Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


We should be more offended by dishonesty than by pointing it out

April 30, 2017

There was some criticism of this post from last week where I gave learning styles as an example of lies that trainee teachers in Australia might encounter. Most of the criticism was of a familiar sort, focusing on whether use of the word “lie” was insulting. In this post I wish to explain why sometimes “lie” is an accurate and appropriate term for some of what we hear when discussing teaching.

There are 4 basic types of dishonesty we are likely to encounter in education (or anywhere else).

  1. Lying. This is where somebody deliberately claims something they know to be false with the intention that another person, or other people, believe it. It’s often seen as the worst type of dishonesty, but it is something that most people will have done at some point, and can be the lesser of two evils.
  2. Misleading. This is where somebody claims something that may actually be true, but does it in such a way as to communicate a false idea or false impression. This is often viewed as less serious than lying, although it can contain an element of trickery or manipulation that makes it more serious.
  3. Bullshitting. This is where somebody says things that they do not know to be true (but do not know to be false either). A great essay on this can be found here, which considers the possibility that it is worse than lying, as it shows an indifference to the truth. My opinion is that this form of dishonesty is particularly common in education.
  4. Neglecting the truth. This is where somebody makes a false claim that they believe to be true, but where they had a moral responsibility, and an opportunity, to check their claims were indeed true. This is particularly relevant in the context of teacher training and CPD where people may be hired on the basis of their expertise and the expectation that what they teach will have been considered thoroughly.

All of the above are morally wrong, but I would argue that it is hard to judge any category to be always better, or always worse, than one of the other categories. Mentioning that something is a lie, is not necessarily an attempt to give the worst interpretation to the passing on of false information. It is not as if those who are offended by the word “lie” are less offended by people pointing out that it was actually another form of dishonesty. How often does anybody say “how dare you call this a lie, it’s actually just bullshit” or “how dare you accuse me of lying when I am only misleading you?” Often, it is important to point out that something is a lie, rather than a misconception or error. I used the example of learning styles in my last post, as VAK learning styles are not simply mistaken or outdated. VAK comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a highly profitable pseudo-science full of entirely fabricated claims that scientists have described as “bunk” or a “scam”. Most phonics denialism is also based on demonstrably untrue invented claims. We shouldn’t hesitate to use the word “lie” to describe something that can be confirmed as a fraud by Googling it.

One objection to describing a claim as a lie is that the word “lie” describes intention. A lie is not simply false, there must be an intention to deceive. This is, of course, true and we should be careful about using the word “lie” when somebody is simply mistaken. However, we should be aware that if we inadvertently repeat a false claim that somebody else invented with the intention to deceive, then we are repeating a lie, even if we are not lying. Any false claim that is a deliberate invention, rather than, say, a misunderstanding, can still be described as a “lie”. We should not accept that the possibility of somebody passing on a lie without meaning to deceive means we cannot call still call it a lie. If we were to accept this, we would be accepting that a lie ceases to be a lie if it fools enough people. While these ideas may be passed on by those who have been fooled by those who lied, they are still lies and to pass them on is different to passing on a mistaken opinion or something based on error.

It could be argued that in this case, it would be politer not to mention that a lie is a lie, in order to protect the feelings of those who pass it on unaware it is a lie, even if they do some from a position of authority. In the case of my earlier blogpost, the argument is that damaging the pride of educationalists is a worse sin than passing on a lie. Such a position is little more than a license to deceive. There will always be those who are upset to be challenged. There are “cry bullies” who claim to experience emotional damage when anyone stands up to them. If a lie is being spread to educators it should be exposed, if we care about education. The honest would rather be corrected than to be left to pass on a lie uncorrected. When called out on a lie or bullshit, the honest are more concerned at the possibility that what they have said is wrong, than at the manner in which this was pointed out. The last time I was accused of spreading a lie on social media I asked over two dozen times what it was that wasn’t true, before I decided that, in the absence of a clear answer, the accusation was not made in good faith.

A further level of offence-taking can be achieved by combining the confusion between repeating a lie and lying with confusion over the difference between saying somebody lied and saying they are a liar. On the face of it, if somebody lies then it could be claimed they they are a liar. However, if that were so then almost everybody would be a liar and the word “liar” would be fairly inoffensive. The word  “liar” is often seen as more offensive than saying somebody lied because it can be used to mean more than somebody who once told a lie. As St Augustine observed:

Nor are those lies to be allowed, which, though they hurt not another, yet do nobody any good, and are hurtful to the persons themselves who gratuitously tell them. Indeed, these are the persons who are properly to be called liars. For there is a difference between lying and being a liar. A man may tell a lie unwillingly; but a liar loves to lie, and inhabits in his mind in the delight of lying.

It is fair enough to say that, on this understanding, it is worse to call somebody a liar than to say they lied. It is, therefore,  unfair to infer from a claim that somebody has lied that they have been called a liar. Those who react with “are you calling me a liar?” when challenged, are typically attempting to deflect discussion of what they have claimed.

Finally, there are various other forms of taking offence when people disagree about education, such as policing tone and claiming that it is unprofessional to challenge them. I have listed and analysed these arguments in this post. As before, I would argue that these are tactics to avoid and silence debate rather than a response to genuine grounds for offence. It is a fact of life that some people simply think it is not legitimate to disagree with them. We need to make a deliberate effort to privilege open debate, and ignore the protestations of those who think their utterances are above scrutiny.


A blogger all teachers should be following: @greg_ashman

April 27, 2017

Greg Ashman – scourge of education’s charlatans

I may be preaching to the converted here, but after one of my blogposts last week declared war on Australia, I thought I’d draw your attention to something great from that part of the world. Every so often somebody asks me about decent research on how to teach maths, and every time I realise how little I really know about what’s good (rather than what’s terrible in maths education), and I have to redirect them to a particular antipodean blogger.

Greg Ashman is a teacher from England, who is now teaching maths in Australia, while also studying for a PhD in education. His studies are focused on the psychology of learning, and his blog is a running commentary of what is going on in education (here, and in Australia and around the world) and how it relates to what we actually know about how we learn and what works in teaching. He is particularly strong on how best to teach mathematics, although his blog also discusses science teaching, literacy teaching and many other topics related to education. He has a particular commitment to exposing shoddy research and “experts” who give advice contradicted by the evidence. He often looks at the evidence from psychology, empirical studies and international data, but his writing is aimed at teachers rather than academics. His blog provides insight into what does or does not work in the classroom, and is particularly useful if you teach maths. So if you want to keep up with the best in evidence based education blogging, his blog, Filling The Pail, can be found here.

Anyway, if my recommendation is not enough, let me also point out what others have said about Filling The Pail.

Professor Rob Coe, the Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University included it as on of his top ten blogs “that regularly present sound educational research and connect it with school practice” in his post on What is Worth Reading for Teachers Interested in Research?

Dylan Wiliam, the British educationalist and Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, was asked for his top 3 online resources for teachers and he made this recommendation:

…I suggest the Twitter feed or the blogs of a British teacher who now lives in Australia called Greg Ashman. …he’s doing some very interesting work with people like John Sweller in Australia. … he’s looking at  the role of knowledge in teaching mathematics; the role of automaticity, and things like that. His posts,… go under the heading of Filling The Pail because he’s resisting the idea that education is not filling a pail, it’s lighting fires or whatever… He’s actually saying knowledge is a really important part of maths so you need to get good at that. So I recommend his website or his blog, [it] is a very provocative source of ideas in maths teaching specifically.

Daisy Christodoulou, who is Head of Assessment at Ark Schools was also asked for her “Big Three” and said:

I’m going to go for Greg Ashman’s blog… Greg’s really prolific and he has got so many pieces up there that I often just send round to people as an explanation of a particular issue. So it’s a really, really great resource that I use…  quite a lot for myself; just to give myself an insight into things, and to send to others too. So that would be a good one.

Please go to Greg’s blog (here), and have a look. He can be found on Twitter as @greg_ashman


Will a behaviour consultant help your school get through an OFSTED inspection?

April 22, 2017

At the start of the year I wrote about my experience of Behaviour Consultants. Although I have known of decent people doing this job, there has been a real problem with bad advice from consultants and many teachers shared examples of this with me.

However, just recently an opportunity came up to compare directly what a behaviour consultant had said when working with a school with what OFSTED said. A school inspected in January 2017, had been featured in a blog written (in part) by a very high profile behaviour consultant in February 2015. Because this deals with a school that’s just been rated “inadequate” in almost all respects, I’m not going to link to my sources as I normally would, so as to avoid school shaming. I also, obviously, cannot be sure who is right or wrong in their judgements. However, I do want to show how a behaviour consultant’s perspective might differ from an inspector’s.

From the blog:

Great Leadership:

….The key difference between the schools I work with is leadership. Their senior leaders’ approach to whole staff INSET tells you all you need to know about their commitment to CPD. Some open their policy and practice to scrutiny. They allow you to do a proper job. A root and branch review with carefully tailored live training. They follow it with flexible blended training that meets the different needs of individuals. They plan CPD that is a drip feed of consistent messages, sustainable and effective. This sounds like a utopian dream right? Like a button you could press and everything is alright…

There is something incredible when everyone comes together and is able to speak freely and honestly in live training. To genuinely reflect on policy, practice. To identify how things need to be sharpened. To squeeze the consistency where it is most effective to loosen the reigns where it is not. Last week at <school name> was a perfect example of this. The Head was one of the first seated in the hall, other senior and middle leaders dotted around. No big speeches, no ‘see me laters’ no ‘Captain’s table’. The lines of hierarchy are deliberately put on hold. Egos left at the door, one staff, one purpose.

From the OFSTED report:

From the blog:

[consultant’s nickname]’s Scale of Consistency:

We played [consultant’s nickname]’s Scale of Consistency’ and allowed everyone to reflect on how far they had come, what was working and where the next steps are. The questions reminded everyone of the keystone habits all staff have been working on, those we first agreed at the start of the project some months before

….This was embedding the good stuff and keeping on with the simple consistent agreements made in blood. We checked the consistency and our agreement with questions that were tailored to the school and to the moment:

On a scale of 1 -10 (1 being ‘Bare Madness’ and 10 being ‘The Shizzle’) how consistent is your:

  1. Meet, greet and handshake.
  2. Use of the 3 rules ‘Ready, Respectful, Safe.’
  3. Own behaviour.
  4. Use of Positive Notes Home and Positive Phone Calls.
  5. Use of planned scripted interventions.
  6. Seating plan.
  7. Use of routines to focus on learning attitudes and behaviours.

Staff were asked to identify where they felt they were on the scale and then ask someone who was higher up what more they could be doing. I stood back to watch the enthusiasm with which they shared ideas and encouraged one another. There were no hidden agenda’s, no negativity, no blame. We also reflected back to colleagues some fantastic responses to the student survey on behaviour. Key statistics reported;

  • 98% of students now knew the rules and the consequences.
  • 82 % felt that behaviour had improved.

From the OFSTED report:

From the blog:


…the staff were then challenged to clarify the consistent classroom steps for poor behaviour. …. It was very clear that although practice had shifted dramatically on a whole school level, there is still work to be done to tighten consistent responses at the classroom level. We talked about defining routines for individual classes, teaching behaviour and pursuing those routines one by one, relentlessly.

The behaviour at [school’s initials] have [sic] improved so dramatically in the past year and staff are to be applauded for their efforts. When I first visited the referral room, it was full with a queue of students lining up outside the door. On this day of training, there was just one child in the referral room, yesterday there had been none.

This is a whole school approach, every adult singing from the same song sheet, led by the vision of an excellent Head [head’s name] and driven by the determination of all adults to create a school where excellent behaviour is normalized. And it is working brilliantly.

From the OFSTED report:


I’m not intending to have a go at individuals here, I don’t know how well the school went on to follow that consultant’s advice in the significant length of time between the blog and the inspection, and I’m the last person on earth to claim that an OFSTED report must be right. But the leadership at this school hired an outsider to lead on behaviour; an outsider who came in, said everything was now going great and praised the head and, one assumes, was paid handsomely for their contribution. I think anyone can see why this might not result in sustained improvement.

I would argue that, more than anything, great behaviour comes from great culture. Unless you are very lucky and have the world’s least challenging intake, you only get that where school leaders make that culture happen. If you are a school leader, and want to spend money on improving behaviour, start by spending it on visiting schools in disadvantaged areas that, nevertheless, have great behaviour and see how they do it. I bet there isn’t one school in the country with great behaviour that got there through employing consultants.


Lies, damned lies and things you hear from Australian educationalists

April 20, 2017

Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.

George Orwell, 1984

In some countries, including some of the nations of the UK, the education establishment still expects all teachers to support progressive education without debate. The most basic freedom we need in debate is to be able to stand up and say “but that’s not true” to anyone, no matter how eminent, who tells us their opinions are facts or beyond debate. Doing so should never be answered with outrage, an attempt to establish credentials, or a personal attack, but with an explanation of why those supposed facts are indeed facts.

I have reason to be thankful for the opportunities we get to debate education in England. When I stumble into arguments online involving people from some other countries I realise how lucky we are. A Twitter storm happened over the last day or two, when Australian educationalists heard that one of the things researchED do is challenge lies that teachers may have been told when training. Nobody associated with researchED accused anyone of lying, or said where the lies come from, or commented on how teacher training in Australia is conducted, or said anything that went beyond acknowledging that some of the things trainee teachers could possibly hear (not necessarily from their lecturers) while training might not be true. But some Australian educationalists got very defensive.

Now I am not making claims that every Australian teacher must have been lied to, or that if trainee teachers have encountered lies they were deliberately passed on by their lecturers, but even from England it is possible to point out that lies can be found out there in Australian teacher training that could be picked up by trainees. It would be best if nobody feigned outrage at the very idea that this could happen.

First, let’s establish that the spreading of lies can easily be found in Australian teacher training. One of the biggest lies in education is the lie that students have individual learning styles and will benefit from instruction that matches those learning styles. Greg Ashman looked into learning styles in Australian teacher training last year, and found several examples:

The University of Sydney has a Professional Practices Unit of Study outline that looks like it’s intended for student teachers. It was last revised in 2014. Block 1 includes a reading list about student diversity with the intention that, “This session will focus on multicultural, Aboriginal, gender and learning style diversity. What are the different gender, religious, cultural, linguistic, social, physical and emotional factors that today’s teachers need to have an understanding and appreciation of when planning for learning in the classroom?”

Murdoch University in Western Australia has a handbook for intern teachers. Interestingly, this looks like a variation on the traditional model of initial teacher education – perhaps giving support to some of those who have commented that new models of teacher education are no better than the old ones. In the handbook, there is a guide to lesson planning. There is a section on “Multiple Intelligences/Learning Styles” which includes the question, “Which of the intelligences or learning styles does your lesson address?”


Griffith University in Queensland is offering a variety of initial teacher education programmes with a focus on special education. The course description states that, “As a teacher working in the special education stream your knowledge, skills and creative talents will focus on the capabilities, interests and learning styles of individual students.”

He also found a lot of references to learning styles in Victoria University’s Faculty of Education handbook for 2016 and 2017 and concluded:

One positive development for those of us who wish to see learning styles consigned to history is that I only counted eight references in the 2017 handbook whereas there were 15 in the 2016 version. So that’s progress.

He said this was the result of a quick search, and sure enough it was easy to find other examples. The Sydney School of Education and Social Work website tells us about learning styles. Anyone looking into the education and teacher training courses at Holmesglen could be given a booklet that mentions training education support workers to “cater for the different learning styles”.

So the presence of false information available in Australian teacher training is easily established. Is it an honest mistake? Well I’ve encountered Australian educationalists on social media, and I think it’s fair to say some of them have odd ideas about how to behave when people identify untruths. Here’s how one Australian educationalist responded to the suggestion that teacher training shouldn’t include lies or bullshit:

This week began with a fast and furious introduction to the blogosphere…

I’ve enjoyed the ride and, whilst I have appreciated the thoughtful comments and feedback I have received, I have to say I’m fascinated by the tactics and behaviour of my antagonists; all of which have been men.

Pejorative terms like “snowflake” (to depict academics as weak whingers who wouldn’t know a hard day’s work if it bit them on the proverbial) have been directed my way, as well as swearwords like “bullshit”. This same person referred to research in education (specifically which research, I’m not sure but I suspect anything using poststructural theory) as “lies”.

…these men … remind me of a serial pest called Alan W. Shorter who was eventually blocked from The Conversation for constantly harassing authors…

I am assured that the aggrieved are NOT all white men, and I’m sure that is true, but the ones making inappropriate comments on Twitter and my blog certainly are.

…I am married to an intelligent, well educated, secure and kind man who isn’t the boss and doesn’t feel the need to be.  I work with similar men; men who are respectful of women, who value their ideas, who would never call them a “snowflake” or refute what others say by calling it “bullshit” or “lies”.

Yep, to an Australian educationalist complaining about lies is all about gender and nothing to do with new teachers deserving the truth. I’m also surprised to learn that the word “bullshit” is far too strong for Australian tastes. (I think I mentioned it only in relation to a famous philosophy paper on the topic). But that is nothing compared to the all time classic. Here it is, from a member of the Faculty of Education at Monash University (the full rant was described by David Didau here):

Attacking learning styles isn’t about learning styles, rather promoting instruction & learning as recalling facts… the sustained attacks on learning styles are really attacks on feminist pedagogy, pedagogy of the poor and inquiry.

…The UK right wingers …there is a subtle hidden agenda in their tweets, blog posts and papers against learning styles. Their highly instructional approaches rely on every student to respond the same way [sic]…

…they attack learning styles in an attempt to “prove” all students learn the same. It is a sick game to them. By suggesting everyone responds to learning the same way, they assert their white middle class voice and ideas. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically then they maintain their dominant position. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically then we don’t need female voices on gender education. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically we don’t need the voice of the poor on inequality. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically then we don’t need the voice of teachers on schools.

I’m going to say it. There are lies spread, either deliberately or accidentally, in Australian teacher training. And there are Australian educationalists, presumably working in institutions that train teachers, who think that it is sexist (and possibly racist), for anyone to challenge those lies. If a grassroots organisation like researchED is giving teachers a chance to learn about research, and challenge it when it isn’t good, then it should be welcomed. Only researchers whose work is based on lies have anything to fear from teachers being given the opportunity to say “hang on, that’s not actually true, is it?”


The Troll Report

April 19, 2017

Last week, there was quite a response to my post on The Rise Of The Progressive Trolls.

It’s worth repeating the main point of that post because many of those responding seemed to miss it. I gave quite a few examples of the new wave of trolls targeting traditionalists on education Twitter, as I assumed some would deny that it was happening. However, my main purpose was to appeal to non-traditionalists to distance themselves from these people and obstruct rather than encourage them. This was my advice:


  • Like, retweet or follow people who are repeatedly abusive, even if they are on your side.
  • Pretend that this is happening on all sides. Or, if you believe it is, don’t claim that without providing evidence. As things stand, the most “offensive” traditionalists are mainly getting told off for having the wrong tone rather than this sort of abuse.
  • Treat accusations of fascism or far right sympathies as a normal part of political debate. It isn’t.
  • Join in when schools or individuals are subject to criticism that could have been better made at the level of ideas.
  • Blame the victims. Too often, progressives see this stuff and explain that traditionalists have brought it on themselves by being too arrogant, or for promoting their ideas, or criticising other people’s ideas or behaviour.
  • Tell people that they need to debate with those abusing them online. Nobody loves a debate more than I do, but if somebody is being abusive or making crazy allegations, nobody should feel they have to answer.
  • Have a go at the victims for how they react to the provocation. If people are being abused or stalked by somebody who they think is unwell or dangerous, then, if asked, they should be able to say that without being accused of being insulting to their troll. A disturbed troll saying “this traditionalist said I was a disturbed troll” is not the victim.
  • Do not excuse trolling behaviour from people on your side, even if you think it is out of character. It really doesn’t help the victim of a personal attack to be told how the person insulting them is lovely or (and this is an odd one) “brave” and it probably doesn’t help the troll either, if it is only a lapse, to have it excused.

And on the positive side:


  • Challenge people on your own side when they resort to personal attacks.
  • Be careful to draw a line between disagreement/criticism and insults/threats. Too often these situations deteriorate because people imagine they have been insulted and insult back. Always check that you don’t confuse being offended by somebody’s ideas with them being offensive.
  • Tell me if you are getting this sort of trolling back from a traditionalist. I’ll do what I can to support people being abused online whatever their views.

I’m not sure  many progressives responding to the post got that far. I got a few people who are not traditionalists reacting positively, and others who promised to consider it, but the main responses were as follows.

  1. The trolls themselves complained that their abuse was taken out of context, true and/or the fault of the victims for provoking it. This defence was, of course, why I had included plenty of examples. No adult should be excusing this stuff.
  2. Progressives (not necessarily trolls) started arguing definitions. This happened in 2 ways.
    • The definitions of progressive/traditionalist. Partly this is the usual tactic of debate denial. It was claimed that I should not have acknowledged the ideological stripe of the trolls or their victims, either because they do not acknowledge that there are sides in the debate, or because mentioning who was abusing who would implicate all progressives.
    • The definition of trolling. The definition of “trolling” has changed over the years. It used to be somebody who deliberately provoked people online with controversial comments. So for instance, a troll would be somebody who’d appear on a Babylon 5 newsgroup to declare that Star Trek: The Next Generation was much better. In recent years it has come to mean somebody who is abusive online. I think this second definition is now the more common one, but I was amazed how many progressives suddenly dug out the older definition. Even worse were those who argued that insulting people you disagree with was just normal, acceptable behaviour and not abuse or trolling.
  3. Victim-blaming and lecturing. Any number of progressives wanted to explain how traditionalists had brought this on themselves through expressing opinions that were unacceptable. Many explained how our views made us the true trolls and if we didn’t want the abuse we should moderate our views.  Others explained how traditionalists were just as bad (this was always assumed, never demonstrated). Some even explained how traditionalists react in the wrong way when abused online (apparently we should be nicer to those who call us names).

This was disappointing. Fundamentally, I wouldn’t have written the original post if I wasn’t describing something that was one-sided and unpleasant. There would have been no point ignoring ideology. Traditionalists are already blocking and condemning those was abuse them. They cannot do more to deter the abuse. I was hoping that the condemnation would be wider; that more people who were not the targets would challenge, or support blocking, the trolls. This was not the case.

Here’s how a lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge described the abuse:

A trad may put a tweet on twitter, something like “progressives ignore science and harm kids in school [link to related news article]”. To the trad this looks like a fair comment. “It’s evidenced-based, it’s true, there is no arguing with it. It’s fact.” To the prog this is first-order trolling. “Oh! Dear God! It’s more complex than that! Why would they be so reductive?” They tweet: “Trads are like fascists, they want everyone to do it their way. Idiots.” Or something of the like

Day-in-day-out, twenty-four-seven, you can find trolling and counter trolling….

…It’s generally good fun. No one really gets hurt. Each army usually consist of the same people. They all know each other. They are sworn enemies, but they are regulars. Just like the Sealed Knot. Nothing ever gets resolved. No one ever says, after one of these exchanges, “You know what, I was wrong, let me join your gang.” Well, not as a result of a twitter skirmish anyway.

So trolling is OK generally. It’s a thing that happens on Twitter. It happens on British EduTwitter.

I disagree. Criticising progressive education, saying it has failed, particularly when giving a justification for this opinion, is not trolling. Comparing people who express this opinion to fascists and calling them idiots is not “counter-trolling”, it is abuse. I don’t know how to explain to a grown adult; let alone a university lecturer, that expressing an opinion, no matter how provocative, is not the same as insults. Or that insults related to fascism can only be highly offensive, particularly to anyone who has suffered from the results of actual fascism. If we care about outcomes for our students, we should all be free to rip into any teaching method we like, say exactly what harm we think it has caused, without being called names or compared to the far right.

As for the idea that this travesty of debate isn’t harmful because nobody ever changed their mind on Twitter, I disagree. In my last blogpost I mentioned this twitter poll:

The answers below are in no way representative, but they do show many people have changed their minds because  of Twitter.

I can assure you these are just a fraction of the people I’ve met over the years who have told me how education debate on Twitter changed their views. Many more have told me that blogs and books they found through Twitter made a difference. Given that over 450 people answered the poll to say they were now traditionalist (but not always traditionalist) I doubt converts influenced by Twitter are rare. So, no, it is not the case that the trolls are just joining in with something that is futile. They know that, from their perspective, traditionalist arguments are something to be feared and hated. The point of abuse is to intimidate, silence and get revenge on traditionalists. It’s shameful that so many people on education Twitter made excuses for this.

By the way, if you are another Twitter convert, please let us know in the comments.


Why do progressives deny the debate?

April 17, 2017

I’ve written a number of times about progressives who reacted to the end of the suppression of traditionalism in our education system by claiming that, one way or another, there was still nothing to debate. It’s worth recalling that in 2013, as the debate really got going again, it was often progressives who wanted to emphasise that there were two camps, and to take sides between them. This is from a post by some very progressive education consultants in July 2013:

One of the fascinating aspects of the recent Festival of Education at Wellington College was the exceptionally wide range of speakers and the breadth and diversity of opinions on offer. Ultimately, however, they divided into two camps.

In the ‘traditionalist’ camp were all those who believe that the main aim of education has always been, still is, and always will be, the attainment of high scores in time-limited, high-stakes tests and exams. These people also believe that through various efforts to ‘drive up’ exam scores we can measure students, teachers and schools…

…The Great Education Wars are now a worldwide phenomenon, and reminiscent of the continuing wars between the two schools of economics which have been raging since the 1960s. In the fields of finance and economics you’re either a Keynesian or a Friedmanite/monetarist. In education you’re either in the camp that says “attainment” is the only thing that really matters, or you’re in the camp that says the holistic development of individual children and young people across all of their aptitudes and intelligences is what’s truly important.

Some of us have known about these wars taking place over several decades, whereas some  just echo Leonard Cohen – “I didn’t even know there was a war”.*

Well it’s time to get real. There IS a war, and it’s not going to go away. No amount of words from the likes of Michael Gove are going to change the minds of those who say children have a fundamental right to the kinds of personalised learning that value their individuality and enable them to succeed across all of their intelligences – personal, social, emotional, spiritual, practical, creative, etc. Just as those on the child-centred side are never going to change the minds of those who are adamant that academic success is the be-all and end-all (whilst paying lip service to other areas of learning and personal development).

At the time, my response was to actually challenge that the debate was this stark (although I never denied that there were two camps):

I’m quite happy to accept the existence of a “traditionalist” camp and a “child-centred” camp, although they are probably far less homogeneous than is assumed here. The trouble with this is that I cannot think of anybody in education who fits this particular description of the “traditionalist” viewpoint. While, perhaps, those of us more sympathetic to traditional teaching methods and the academic purposes of education are also more likely to think that testing may, sometimes, be a useful or even indispensable tool in assessing whether students are learning, I cannot imagine anyone saying that the exams are ends, not means.

Even at that time, there were already those seeking to deny the debate, and in the post I quoted above, I acknowledged that this was common, and addressed it:

Do teachers not use a mix of progressive and traditional methods? Do they not combine a variety of values? While I think false dichotomies do often occur in education – the 3D Eye blog mentioned above being a perfect example – they generally tend to obscure genuine debates rather to create debates where none exist. While we might find that some of the questions raised result in differing answers within the same camp, and while sometimes we might put our ultimate aims on hold just to get through the day or to achieve temporary consensus, choices have to be made. While some of choices, like how much freedom kids should have, or whether kids can learn in groups, may depend to a degree on who you happen to have in front of you, it would be impossible to make an intelligent choice on such issues without having first decided on the more fundamental issues of what education is for and of what it consists. We will have to make choices about whether we do what will make kids smarter or what will make them happier. We have to decide whether what they need to know is what society values or what they (or their teachers) happen to like. We have to agree or disagree about the existence and teachability of various generic dispositions and skills which lessons might be given over to developing. There are no simple compromises and middle positions to be adopted over any of these issues. Ultimately, you will put yourself in one camp or another, or simply fail to have made up your mind.

After that it rapidly became the most common strategy for progressives on social media, and I found myself addressing it again and again:

  • This was my first big discussion of denying the debate;
  • I included denying the debate among the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
  • I discussed the main forms of denial here;
  • I defined the terms in detail here;
  • I showed the beliefs were often often held implicity here;
  • I answered those who objected to the structure of the debate here;
  • I wrote an update of the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
  • I answered those who claimed that nobody is against knowledge here;
  • I showed my definitions were basically the same as Dewey’s from 1938 here.

It now feels like progressives who admit they are progressives and argue for progressivism are a small minority of the progressives on social media. When an anonymous blogger took the name “Progressive Teacher” and tweeted as @prog_teacher and blogged here they probably got more publicity from traditionalists grateful to see somebody wasn’t denying the debate than they did from their fellow progressives. It’s now become so common to deny the debate that even some of the progressive trolls who accuse traditionalists of being part of the political far right, will also dismiss the idea that there is any real disagreement with them and argue that it is all a false dichotomy (apparently without realising that must mean they too are on the far right). Some trolls now use the term “pseudo-trads” in order to refer to traditionalists without admitting that we are actually traditionalists.

So why has this become so common? Why are progressives so reluctant to say so? I would like to present two clues. Firstly, another one of my twitter polls. This one got (ominously) 666 votes. It is obviously skewed towards my followers, so I make no claim that it accurately represents either teachers on Twitter, or teachers in general. The way I set it up deliberately excludes debate deniers, which presumably counts out a lot of progressives.

However, what it does show is that out of over 450 traditionalist teachers who answered in the 24 hours the poll was open, over three fifths of them had not always been traditionalists. It looks like twitter traditionalists might well be mainly converts. They have encountered debate and taken a side, or even switched sides.

The second clue is in the following debate, which is worth listening to if you have an hour.

It took place at a global education forum where I would normally only expect to hear of progressives and big business having a voice (if you doubt me, please look into it). The progressive dominance of the event was shown by the pre-debate voting:

Perhaps not surprising given the somewhat biased wording of the motion, and the likelihood that many participants would be from outside the UK and might have never have heard educationalists explicitly argue in favour of traditionalism in their own countries. After an hour’s debate of the issues, with Daisy Christodoulou, and Nick Gibb, putting the traditionalist case, the audience voted again.

I think both of these clues point to the extent to which, once traditionalist arguments get out there, many people are converted. I think this is why so many progressives do not want open debate between progressives and traditionalists to happen. I admit I can’t prove this, but we should ask ourselves what is more likely. Is it possible that, for more than a century, educational progressives, such as Charles Dickens, Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, or for pity’s sake, Albert Einstein were mistaken in thinking that anyone disagreed with them? Or is it more likely that, during the end of a period of almost total progressive dominance in England, today’s progressives have lost their nerve and just don’t want teachers to be informed enough to choose between different beliefs about education?


Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist

April 13, 2017

For the last 100 years or so, the two main branches of educational thought have been Traditionalism and Progressivism. Yet, in my view due to the way teacher training has been interested in passing on only the progressive perspective, many teachers are apparently oblivious to this.

Twitter poll, source unknown

I’m sure a lot of the confusion comes down to a belief that the terms refer only to teaching styles and not to philosophies, or through attempts to define them using checklists of ideas, rather than as families of ideologies.

Here was my attempt to define the terms.

We can still identify progressive values. Also, traditionalism is more consistent and we can recognise departures from it. Somebody is heir to the progressives if they endorse any of the key disagreements between traditionalists and progressives, rather than all of them. There are three main areas of dispute.

Content. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge and belief – a tradition – to be passed on and that the benefits of this to one’s intellect provide the rationale for education systems. Progressives can deny this in a number of different ways (or not at all) but to argue in any of those ways marks one out as a progressive.

Some of the most common are:

  • Denying a shared tradition on grounds of individualism (eg. “all children are different and need or want to know different things”);
  • Presenting the teaching of a tradition as oppressive or tedious;
  • Denying a shared tradition on the basis of an exclusive identity (“my students are EAL/working class/muslim/revolutionaries and, therefore, do not, or should not, value that knowledge);
  • Identifying alternative non-academic aims for educational institutions, eg. happiness, employability, political consciousness, socialisation, or anything that is actually more to do with parenting than teaching;
  • Identifying academic aims for education that are too generic to require specific knowledge, eg.: critical thinking, creativity, independence or resilience;
  • Claiming that children or parents do not want this sort of education and, therefore, it should not be taught;
  • Denying the importance of recall or memorisation in learning;
  • Claiming that social, economic or technological change will render the traditional knowledge obsolete;
  • Valuing only knowledge that has been sought out by students on their own initiative;
  • Denying that anyone has the authority to identify the tradition to be taught (“Who are you to decide what my students need to know?”).

Authority: The last point brings us to another major branch of the debate, that of teacher authority. Traditionalists believe that teachers should be in a position of authority over students. This means both that their professional decisions are legitimate ones that are binding on students, and that they should have the means to enforce those decisions. Many (but not all) progressives have disputed one or both aspects of this. The key themes are:

  • Autonomy. The progressive tradition has emphasised the importance of the decisions of the child. Activities that children have chosen for themselves are valued over those chosen by the teachers. Often progressives have seek to make schools less structured, advocating open plan classrooms or non-traditional lessons. The rhetoric of “factory schools” is entirely progressive, as is talk of “independent learning”.
  • Motivation. Those activities that children want to do, such as playing or talking to friends, are given additional value. Those activities that more clearly serve the purpose of the teacher, are considered less worthwhile. Obviously, there are compromise positions here, but an emphasis on fun and engagement at the expense of academic rigour is a key progressive theme.
  • Discipline. This is probably the key dividing line between progressives and traditionalists today. Traditionalists have no problem with the idea that children should obey or conform, as long as it serves the educational purpose. Teachers have the right to be in control and to make moral judgements about the good of their students. Progressives often fear that teacher control is too coercive or even cruel. Progressives are far more likely to object to punishments, and sometimes even rewards, and see them only as a mechanism for control and to deny the relevance of desert. They are far more likely to endorse the idea that rules should be flexible and that children should be negotiated with, appeased or persuaded rather than expected to comply. They are more likely to argue that rules should be about vague values (eg.: “respect each other”) than required behaviours with a practical benefit (eg.: “walk on the left side in the corridor”).
  • Student opinion. Progressives often favour both formal attempts to collect and respond to student opinion, and informal attempts to encourage students to give opinions. Teachers are expected to justify their decisions to students, and often to persuade them rather than exercise their authority. Students are encouraged to question their teachers and challenge their decisions and defiance can be seen as normal or acceptable on this basis. It may be decided that getting the student’s side of the story is crucial even in disciplinary matters. At times, progressives can seem very hostile to teachers getting their way when students obstruct them. Teacher’s moral judgements are seen as suspect and identifying difficult students or challenging behaviour can be seen as “labelling”. Some progressives are uncomfortable with the idea of children being required to be quiet.
  • Status. Progressives will often want to remove outward signs of the difference in status between students and teachers. So they are less likely to favour school uniforms, and more likely to favour calling teachers by their first name.

Methods. Teaching methods differ between progressives and traditionalists. Teaching methods are often seen by those who want to deny the debate as all there is to the argument.  The straw man version of this is simply to state “traditionalists do X, progressives do Y” and then to argue that if you do both X and Y then the debate is irrelevant to you. However, it is what you value that is more important than what you do. And even when people deny the relevance of any of the debates I described in the previous two sections, their preferred methods may reveal otherwise. Roughly speaking, traditionalism values explicit instruction, memorisation and practice. Progressivism favours group work, discussion between students, discovery learning and learning which is relevant to (or mimics) “real life”. Values do matter more than precise methods and teaching methods are only really the decider in the case of the teacher who claims to be uninfluenced by ideology but shows a marked preference for one type of teaching. Many progressives will simply claim that the progressive methods they use work and refuse to acknowledge the philosophy that informed that judgement.

Recently @Trivium21c drew my attention to Dewey’s description of how the terms were used from 1938.

Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances compel us to compromise. Educational philosophy is no exception. The history of educational theory is marked by position between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without; that it is based upon natural endowments and that education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure.

At present, the opposition, so far as practical affairs of the school are concerned, tends to take the form of contrast between traditional and progressive education. If the underlying ideas of the former are formulated broadly, without the qualifications required for accurate statement, they are found to be about as follows: The subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation. In the past, there have also been developed standards and rules of conduct; moral training consists in forming habits of action in conformity with these rules and standards. Finally, the general pattern of school organization (by which I mean the relations of pupils to one another and to the teachers) constitutes the school a kind of institution sharply marked off from other social institutions. Call up in imagination the ordinary schoolroom, its time-schedules, schemes of classification, of examination and promotion, of rules of order, and I think you will grasp what is meant by “pattern of organization.” if then you contrast this scene with what goes on in the family, for example, you will appreciate what is meant by the school being a kind of institution sharply marked from any other form of social organization.

The three characteristics just mentioned fix the aims and methods of instruction and discipline. The main purpose or objective is to prepare the young for future responsibilities and for success in life, by means of acquisition of the organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill which comprehend the material of instruction. Since the subject-matter as well as standards of proper conduct are handed down from the past, the attitude of pupils must, upon the whole, be one of docility, receptivity, and obedience. Books, especially textbooks, are the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past, while teachers are the organs through which pupils are brought into effective connection with the material Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced.

I have not made this brief summary for the purpose of criticizing the underlying philosophy. The rise of what is called new education and progressive schools is of itself a product of discontent with traditional education. In effect it is a criticism of the latter. When the implied criticism is made explicit it reads somewhat as follows:

The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.

But the gulf between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young is so wide that the very situation forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do—and learn, as it was the part of the six hundred to do and die. Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.

If one attempts to formulate the philosophy of education implicit in the practices of the new education, we may, I think, discover certain common principles amid the variety of progressive schools now existing. To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

 I was a bit surprised just how close these two descriptions are, particularly given how many of Dewey’s heirs now clam not to recognise these terms. The fact that both descriptions include obedience alongside the passing on of a body of knowledge, and both seem to allow for the ideas in progressivism to be more loosely connected strikes me. However, my description is not necessarily independent of Dewey’s, I had read his back in the days when educational progressives claimed traditionalism was wrong rather than undefined. This leaves me with some questions:

  1. Have I missed any important differences between the two descriptions? I know there are differences, they just didn’t seem important.
  2. What was the context of Dewey’s remarks, affirming his place in the debate or denying it?
  3. How can those who deny the debate ignore or explain away this history?

    The last question should be seen in the context of remarks like this:

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