There have been a few posts recently offering advice to bloggers like me and education writers more generally. In this post by Sue Cowley, we are warned to consider our ‘tone’; that being controversial might get a few clicks initially but that, in the long-term, it is better to be constructive or we will lose readers. In a different post by Ross McGill – a prolific UK blogger with a considerable following – we are advised to, “Stay away from pointless arguments on pedagogy and political ideology.” I understand that both Sue and Ross have authored books about education.
Please folks, don’t follow their advice. I am particularly interested in questions of pedagogy and I would much rather read a controversial post that I disagree with than an inane one. Let me explain the flaws in such thinking. But first, let me detail a rule that we should try to stick to.
Try not to be wrong
To be knowingly wrong is to be dishonest. I don’t mean exaggeration or a bit of polemic; I mean stating as facts things that you know to not be true. It is obvious why we should avoid this and if you don’t tell the truth then people will disengage as soon as they work you out.
But we should also try to mitigate our unconscious biases. One way to do so is to avoid logical fallacies and in order to avoid them we need to know about them. If I feel pretty upset by an argument that someone has made but all that I can think to write in response is a criticism of the author’s personal qualities then I should really take a break and wonder why I can’t think of a stronger rebuttal.
If we avoid logical fallacies then we are going to stay clear of egregious nastiness such as personal attacks or name-calling. These kinds of things really are unpleasant. But it goes much further to suggest, as Sue does, that we should not use a controversial tone; that we should seek not “to make rude comments, to use rude words, or to make sweeping statements with which people will disagree.”
This is a sweeping statement with which I disagree. What is a ‘rude’ word, other than the obvious profanities that I hardly ever see in education blogs? Well, the answer is that it is highly subjective.
For example, I recently wrote a blog titled, “Concept Maps are Rubbish.” Most people took this as a cheeky bit of click-bait – which is what I had intended. The post itself contained quite a sober discussion of a couple of research papers. However, others took exception. One Tweeter asked me, “how far into your PhD do you think you’ll be before you get past the hyperbolic language and extremist attitudes?”
Perhaps I should have called it, “Some interesting research into concept maps.” But why? That’s really boring. It was a blog-post and not an academic paper. It is true that academic papers insist on quite dry, passive language because this avoids people making inflated claims that go beyond the evidence but it also makes such papers pretty turgid.
The point is that tone is largely in the eye of the beholder. I suspect those who were fine with my ‘Concept maps are rubbish’ post are less invested in the use of concept maps than those who were not.
And, ironically, this is true of Sue’s post, too. I feel an implied criticism of my own blogging in what Sue writes and so, when she advises us that, “readers want to feel like you are speaking to them on a level, rather than talking down to them from a lofty perch,” I feel like I’m being talked down to from a lofty perch. This is not Sue’s fault. It is the fault of me, the reader, and I’m afraid that writers can’t avoid this. If you are going to say anything that people disagree with then they will project on to it a condescending, snide, superior, sarcastic or otherwise negative tone.
So perhaps we should take Ross’s advice and avoid controversial topics like pedagogy and political ideology altogether? I dread to think what the internet would look like. How exactly would this advance the education debate? All of the truly interesting bloggers would have to pack up and go home. Yet think what’s been achieved. We are living in unprecedented times where significant teaching movements are emerging online and in the real world; where government policy has been influenced by bloggers and not the bloggers who avoid controversy.
A world where we duck the big debates would be a world full of blog-posts on “Top Tips for Using iPads in Form Time”, “How to Use Alphabet Pasta to Teach the Causes of World War One,” and so on.
It is unthinkable.
Why would you want such a world? Whose interests would that serve?