No best way

I don’t write all that much about ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ education. I tend to focus more on specifics but I do recognise a real divide. Traditionalists believe in communal learning where a whole class works together under the direction of a teacher to meet clearly defined academic goals. Progressives see children as proto-consumers who must be offered choice and novelty with the goals of feeling good and being engaged as important – or perhaps more even important – than any clearly defined academic goal.

Paul Garvey is not keen on drawing such a distinction. Garvey is a vocal school inspector from England and he has recently claimed on Twitter that there is no best way to teach; that talk of a divide has been confected by those who identify as traditionalists; that real teachers deploy a range of methods to get the job done.

This argument reduces a teaching philosophy to a set of methods. But even if we take it on face value, it’s not clear that even Garvey believes there is no best way to teach. Let’s look at some of the reports he has written as a lead inspector:

“What does the school need to do to improve further?.. Improve attainment… by making the curriculum more creative, so that all pupils are fully engaged in their lessons…” [source]

“What does the school need to do to improve further?.. raise achievement… by developing the curriculum in Key Stages 1 and 2, so that it is flexible enough to provide personalised learning for all pupils.” [source]

“Teaching is good,with effective planning to meet the needs of different groups of pupils. However, in some of the teaching at Key Stage 2, a minority of lessons have too great an element of teacher direction.” [source]

I could go on. It is clear that Garvey has strong opinions on better and worse ways of teaching and he is entitled to those opinions, even if we may disagree with them being imposed on schools via an inspectorate.

I happen to have different views to Garvey and I wish to express those views. Is that alright?

Perhaps not, according to another UK educationalist, Sue Cowley. In a recent blog post, she has come out against ‘debate’, implying that it is the decadent fancy of those who were educated at private schools. Cowley is, “not convinced it is a viable way to talk about something as complex as education.”

So what are we to do? I don’t think I ever set-out with the aim of having a debate. I write blog posts where I outline what I think. Sometimes I agree with ideas and sometimes I don’t. People occasionally contact me to tell me that they’ve found my posts helpful. Often people disagree with me. Sometimes I argue back. Sometimes I don’t. I frequently learn something. Which all seems fine to me. What’s the problem?

I think the world of education would be much poorer if we denied our differences and sought to stifle debate. We would not be able to challenge the kinds of orthodoxies expressed in Garvey’s reports. Who would that benefit? Sounds a bit dystopian to me.


10 Comments on “No best way”

  1. teachwell says:

    In a communist utopia there will be no debate – you forget it’s political too Greg.

  2. Great post there Greg, except for the bit where you linked to the Cowley post. Thanks for making me read the most “convoluted”, “and” weird post “where” she debates her “reason” for not getting into a “debate” at the “same time” as clearly stating “she” would join in “via” trying to “prove” someone “wrong”. “and”

  3. Stan says:

    I think the people you are referring to hear have confused the words debate and disagree. What they want is for people not to disagree with them.

    Lovely examples of incoherence though. Garvey argues against a false dichotomy using the false dichotomy of either you have one best way or you should give up talking about it.

  4. Iain Murphy says:

    I’m confused Greg are you debating about whether you are allowed to debate?

    Are you asking if you are allowed to express an opinion in your own space?


    Whether you want to disagree with Garvey while taking a passing swing at Sue?

    Good LoL either way.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    talk of a divide has been confected by those who identify as traditionalists; that real teachers deploy a range of methods to get the job done.

    If moved to other spheres, this line of thinking would be shown to be drivel.

    All football coaches train the same skills, and play the same positions on the field, with only very minor variations. They run the same drills at practice. Therefore there must be no difference between those that train for very structured games, where everyone knows exactly what to do and when, and those that ask their players to play a free flowing game with few set moves or patterns. No?

    I might add that if you try to play an unstructured game with novices you get terrible results. Learning players need as much structure as possible. Just because the already expert can get away with minimal coaching doesn’t mean it is suitable for everyone.

  6. […] is that they are still subject to the English schools inspectorate, Ofsted. Ofsted inspectors have demonstrated clear views about teaching and marking and these don’t align with Michaela’s approach. So they could still be […]

  7. […] are the English schools inspectorate. Back in the naughties, they used to go around telling schools that their lessons needed to involve more personalised learning and have less teacher talk. But […]

  8. I’ve just joined twitter and tentatively followed someone who is veering towards traditionalism. Then, horror of horrors, Cowley’s name came up as a suggestion for me to follow. I quickly unfollowed the original person! I can’t have her face showing up on my screen. Cowley reminds me of some of the mediocre teachers that my children have had – they say a lot but don’t say anything meaningful at all.

  9. Brian says:

    I think this blopost illustrates quite well why Sue Cowley and many others are becoming disillusioned with discussion both on twitter and in the blogersphere.

    I don’t know Sue and have only ever discussed education with her when I told her that I didn’t like one of her books and found the advice given less than helpful. I have back tracked on that view to some extent but that is not really important, I just wanted to make the point that I am not a friend or colleague of Sue.

    You have suggested that she was “implying that it is the decadent fancy of those who were educated at private schools.”

    I think she was quite explicit. I believe she gave what she understands to be the meaning of the term “debate” and gave some context. Sue explained quite clearly that she is uneasy with an approach where one twit/blogger makes a statement inviting others to take the polar opposite position and then following an exchange of statements one of the positions is proved to be correct and the other incorrect.

    Sue gave a number of examples including the use of groupwork. Twit (person who frequents twitter) number 1 says “groupwork is rubbish”, twit number 2 says “I have used groupwork” successfully in some contexts but twit number 1 is not listening, because “listening” isn’t their thing. Twit number 1 simply repeats the mantra “groupwork is rubbish” until twit number 2 disengages. Twit number 1 then says “that’s the trouble with you people, you are scared of debate”.

    Twit number 1 is often obsessed with “the truth” and is convinced that there is always a position that represents reality better than other positions. Twit number 1 is on a mission to batter the “opposition” into submission and is unable to comprehend why twit number 2 cannot see “the truth”. Twit number one is all knowing of the truth.

    I believe Sue was simply explaining that taking 2 diametrically opposing views, putting forward arguments and then declaring one or the other the winner is often a bit pointless when “the truth” is more nuanced and complex. “The truth” is often more complex when dealing with issues related to human beings and expecially when considering the human brain and human behaviour.

    I don’t believe Sue suggested that you have ever set out to interact with others in this way, but it will be clear to some who frequent the twittersphere/bloggersphere that there are some who adopt precisely this approach to many issues.

    I believe Sue makes a very good point about the way in which some interact. Eric Berne wrote what for me were some interesting ideas with his “Games people Play” series of books. Some twits demonstrate a propensity to play some of the games described in his books and this seems to me to get in the way of meanigful discussion.

    Suggesting that Sue wishes to somehow stifle discussion could not be further from the truth in my experience. I feel that when you suggest that this is the case, you misrepresent what she says thus adding weight to her argument.

    Debating on twitter to identify the absolute truths about education is for me an approach is often adopted by advocates of “there is one best way that operates in the best interests of the population often at the expense of the individual”. I believe Sue like me feels that the population is better served by treating each member as an individual. In my world, the “truth” of the population are of little use and debate to identify the “truth” is a bit pointless.

    I do not in any way wish to close down discussion and illumination of issues and my decision not to engage in “debate” with twit number 1 should not be seen as evidence of such. I prefer to engage in useful discussion that leads to progress. I believe Sue was saying that she holds similar views on the subject.

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