No best way

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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.

Update April 2017: I understand that Paul Garvey is no longer an Ofsted inspector

44 thoughts on “No best way

  1. 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”

  2. Greg,
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. So you don’t think Sue has problems of tarring everyone with the same brush, not knowing the difference between a formal debate and the act of debating with others, using a strawman when according to her there are actual examples that could be quoted?

      Sue also doesn’t help her case by going out of the way to state she will take the opposite view no matter how well someone has made their point. Isn’t that doing exactly what she claims she doesn’t like on twitter?

      Would you find fault or debate with someone who said treating everyone as an individual is not without cost and that at times it can be better to treat most people the same way because we will treat them better than we can could if we expended the effort to differentiate correctly?

  7. The blog is defamatory and posting libel via social media (The writer has linked to this blog post on Twitter), or anywhere else, can have consequences.

    I have *never* in any of my many inspections transferred any bias (I have none, regarding teaching methods, have developed the hashtag #nobestwayoverall which supports that and I support ‘Trad’ teaching, in context. There is valuable methodology in ‘trad’.) into any inspection I ever led, or in which I was a team member. This is simply a personal attack to support the writer’s belief that Ofsted inspectors transfer anti-‘trad’ views to inspection and he’s picked on me to try to illustrate that, as I don’t believe ‘Trad’ is the best way overall.

    I would like this blog to be removed. If the author would like to contact me by email, or by DM on Twitter, we can sort this amicably; or he can delete the blog.

    Paul Garvey

    1. As I understand it, for something to be libel it has to be a false statement. Is there any specific statement in the blog above that is false or are you referring to something that wouldn’t normally be considered libel?

      1. In that case, there will be consequences for you, as I will pursue this. You would be much more sensible to contact me first by email. I note you have blocked me on Twitter – the typical response of someone who is simply not up to the very public argument you started with this blog. Your blog clearly implies that I have I have transferred my opinions to my inspections. That is a lie and something you have no evidence for. I most certainly did not. Ever.

    2. Hell’s bells, this post is country miles away from libel of any sort. Methinks someone ought to grow a skin or two.

      1. It is not in any way acceptable forcan dducationalist to behave in the way Ashman has. I’m sure he would never do this either on a social situation, or most certainly on a classroom. No teacher would ever allow pupils to behave on this way – lying and launching highly personal attacks on another pupil, before running away before they face the music (blocking). However, on his blog, Ashman feels he can say anything and anyone is fair game, as long as it promotes his views.

        Now. My olive branch of contact by email is still open.

      2. Actually I think walking away – and on twitter blocking is exactly what a good parent or teacher would recommend when someone is being verbally annoying. It’s not like Greg didn’t allow any response. He just walked away when the response started being repetitive.

  8. Unbelievable that this foul little personal attack still stays on this website. It is defamatory, it is pure lies and it is utterly alien to anything that should be posted by a so-called educationalist that has taught children. How can anyone believe that ‘trad’ philosophy can have influence when they see this.

    Have you been contacted yet, Greg?

  9. Just thought I’d Check and Mr. Ashman still has this defamatory attack on his website. Unfortunately, with him living in Australia, there is effectively no action that I can take. The man can thus say whatever he wishes about anyone in the UK, safe in the knowledge that no-one can take him to task.

    Good luck Mr. Ashman. I hope, with an attitude like yours, that you are successful in your promotion of whatever you believe in. Most would find your attitude utterly foul and turn away.

  10. What I find disturbing is the fact that there is now clearly somebody who feels genuinely upset and hurt by what he perceives as accusations, and that the approach taken to him seems to be mocking and defiant. Nobody ends up looking good this way.

    Paul Garvey may be responding to these accusations in an emotional manner – that’s quite understandable if he feels that he is being publicly lambasted over things that he doesn’t believe to be true. To be honest, my sympathies go out to him.

    Greg Ashman is also right to say that these documents are public documents. And seen from a non-involved (and thus less emotional) perspective, Greg makes a reasonable point – the comments selected (which I would attribute to OFSTED rather than any individual), do seem to indicate a preference for a particular approach to teaching…and this is an approach which may be prejudiced against the teaching approaches of others.

    I would hope that Greg would act to calm the situation down by meeting Paul halfway. I feel sorry for Paul who is suffering what many people know is particularly unpleasant – the sense of being humiliated in public- and I think that given this feeling, it is only human to react emotionally, and only humane to seek to rectify the hurt caused.

    What a shame that we are limited to adversarial antagonism in this potentially fascinating debate; there exist other genres that would allow for much better consideration of the merits of either side – we’ve seen the sort of Open Conversation articles that would be really valuable and allow both sides to be represented without either side feeling censored, pilloried or attacked. I hope that Greg gives Paul’s feelings some thought.

      1. I appreciate that, Greg. I wonder though if it is less a question of providing a place to speak and more a question of showing that you (and others) are listening? I’m not sure if my nuance is immediately obvious! But we get frustrated and angry when we feel that we are not being heard and that we are being misrepresented. One/The way to allow those feelings to subside is to show the person that you are listening to them.

        Paul seems to be saying, “I am hurt by your accusations that I am unprofessional and biased.” You and Andrew seem to be saying, “Well…where’s the lie?” This isn’t listening; it’s digging in. The end result is that the trenches get excavated and the bullets fly.

        I actually don’t see that your post was particularly aggressive or particularly personal. I can see the point you’re making…but then again, you’re not making it about me! The main point I think I am trying to make is that there is a really valuable discussion here – what can you do when you teach outside the orthodoxy and your methods seem to work? But that is being lost by the adversarial nature of the debate. It’s a pity.

      2. I agree that nobody should acquiesce to bullying. I’m not saying that though. I’m suggesting that it might be more productive to overlook Paul’s emotional response and see if a worthwhile debate can be salvaged.

      3. We got to this point entirely because he doesn’t want to debate his views. As far as he’s concerned there is nothing to debate as there is no best way and he’s willing to accuse people of lying if they dare point out that he’s taken a side. How can we go from that, to a debate?

  11. As things stand, I agree that a debate is impossible. It’s a pity. It would be an interesting debate to read.

    1. “It would be an interesting debate to read.”

      Wasn’t that the whole point of the article?

      The debate could have started with a reason why “making the curriculum more creative” improves attainment, or maybe a reason why “personalised learning for all pupils” raises achievement or why “too great an element of teacher direction” belongs in a sentence with the word “However” in it.

      Maybe Paul could have responded with inspections where “‘Trad’ teaching, in context” was praised and highlighted as a good thing. This may backed up his #nobestway idea.

      As it is, there was no debate.

      All we got was threats of libel and “wheels are turning” bluster.

      “The man can thus say whatever he wishes about anyone in the UK, safe in the knowledge that no-one can take him to task.”

      If the only way Mr. Garvey believes anyone can be “taken to task” is by legal action, then his ideas aren’t worth a damn.

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