One of the interesting things about the denial of objective truth is that, in its own terms, such a denial cannot be objectively true. If nothing can be known then neither can the fact that nothing can be known. If all perspectives are situated then so is the perspective that all perspectives are situated. It’s a cheap shot – I know – but these paradoxical loops occur a lot. It’s like the one about ‘learning to learn’; if you don’t already know how to learn then how can you learn how to learn? And if you do then…

I was reading Linda Graham’s debut post today. Linda is an Australian education researcher and a powerful voice on Twitter. The post is an interesting read and a welcome new voice in the debate. But I couldn’t help feeling that I was perhaps in her sights.

Firstly, as an aside, it’s worth just mentioning tone. The thing about tone is that it really is so situated. What we and our friends think is fine might come across differently to others. For this reason, I don’t tend to comment on tone at all. Those that choose to complain about ‘snide invective’ should really pay attention to the way that they go about this. Otherwise, it’s another one of those loops.

I find it valuable that Linda identifies a concept that we can cling to amidst a realm that some of us find so difficult to wrangle. This realm is the ‘posts’ of postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and so on. For Linda, the concept of subjectivity or standpoint – situatedness – are key to these approaches. Yet it is clear that Linda’s position is itself highly situated and this is not really dealt with. Let us deconstruct it a little.

Linda does have thresholds of quality for educational research. This is why she rejects many papers sent to the journals that she edits. However,

“…the thing is, sometimes work that seems esoteric, indulgent and irrelevant to some can be of value to the author herself.”

Of course, people are free to research whatever they like and I am sure that there are personal insights to gain from this. Equally, a person might gain significant personal insights from a hiking tour of India and these might even inspire her to better, more original research in the future. But we wouldn’t expect the India trip to be subsidised through public taxation in the way that university research is subsidised. Claiming a right to indulgent and irrelevant research represents quite an entitled perspective.

I am not arguing that all education research should be purely instrumental. This is not what I believe about knowledge creation. In fact, I think that ‘blue skies’ science research makes a pretty good case for itself with the wider public. My point is that the ‘posts’ do not do this. It is hard even to describe ways in which they impact society at large; so caught are they in reifying new nouns. To their credit, Linda and others such as Greg Thompson have taken on the task of blogging about these ideas for a wider public and so their value may become more apparent.

Linda’s defence also seems to show little insight into the perspective of the attacker. It is more a kind of defensiveness. Why do you think there are those of us out here questioning the value of some forms of educational research? Do we all serve some common agenda, got up by the think tanks and Pearson? Certainly, there is much fretting about shadowy right-wing forces and this has generated plenty of research papers.

No. Let me help explain so that others can understand what drives this. There are a number of bloggers out there in the UK, US, Canada and now even in Australia who share something of my perspective. We wouldn’t agree on everything and our political views are diverse. Contrary to stereotype, we are not all white men. What happened to make us form our views? There is a common theme in many stories and I know this because people have blogged about it.

We went to university to train to be teachers and were fed a specific ideology. We were not told that traditional, transmission methods might be effective for imparting academic knowledge but there were other reasons why we should limit teacher talk and increase student choice and group work. We weren’t told that at all. We were explicitly told that following these latter methods would lead to better academic outcomes. We were told that research proved it to be so; constructivism, Piaget, Vygotsky and the research of our tutors proved that students needed to construct their own knowledge through inquiry.  We were told that poor behaviour was the result of poor teaching and that if we only made activities engaging enough, behaviour issues would be solved. This had all been previously established and the only remaining question was how to get more teachers to teach the right way.

We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective. We were told it as if it was the truth and we believed it as if it was the truth because it was coming from authority figures who we trusted to know what they were on about. Which is ironic, given the same ideology’s criticism of transmission teaching. You’d get a greater range of perspectives explored in a 1960s middle school history class.

Later, when we started to read, question and connect with each other online, we began to realise that we had been misled, intentionally or not. We learnt that some key research showed the opposite of what we had been told and that vast swathes of studies had effectively been forgotten or ignored. And so this is why we are all here, kicking up so much fuss. The trust is gone. We don’t necessarily believe what we are told any more. And we are exerting our right to scepticism, together. I am starting to wonder if silly-sounding research papers are actually just silly. 

Outrageous, I know. What right do upstarts like us have to criticise? And with such a snide tone? We haven’t even passed through the initiation rights to enter into the club. But there it is.

It is not the case that I think that I am somehow free from ideology and that the people I disagree with ideological. The problem is that educational research seems to exists in such a narrow ideological bubble. Yes, there are factions within this and passionate debates to be had and this has convinced many participants that they are part of a robust, pluralistic dialogue. But a good analogy would be the heated disagreements that took place between the many different communists political groups in 1970s Britain. 

And so we have a group that prioritises the study and analysis of subjectivity that presents itself as if it is quite unaware of its own.

Update: Linda Graham has responded to this post here (I think there might be some misunderstanding about wordpress’s ping back system


31 thoughts on “Situated

    1. Yes. Self satire at its best. If only blogs about blogs could be about what the blogs say rather than vague generalizations, worry about what they are not about and hurt over the tone -imagined or not we can’t tell. Then we might get something useful out of them.

  1. I have been thinking recently about the whole ‘truth is relative’, knowledge is situated stuff and I’m seriously starting to think it is a swizz. I’m not saying the people who believe this stuff aren’t sincere but as you demonstrate the contradictions run deep. I’m not sure I believe any longer that there are a group of people that believe truth is relative or that our culture is under attack from ‘relativism’ etc. Anyone I encounter who claims to think these things has a list a mile long of non-negotiables and very few of those principles seem particularly situated! Try to suggest teaching shouldn’t ‘follow the child’ and see what you get back! Such people do hold some truths really quite dear but they undermine ideas they don’t believe in by arguing for relativity. It seems very similar to what has happened with ‘tolerance’. An overlapping group of people, very intolerant of my views, argue we should all be tolerant- of the things they themselves have no problem tolerating.
    I don’t buy it anymore. As I say I don’t think it is intentional but they don’t actually believe what they claim.

    1. Despite focusing on situatedness in this post, I think you have a good point. If someone’s subjectivity leads them in to error then we should point out the error. If it does not then what’s the problem? Simply highlighting subjectivity does seem to be a pretentious form of ad hominem.

  2. This is so bang-on, particularly the bit on teacher training institutions. Having in recent years read actual research supporting the more “traditional” modes of teaching (not to mention a growing body of less academic writing), I feel I’ve been duped. Why had I never heard of PFT in university? Why had I never heard of ED Hirsch? Why had I never heard of the concept of direct instruction? At the risk of sounding paranoid, there does seem to be an agenda at hand – one in which I had ignorantly and unknowingly participated. Graham’s argument for indulging some of this “research” makes no sense to me, particularly since I’ve been looking into starting a PhD program in an institution that is overwhelmed by a very one-sided view of “research.”

  3. “We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective.” “The trust is gone. We don’t necessarily believe what we are told any more.” This is, I suspect, the reason for much of the heat in the debate about traditional vs progressive education.

    I’m struggling to understand what could have led to those trainee teachers not realising that what they were being told was just a perspective. Constructivism, Piaget and Vygotsky are all explicit about the importance of perspective, so how on earth were those ideas being taught if the future bloggers missed that?

    Is the implication that the schools the bloggers went to didn’t explain perspective either? Because those schools expected students to construct their own knowledge through inquiry and failed to teach them how to critique ideas?

    What concerns me is that one reason for the increaseing popularity of ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching and learning during the first half of the 20th century was the failure of early mass education systems to teach children to question what they were being told. That’s partly why I’m dubious about the traditional/progressive distinction. ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education are equally capable of being dreadful.

      1. I know you can’t ‘just look things up’ but presumably you had reading lists and libraries; books & papers often take a critical approach that can form a starting point. And tutors used to be a good source of info, if asked.

        Now we have access to the internet, typing [name of topic, criticism] is an easy way to start accessing a schema.

        I’m concerned that you weren’t taught at school how to critique what you were taught – am I right?

      2. There is no generic skill of ‘how to critique what you were taught’. This is the point of the Willingham paper. So no, neither I nor anyone else have been taught this at school.

      3. I’m not saying it’s generic. I was educated before the idea of ‘generic skills’ got going.

        What I am asking is if you and the other bloggers were taught at school how to critique anything? I’m beginning to form the impression that this didn’t happen.

      4. “How to critique anything” is, by definition, generic. And a note of caution here; you seem to be seeking to personalise this discussion with your last few comments.

  4. ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education are equally capable of being dreadful.

    Yes, and you can be killed driving a brand new Mercedes or a Trabant. But one cannot conclude from that that Trabant’s are equally safe. Nor that the solution to safer cars is to develop better Trabants as well as better Mercedes.

    The reality is that a lot of progressive techniques are really hard to do well and/or rely on particularly compliant students and/or are time consuming and slow. You can’t cure dreadful, but teachers that base their teaching around Explicit Instruction will generally be better.

    If you want to say that Progressive techniques work better, then you need evidence of that, not a trite observation that some teachers using traditional techniques aren’t very good.

    I’m struggling to understand what could have led to those trainee teachers not realising that what they were being told was just a perspective.

    Well, the fact that your marks depended on you not noticing that tended to have a strong effect.

    I wrote quite a strong essay for my Teacher’s College, properly researched and all. Others got A’s for much less. I got a low B because the answer was “wrong”. Not actually wrong, because the evidence was all there, but “wrong” because it didn’t meet the required type of correctness. I was 40 and experienced enough to stare them down, but the younger ones just out of University were not capable of that level of challenge to authority.

    People just out of university desperately trying to get their first jobs can’t afford to be rebels (literally can’t afford). Only grumpy old bastards who can teach senior Maths, and so are needed badly regardless, can afford to think that it’s “just a perspective”.

    1. There’s a difference between writing essays that say what you’re expected to say or rebelling, and questioning what you’re being taught or being aware that it might be wrong.

      Greg says “We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective.” I was hoping to find out what sort of school education those students had which resulted in them reaching that stage of their education but not know about perspectives.

  5. Is it incumbent on the student to search for material contrary to the “accepted” research presented by presumably reputable edu professors? My BEd was my fourth degree; I never imagined that what I was being taught wasn’t the tried, tested, and true approach. I had gone through three degrees, including a Master’s degree that required a thesis in original research, and I trusted the integrity of the institution. I had a feeling that the mantra lacked something, but having never taught adolescents, I deferred to the “experts.” After teaching in the secondary classroom for seven years, crafting my own approach that contradicted the progressive ethos, I began to feel a sense of success. Then … well, then Alberta doubled down on its “transformative” push to “change everything” in education. I was being forced to bring projects into the classroom, to have students engage in group work, to implement student-centred activities. This all ran contrary to what had made students successful in my classroom. If they had learning styles, why couldn’t I have a teaching style? So that’s when I became an amateur edu-researcher, and a completely unknown world was opened up to me. It often feels like an uphill battle, and I’m sometimes resentful, particularly when people deny the prog/trad split, and of the fact that education has been under the lock and key of progressive gatekeepers. Even now, with the glorious Internet, try to google Project Follow Through. For every hit that touts it as a coup for DI, there’s at least one that links to a “study” on its flaws, or even on how DI leads to delinquency. So sorry, logicalincrementalism, but your comments just add to my negative experience of the edu-training arena.

  6. It was incumbent on students to do that when I was an undergraduate. Lectures provided the backbone of a course, the reading list was a starting point for further exploration, and you’d get extra marks in assessments for showing that you’d done extra reading and even more marks if you were able to critique the research.

    That was donkey’s years ago, but the same structure was used as a mark scheme when I did a Master’s in the 1990s, and my partner’s university department uses the same structure still.

    I recognise things might be different in education courses; my PGCE course was a bit of a mixed bag when it came to being explicit that there might be other perspectives, and my cohort was described as particularly bolshie. Might have been because it consisted mainly of women ‘returners’; I was one of only three recent graduates in the group.

    Every educational institution I’ve attended, from primary school onwards, has been explicit about the possibility that the ‘experts’ could be wrong. But I’m aware that my experience might be unusual. I’m trying to understand what it was about the school education of the group of bloggers that Greg refers to that failed to teach them to be cautious about what they are taught.

    1. You keep asserting a ridiculous straw man. I have not made any claim that people were not taught to be cautious about what they were told or that they were not taught that there are alternative perspectives. You are projecting this. The point is that knowing that different perspectives are possible does not get you very far at all. Go back and read the Willingham article that I have linked to.

  7. I’m not asserting anything except my own experience. I’m trying to find out why:

    “We didn’t realise that this was just a perspective” and “we believed it as if it was the truth because it was coming from authority figures who we trusted to know what they were on about.”

    In your post, you lay the blame solely at the door of the teacher trainers. You might be right. I was asking whether some of the responsibility might lie with schools or with the students themselves. To me they look like fair questions rather than ‘projection’.

    1. You are making claims about the education of a group of bloggers. Not only is this an overreach, it is quite unpleasant. You are then making claims on the basis of this overreach. You should stick to the argument at hand.

      1. You have made the claim that school education failed to teach this group something. That is an overreach. Stop this now. I do not want to completely dominate the comments. Thanks.

        “I’m trying to understand what it was about the school education of the group of bloggers that Greg refers to that failed to teach them to be cautious about what they are taught.”

      2. How would I know? I’m not the one making assumptions. I’m going from primary sources – blogs – that refer to experiences of ITE but not of school education. Enough now.

  8. Greg,
    Are you really sure Linda’s blog is not a parody account? The line about researching on her own time was lifted directly from Python’s argument sketch (with no attribution I might add). Then there’s the complaint about generalization aimed, it seems, at all those that disagree with her. I can’t help imagining Colbert delivering it.
    Perhaps this is unfair but I can’t help finding it funny.
    Maybe it is all earnest and intended to be serious but then wouldn’t someone who doesn’t like generalizations include a link to whatever tweet or blog is in question? A parody seems the simpler explanation.
    As for taking the time to complain that some items on twitter and blogs are nonsense rather than addressing the arguments of those trying to make sense that’s got to be intended as satire.

  9. Once I worked in an office where a fun lunchtime pastime was to have a good argument. But the point was not to change minds on some topic of interest or to score points in a rational debating contest. The point was to make the other person’s head explode (not literally of course). It was loads of fun to watch when done well.
    A good practitioner had to start subtly and draw a victim in to what seemed to be an interesting debate. As the victim became invested the techniques to drive them nuts could become more and more blatant.

    Labeling your challengers as Angry White Men seems like an excellent ploy in this sort of game. If any white man expresses any negative feelings towards this phrase well they are white men and they do seem a wee bit angry so what was their complaint again?

    Another clever move was arguing that when someone makes a point that sounds like a valid criticism well that’s their interpretation and just proves the more important post-rational point that rationality is situational. This move means anything the original author says that was wrong, unclear or misinterpreted generates examples that prove the greater point. There is no value to this approach in any attempt to change someone’s mind but in the game of get the other person’s head to explode it is a winning move.

    When someone is playing this game there is no value in engaging in an attempt at a rational debate. Far better to watch and admire the technique.

    And if you are thinking but no this topic is important and what these people say has an impact then you know why they can always win this game against you.

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