental health disorders in their school. We know that suicides can cluster in a community; that there is an ongoing debate about emotional contagion, and there are studies suggesting that there is some level of peer contagion for depressed states. There is also the Nocebo effect: evidence that telling people that they will be harmed by something, causes them to experience harm. Additionally, even among psychiatrists, there is concern about fad diagnoses. Perhaps worst of all, if teachers and students are told it is normal to have suffered mental health difficulties as a result of lockdown, it might cause teachers to see warning signs of mental illness as “normal” and students with genuine mental health symptoms to think that everyone has them and they are not a reason to seek help.

None of these concerns are a reason not to want staff to be aware of potential mental health problems among students, but it is a reason why we shouldn’t just assume that misinformation and panic about mental health is harmless and that if your intentions are good you won’t make things worse. .

What’s the alternative?

School leaders should be aware that schools already contains experts in looking after children. They already have access to training in safeguarding that includes dealing with mental health. The best option is to avoid assuming any radical discontinuity in children’s mental health before and after lockdown, until there is good evidence for it. School leaders should make use of their existing expertise, and their knowledge of their students and their community. They shouldn’t be asking outsiders to tell them how to react to problems that might not even exist in their school. And, of course, there are good practices such as keeping schools safe, supportive and free from bullying, that will always be best for mental health.

2) Racism training based on unconscious bias.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests there seemed to be a rush by some school leaders to abandon all critical thinking regarding racism in society and its causes. A particular focus, perhaps because of its potential for replacing meaningful action with gestures and opportunities to judge one’s peers, has been on the idea that unconscious attitudes are a significant cause of discrimination and unfairness.

Why might the ideas be false? 

There are two main sources of evidence that I have seen presented to educators as evidence of the power of unconscious bias. The first is from research involving the Implicit-Association Test (IAT), a psychological assessment that is meant to uncover one’s hidden prejudices. The IAT has now been established to be neither a reliable test nor a valid predictor of anyone’s actual behaviour, but is apparently still common among corporate diversity trainers*. The second source of evidence for unconscious bias I have seen in education debates is less specific, but more open to interpretation. Any and all evidence of racism in society, particularly in outwardly progressive organisations, is presented as evidence of unconscious bias. This cannot ever be ruled out, however, it cannot be assumed. Anyone who sees evidence of prejudice, for instance in how often people are offered job interviews, might be seeing the results of unconscious bias. However, this is only one explanation among several. There may be conscious prejudice, unless you happen to believe that deliberate racism no longer exists. There may be institutional racism, with rules and procedures that lead to racist outcomes. There may be discrimination based on ignorance and misconceptions which, while unintentional, is still very much a matter of conscious beliefs and actions that could be challenged.

Why might the training be harmful?

If discrimination is happening for any of the reasons I just mentioned (conscious racism, institutional racism, ignorance) then blaming it on unconscious bias will make it harder to prevent. Any institution wanting to perpetuate a racist status quo will find a belief in unconscious bias a convenient excuse for taking no action to identify actual racists, reform discriminatory practices, or identifying where false beliefs about race are leading to discrimination.

Even if it was not a potential distraction from dealing with actual problems, there is also a possibility that the worst anti-racism training might be harmful in its own right (and this goes beyond just training based on unconscious bias). There is evidence that some types of training might have “ironic effects” and that some efforts to address stereotypes might reinforce them. As with mental health training, one should not assume that because one has good intentions, one isn’t making the problem worse. A further complication, that this blogpost discusses, is whether some ideas about race may be so heavily politicised that, if brought into schools and passed on to students, they could conflict with the legal duty to be non-partisan.

What’s the alternative?

Despite theories of “white supremacy” that are intended to explain everything from slavery to the colour of sticking plasters, my experience of teaching in a variety of schools is that actual racism manifests itself in different ways in different schools. There is no single explanatory theory of racism in society that covers every problem and 99% of the time it seems that if somebody suggests such a theory it describes the United States more closely than it does England.  Forget looking for racism in unconscious minds, you should be finding out about racism in your school right now. Is there racist bullying among students? Is there discrimination in pay and progression? Is there anyone, staff or student, who feels less safe and less valued in your school because of their race? Is there an expectation that some ethnic groups cannot be expected to behave or learn? School leaders should know of the problems in their own schools. They should be making sure there is zero tolerance of racism and zero opportunity for racism to spread, even if that means punishments and exclusions for kids and disciplinary action and dismissal for staff. They shouldn’t be asking outsiders to tell them how to react to problems that might not even exist in their school.

Perhaps the allure of fad CPD is something to do with the widespread belief that schools are there to solve society’s problems rather than to educate. It might be that this makes it almost addictive to look for the latest analysis of social problems and the latest ways to address them. But if the CPD needs of a schools are assessed by looking at what’s in a newspaper or being discussed on Twitter, then who is actually addressing the problems and challenges that already exist in that school?

*If you are interested in an anecdotal account of how bad and potentially counter-productive “anti-racism” training by a very high profile trainer can be, I would recommend this episode of the Blocked and Reported Podcast dealing with “White Fragility” training (not in a school).

 

 

3 comments

  1. Interesting read – I agree broadly with the first section and not the second. I’ve written on something similar using the metaphor of ‘isomorphic mimicry’ if that might interest you.

    https://educationwayfarer.wordpress.com/2020/06/30/why-bad-schools-are-imitations-of-good-schools/


  2. I would add that a lot of what is put under the heading of Racism is actually part of a vicious circle of poverty and its companion unlawful behaviour. Add to that the fact that larger proportion of minorities tend to be in poverty. Decent jobs that pay a living wage help a lot.


  3. […] Could Fad CPD Harm Your School? […]



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