The reasonable ones

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I’ve only ever walked out of one interview. It was for the position of Deputy Headteacher at a school in the U.K. The school had arranged a number of tasks for candidates to complete. First, I was to spend an hour analysing some data from the Fischer Family Trust. Then I took part in what was billed as, “A discussion with the Headteacher on a topic of his choice.”

He wanted to talk about ability grouping. I was not as familiar with education research as I am now but I did know a little about this topic, having reviewed it for my school. Analyses of the effects of ability grouping show either zero effect or a pattern where highly able students do slightly better and less able students do slightly worse. However, there is a lot of detail sitting beneath this broad brush-stroke. For instance, I knew of schools where the head of department somehow ended-up with the high groups and new or temporary staff had the low groups. These kinds of practices could skew the results of reviews.

The headteacher said that he was against ability grouping and asked me how I would respond to a head of department who wanted to maintain the practice. So I tried unpacking the issue. I said I would talk to the head of department and ask exactly what they proposed: How would the groups be determined? Who would teach them? This was the wrong response. To this headteacher, ability groups were morally indefensible. If he were to write about his position on the matter then it would involve numerous exclamation marks.

After that session, I decided that continuing with the interview was a little pointless and so I went back to school to teach the rest of the day’s classes.

The incident made me realise that I am a pragmatist. I held no ideological views about ability groups and I was willing to be persuaded either way. I could weigh different opinions and appreciate the complexity.

This is why it surprises me when I find myself painted as a kind of extremist on social media. I am, apparently, right-wing for holding the views about education that I hold. I can see where this argument comes from because a certain brand of romantic, child-centered education has become associated with an affluent, latte-sipping, new-age, metropolitan incarnation of modern left-wing politics. But that’s just guilt by association. A reasoned look at the evidence suggests that social justice is best served by other methods. And it is these methods that I seek to publicise.

I’m not necessarily wrong just because I happen to be outside the mainstream of educational thinking. To assume so would be to accept that crowds are always correct; that sheep are right to follow. Sometimes it is the mob who have fallen to extremism and the dissidents who represent the voice of moderation.

So who are the ideologues? Is it those who question the orthodoxy or is it those who derive teaching methods from an amorphous ‘theory’ and who, when asked for evidence to support these methods, accuse their questioners of ‘positivism’?

Are the ideologues the ones who think that centrally managed detention systems are a fairly mainstream response to an administrative issue or are they the ones who call ‘fascist!’ and ‘nazi!’ at their very mention?

Are the ideologues the ones who see classroom management as a key problem that needs to be tackled by a number of means, including the use of behaviour management strategies, or are they the ones who believe in the magical notion that all classroom management problems would cease if only we all adopted ‘constructivist pedagogies’?

I’ll leave that for you to decide.


5 thoughts on “The reasonable ones

  1. “A reasoned look at the evidence suggests that social justice is best served by other methods.”
    Can you point me to some of the evidence?

    1. Where to start? There’s lots because explicit teaching gives students everything they need in order to complete a task and child-centred methods rely more on a student’s own resources, meaning that advantaged children thrive more. See the evidence for explicit teaching of phonics (there are three national reviews from the U.S., U.K. and Australia as well as this one they focuses specifically on reading difficulties:

      There’s this nicely designed experiment on the best way to remediate maths difficulties:

      At the cognitive science level, it’s worth looking at the worked example effect and the expertise reversal effect for a causal explanation.

      And I’ll just throw in the recent RCT of project based learning. It seemed to harm kids eligible for free school meals although this is not conclusive due to the large number of schools that dropped out of PBL during the course of the study:

  2. It’s not just questioning the unassailable mixed-ability orthodoxy that gets you that kind of reaction. If you suggest that discipline plays a key role in allowing kids to learn, if you suggest that subject knowledge matters a good deal more than amorphous “skills”, that phonics is perhaps the best method for teaching reading, etc., you can immediately be assailed with the usual cries of “fascist”, “right-wing ideologue”, “Prussian”, etc.

    And actually I don’t think anything has been more influential in generating that kind of reaction than Ken Robinson’s famous (and puerile) TED talk of a decade or so ago. Mushy progressivist rhetoric delivered by a suave luvvie is just irresistible to most people.

    1. Yes having just watched ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ and that 60 minutes story the other night. The narrative that public schooling was all about making factory workers is very prevalent.

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