Teaching’s Stockholm Syndrome

I have been reflecting further on the way that one academic chose to write about a group of teachers. It’s just one example, I concede, but it’s prompted me to wonder whether there are wider implications.

Perhaps they really don’t like us?

Consider this. In the paper that I linked to in my last post – a paper that should be widely read – the two contrasting types of teaching were referred to as ‘teacher-led’ versus ‘child-centred’. The evidence in this case was clear: principals who subscribed to child-centred approaches tended to run schools with lower attainment and greater inequality of outcome.

This is hardly a new finding. Indeed, the authors referred to previous studies in their discussion. So what keeps child-centred teaching alive? It is, after all, more than 100 years old. By now we should have worked out that it is less effective and that it replicates inequality. The fact that we haven’t represents a challenge to the idea of memetics: that poor ideas will eventually be out competed by better ones.

On this last point, the timescale of education might have something to do with it. The lifecycle of education is a lengthy 12 years. But why else do people cling to child-centred ideas? There is a lot of supporting theory, I suppose, but the evidence falsifies the theory.

Until now, I have tended to think that the theory is the attraction. People have romantic views and child-centred education fits these. No matter that it is worse for inequality: in theory it is more equitable and so academics who are generally of the political left sign up in their droves.

But I’m now wondering if there’s another factor: an actual dislike of teachers. There have certainly been many scandals about how teachers in the recent past have behaved and most of us will be able to point to teachers with whom we still harbour a grievance.

If you dislike and distrust teachers then it seems natural to favour a child-centred approach over a teacher-led one: give those teachers as little power and influence as possible. It also explains why you might feel queasy about instructing teachers in behaviour management techniques. As I’ve noted before, the recent Carter review of teacher education in the UK stated:

“We have identified what appear to be potentially significant gaps in a range of courses in areas such as subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). We believe there may be a case for a better shared understanding of what the essential elements of good ITT content look like.”

If this is a factor behind the disavowal of teacher-led pedagogy then there seems something of a paradox. Yes, many education academics have never been teachers but we have to acknowledge that many others do come from teaching backgrounds.

Perhaps there’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome here. We have been captured and we have come to empathise with our captors. And this makes us a guilty profession, a profession of low self-esteem, a profession of self-loathing.

Perhaps it’s time to get up off our knees.

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6 Comments on “Teaching’s Stockholm Syndrome”

  1. TaraHoule says:

    Great thoughts Greg.

  2. Yes, this makes sense. If, as an academic, you “know” for certain that your ideas are both correct and virtuous, yet the evidence in the real world is that they aren’t working very well, then you need an explanation. And an obvious explanation is that it must be the fault of inept, lazy teachers, who just aren’t implementing your ideas properly.

    It’s the same kind of doctrinaire thinking that causes an education academic to conclude, when he observes a correlation between traditional teaching methods and good PISA results, that the explanation for those results has to be due to “culture”, instead of prompting him to reconsider his beliefs about traditional methods.

  3. David says:

    Hi Greg–A lot to unpack with regards to reasoning. I would suggest that it comes from the following list (region dependent):

    1. Deprofessionlalization of teachers. There is a strong sense (especially in the US) that anyone can teach, so teachers are not treated the same way as doctors or lawyers (with exceptions like Finland). Thus parents, policymakers and random wealthy people all feel they have the right to meddle in ways that doctors and lawyers don’t have to deal with.

    2. Education is easier to attack/manipulate than solving real problems of inequality and poverty. It’s the lazy policymaker’s way of looking like s/he is doing something useful.

    3. Ed schools stink. Most of the ed schools churn out individuals who are not passionate about their fields, but who know a lot about the latest ed fashions. Give me someone with an upper level degree in the field who lives and breathes history/math/science/literature any day over someone who thinks PBL solves everything.

    4. The Ed Tech Industrial Complex hates teachers. We just get in the way of the latest attempt by ed tech to foster student-centered free range learning. Teachers should be facilitators and tech custormer service agents (and paid accordingly). My favorite article to demonstrate this is by Terry Moe at Stanford’s Hoover Institution: http://www.hoover.org/research/has-ed-reform-failed

    5. Teachers hurt themselves by not doing their own research. Too many of us are not in touch with the available research to push back against the garbage thrown our way. We can’t rely on the prof dev that our admins make us sit through, as these are usually reinforcing the garbage.

    There’s more to add I’m sure, but these are the ones I see the most.

  4. Stan says:

    As a non teacher I’d add the following. Everyone has seen a lot of teachers at work. We have seen those who can do a great job and those that can’t and not seen much in the way of quality control. For students it is the luck of the draw whether they have a good or bad teacher.

    This starts with qualifications where teaching has a lower bar than many professions and continues with strong union protection for their members.

    You can see this quality range on social media too. There are those like Greg and others trying to add some valuable contribution to their common understanding of the issues. You see others who engage in everything from simply minded cheer leading to the equivalent of quack medicine.

    Compare what happened to Andrew Wakefield (of MMR fame) to what happens to the teachers inflicting clearly inferior teaching methods on their students. How many teachers do you know that are using proven inferior methods?

    Compare the slow process of bringing a new medical drug to widespread use to the way new ideas in education are allowed or encouraged to be tried.

    For many people teachers’ unions are not perceived as weak. Here in Ontario they have been quite effective in areas related to teachers pay and working conditions. Job and pay security, hours, what they can be asked to do, class sizes, contact time, and so on are all defended by unions. But where is the noise from teachers’ unions when one expert claims you don’t need to learn the tables or that testing is bad? They just don’t jump and say this is an untested theory and there is good evidence to suggest it is not a good idea.

    High school and elementary school teaching also suffers from the curse of knowledge when adults think back on their education. Adults recall the motivating teachers but don’t have a good idea of how valuable what they learned was. Those who go on to university will probably think they worked harder and learned a lot more at university than they did in high school. Looking back at elementary school they will have a hard time remembering why it took so long to learn to add and multiply. So people end up with pretty low expectations of what school will do for their children. The main concern will be the relative measure of qualifications to enter further study.

  5. I think you might be missing the point: child-centred education supporters aren’t prone to recognising achievement as a valid measure of their success. Neither that nor any other objective measure. Inequality of outcome? It’s not their fault but whole society’s, specifically it’s our fault, we dirty teachers who teach the whole class, explain, solve problems,… instruct, in short


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