Why Phil Beadle is wrong

Phil Beadle has recently taken to writing blog posts about the education debate. He is of the view that there is a group of people – the ‘neo trads’ – who have achieved some successes such as forcing Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, to stop mandating a teaching style. Yet things have now probably gone a bit too far and Beadle is staring into the bathtub, wondering what happened to the baby.

For those of you who are unaware of Phil Beadle, he is a celebrity teacher of English who appeared on TV in the early 2000s. He also wrote a book on how to teach, a book that I understand is popular on teacher education courses in the UK. I haven’t read his book but this video clip is based upon it; a clip in which Beadle suggests, among other things, that nobody actually learns anything from a teacher-led discussion and teachers shouldn’t use this approach [This is at odds with a vast swath of educational research].

Beadle must have been accused of mounting ‘ad hominem’ arguments because he makes the following point about neo trad revolutionaries:

“We find ourselves, therefore, in the confusing and disappointing situation where the revolutionaries formerly at the gate appear to rather like the sofas in virtual Versailles; and we must greet the new boss to note that the only marked dissimilarity to the old boss is the amount of virtual coffee breath expended as they shout ‘ad hom’ in the face of anyone who disagrees with them.”

An ad hominem is a flawed argument and it is easy to understand why it’s flawed if we drop the Latin and call it a ‘personal attack’, which is what it is. Paul Graham does a great job of explaining why this is unconvincing. I also think that a personal attack tends to reinforce the opinions of those who already agree with the attacker whilst leaving everyone else unmoved. I might as well respond to the coffee breath line with, “Yeah, well Phil Beadle smells of cabbage!”

And so I am going to ignore Beadle’s insinuations that neo trads are posh boys who are set to gain from textbook sales and, instead, I am going to address what substance I can find.

Beadle makes a mistake that is common to educators of his ‘generation’; he confuses intentions with effects. Teachers have far less agency than we might imagine – a point on which I agree with Gert Biesta – and so to laud a teaching approach simply because of the intention behind it is naive and simplistic. This is why I am interested in evidence. We all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Or do we? To understand that allusion, you have to have knowledge. This is what the revolution has been about. Beadle makes some allowances for this, but they are begrudging. He caricatures history teaching in a passage of classic progressive education polemic that is directly descended from the work of John Dewey:

“There were, in fact, rational (and political) arguments for moving away from a transmission model of teaching to what many teachers felt at the time to be a more ‘democratised’ approach. Again, this was more appropriate to some subjects than others: it may be that, in maths, group work isn’t much use at all, or that, in history, fulfilling the rather paltry ambition of teaching them a set of dates works best by the teacher telling them such dates (though there are probably vastly more interesting and more memorable ways of doing this).”

Does Beadle really think that this has all been about learning dates? His notion of democratic education amounts to naught if it doesn’t achieve anything of the sort. In order to discuss and argue about history, you need to know lots about it. That is the aim of those who are prioritising the paltry ambition of teaching facts. They want students to be able to discuss and debate in an informed and adult way rather than just talking off the tops of their heads.

And these facts also help in English. Texts don’t exist in an historical or cultural vacuum. If you want to understand a text then you need background knowledge more than you need generic comprehension skills.

Rather than drawing on the evidence for how to make group work effective, Beadle admits that, to his generation of teachers, valorising group work was about a mistrust of authority as much as anything. He raises some big questions. One of these is, “How are we to view colonialism?” Well, if you ask the British public then the answer seems to be ‘with pride’. Certainly, that’s what a recent YouGov poll showed.

Yet it is widely acknowledged that the British public know very little about the British empire. Michael Gove and Jeremy Corbyn both agree that more knowledge of the empire should be taught in schools. Isn’t that strange? Despite Beadle’s passionate claim to the moral and political high ground, it turns out that ignorance is the tool of the oppressor and that a strong base of factual knowledge is the first step, and only the first step, in overcoming this. Knowing dates is about knowing what happened, when and in what order. It facilitates critical thinking. It means you’re less likely to be fooled by the new boss.

Nobody is questioning the intentions behind the uninformed group-work and general fluffing about that has been so fashionable for far too long. We question the effect. If group work and mute teachers were meant to deliver us a Freirean revolution in political consciousness then they failed. Abjectly.

It’s time to move on from the mistakes of the past.

What's your view of the British Empire? How much do you know about it?

What’s your view of the British Empire? How much do you know about it?


8 thoughts on “Why Phil Beadle is wrong

  1. Chester Draws says:

    it may be that, in maths, group work isn’t much use at all,

    Well, he’s right there, although there is no need for the “may be” (assuming that “group” means more than two people).

    The rest of it seems like a long whinge. With a take-home message that he doesn’t like that his political enemies have a better idea of how to teach than he does, and are starting to win the battle of minds.

    Regarding listening as not being an entirely passive activity has some truth in it (not a lot though, really), but you wouldn’t want it as a sole diet, six hours a day, every school day for 13 years.

    Which is a ridiculous argument, since traditional teaching is all about making the students do much more work. My maths teaching, largely Explicit, involves getting the students to do as many exercises in the period as I can fit. I am revolted by “ideal lessons” I see that have the students “engaged” and which are “relevant” but only actually solving one or two exercises in the period. My fellow “neo-trad” teachers in English are the ones who make the kids stop talking and actually sit and write an essay in silence.

    If anything it is progressive methods that have the kids listening to hours on end. That it is to other students who generally know as little as they do doesn’t make it any better.

    • Not sure I agree with: ¨ in maths, group work isn’t much use at all ….Well, he’s right there¨

      Having been in receipt, way back, of three attempts at Maths A level teaching: Pure/Applied/Physics (aka Maths with pics) I can remember fondly sitting on top of desks in a group trying to solve various problems, the Applied Math teacher (maybe not being candid, to encourage us) saying he did not know & us shouting together occasionally, after much effort, the text book answer was wrong. This did not happen in Physics where we were in rows and sometimes pairs at the wave tank or somesuch #nostalgia

      My experience of modern math teaching is thru snippets from my kids and the fact that my daughter makes a living tutoring. Since Maths is hard I cannot bring myself to criticize teachers, even the one whose marking strategy caused me to stand up and leave one parent´s night.

      Finally, my experience of English teaching was also not bad. I remember the teacher saying to my very first class at the secondary school: ¨Ÿouĺl have read all the James Bond books by now let´s move on to ….¨ I didn´t realise that there were such publications but as a strategy to get us to do ¨much more work¨ it worked a treat

  2. Hi Greg,
    Lovely bit of irony with that follow up tweet.

    Here in Ontario Canada group work is sold not so much for its beneficial effect on learning the subject matter but as an important 21st century skill that must be reinforced across all subjects lest students leave school unable to cooperate with others on a poster project.

    I am just wondering if this discovery that some people collaborate as part of their job occurred to educators once they discovered social media and found that not everyone spends their day as the sole paid worker in a classroom. I am not convinced the turn of the century saw the need for collaboration at work to change much.

    There’s me being a bit snarky. That’s aimed at the writers of that sales pitch for group work no one else.

    I hope you will cover group work in a post at some point. It would be very interesting to see some material on whether there is any actual need to better educate people to collaborate, what might work if this is the case and where it might be counter productive to other goals.

    To be fair there is also some suggestion here that group work in math will help students become more literate in math as it gives them practice explaining their thinking. I am sure there are some positives in real time feedback and seeing that you are not the only one struggling but once again it is a tradeoff with time spent on other things.


  3. Brian says:

    I am not known for being a fan of Phil Beadle but I actually thought that much of the advice contained within the video was actually very good.

    I watched the video and was surprised to see that the comments you had ascribed to Phil were not actually there.

    “a clip in which Beadle suggests, among other things, that nobody actually learns anything from a teacher-led discussion and teachers shouldn’t use this approach [This is at odds with a vast swath of educational research].”

    In a section about “one person talking at a time”, he talked about the “teacher standing at the front saying you speak, you speak, you speak”. He suggested that the “teacher standing at the front saying you speak, you speak, you speak” was the default for many teachers and this should not necessarily be the case. He expressed the opinion that class discussion when led by the teacher was a complex process and referring to “body language”. He seemed to me to be expressing a view that “standing at the front saying you speak, you speak, you speak” was a direct route to learning nothing and I tend to agree with him. Classroom discussions can be very complex and to maximise their effectiveness one has to be a little more skilled and incisive.

    I have not personally come across a “vast swath” of educational research on the topic of the type of discussion the Phil describes. At no time can I see Phil suggesting that teachers should not use teacher led discussion, he in fact describes a more sophisticated approach to the strategy, probably a little more sophisticated that you are used to.

    I stopped reading at that point which is a shame as I was thinking that my general lack of support for Phil historically was going to be bolstered by the discussion.

    After watching the video he went up in my estimation.

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