Three tips for education’s old guard

There is a new movement in education. It is loose and not entirely coherent. It is a reaction against some of the orthodoxies of the past and that’s a good thing. Empowered by social media, ordinary teachers are pointing out that many of the ideas that we take for granted are built on shaky foundations and, instead, they are proposing a new way of seeing things. I suppose that I am a small part of this.

This movement has provoked a response from those whose ideas are being criticised. We need this response. Ordinary teacher-bloggers are just as likely to be wrong and to oversimplify the arguments as anyone else and so these viewpoints must be tested. However, this hasn’t yet happened in a particularly productive way. I was reminded of this early today when I read a piece by Phil Beadle. It seems that Beadle’s ideas about marking were criticised in an article in the Sunday Times written by Kris Bolton. I write ‘it seems’ because I don’t have access to the paywalled Times so I’m just going on Beadle’s response which you can read here. However, I am not commenting on Beadle’s piece alone. I’m am offering more general advice.

1. Don’t mount personal attacks

It is fine to criticise someone’s espoused ideas in the strongest possible terms. I have no problem with a bit of polemic. Effective rhetoric appeals both to the mind and to the heart. However, this is different to criticising someone for who they are or calling them names. It is not some kind of diabolical sophistry to call such attacks ‘ad hominem’. This is an accurate description of the problem and it should be avoided, mainly because it takes us away from the ideas that are under discussion. You see ad hominem arguments on both sides of the debate and it sometimes even has some legitimacy if, for instance, its purpose is to expose hypocrisy. And yet, playing the player rather than the ball can never be as powerful or persuasive as exposing the flaws in someone’s actual argument.

And this happens a lot. I remember when Guy Claxton accused his critics of being angry trolls who aren’t very bright. In my own interactions, I tend to be patronised . A professor might point out that I am just a PhD student or advise me that I need to read more without addressing the point that I have made. None of this is a good look.

2. Don’t confuse pedagogy with politics

The following thinking seems apparent in some people’s arguments.

  1. Left wing politics implies a particular pedagogy
  2. Therefore, if you criticise this pedagogy you are on the political right

There are many teachers and organisations that I respect that are on both sides of politics. One of my grandfathers was a Tory and the other a communist and so I tend not to see politics as being about good people versus bad people. Instead, I see it as a battle of ideas. Most people involved in politics in Western democracies are smart enough to make more money doing something else. Yes, they may be egotistical but, with notable exceptions, they are generally motivated by trying to make the world better. Yet many of them have completely flawed notions of how to do this and so these should be the focus of our attention.

I am politically left-of-centre but also something of a pragmatist. I dislike the idea that people assume I am right-wing because I criticise inquiry learning or promote explicit instruction. I do so on the basis of my views on social justice. I happen to think that progressive education does the most harm to the disadvantaged; the ones whose parents cannot mitigate the effects. If you are a working class hero you shouldn’t just choose your pedagogy on the basis that it comes in the membership pack with the red flag and the words to the The Internationale. You have a responsibility to ensure that it works for the people you claim to represent otherwise you’re part of the problem.

And the notion that a motley crew of teacher-bloggers is somehow part of some government conspiracy to privatise education is just as silly as the notion that progressive educators in the 2000s were part of a coordinated movement controlled from a bunker under the Institute of Education. It is ideas about education that bring people together or push them apart and it is these ideas that are worth discussing.

3. Focus on the Ideas

In Beadle’s piece, he writes of someone who claims that he or she is more interested in evidence than ideas. Beadle then takes the opposite view. However this came about, I suggest it is an unnecessary dichotomy. I am profoundly interested in ideas. And I am interested in the evidence to support or refute those ideas, where it exists. I am interested in the flawed ideas of recapitulation and naturalistic learning that have driven much of the progressive education movement. I am interested in the ideas of Paolo Freire; ideas with which I tend to disagree. I am interested in the ideas of cognitive load theory.

And I make no apology for being interested in evidence. Why shouldn’t I be? If there is clear evidence that something benefits students or that something else does not then I think that’s quite valuable to know.

To the debate

This is a debate worth having. It will shape the future of education in a number of countries. It will take place in the new media. We may mourn the passing of the old way of doing things but social media is a vibrant and democratising force. I am sorry that Beadle feels that he cannot take part in it but the discussion will go on regardless and may even reference things that he has written or said. The arguments are not going away.

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2 Comments on “Three tips for education’s old guard”

  1. David says:

    Good post….I would add, “follow the money”. A lot of the stuff emanating from the US in particular is built on foundation money promoting a specific pedagogy (often for ideological reasons). This is especially true of the ed tech industry, but also those pushing high stakes testing, promotion of alternatives to public education (charters, vouchers, etc.) and the transition of teachers to facilitators. I would suggest these efforts have ramifications well outside of the US…


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