The beautiful simplicity of saying what you believe to be true

Deans for Impact have released a blog post that is intended help learning scientists influence education. As with many publications by Deans for Impact, it seems to have been well received. However, I always react badly to pieces that position the authors as the adults in the room and my problem with this article runs deeper still. I am going to have to dissent.

I am, of course, sympathetic to the aim of convincing teachers that learning styles are a myth. However, I feel much the same about the Deans for Impact post as I do about this piece, the aims of which I certainly do not share. So what is my issue?

I don’t believe that proponents of evidence-based education should be in the business of consciously trying to spin concepts in order to manipulate their readers. At a basic level, it is wrong because it treats the intended audience with something between disrespect and paternalism.

And I think there are important practical consequences. The authors of the Deans for Impact article seem to think that the polarisation of American politics has been driven by people expressing frank opinions that challenge the identity of others. I’m not so sure. A key component is the rise of relativism – my truth versus your truth, your facts versus my alternative facts – and this has flourished in a culture of PR and spin.

When people realise that experts and politicians are trying to manipulate them then they react against that and they stop trusting them. In a world where everything is spun, everything is spin and we are free to pick the truth that suits us.

The best way that learning scientists can serve the broader interests of education is to communicate what they believe to be true in as clear and lucid a manner as possible. People respect honesty and honesty builds trust. The conscious manipulation of others is the domain of self-help books for unsuccessful business people. That’s where it should stay.


King Tut had a very big butt

Today was the penultimate day of term. We’re all a little tired in our house so we decided to go out to the Buninyong pub for dinner. We took activities with us for the girls to complete. At this age, they tend to like a pen and paper so they can write or draw.

Unprompted, our youngest daughter who is in Grade 1 wrote ‘Tutankhamun’ and ‘Howard Carter’ on her piece of paper. So I thought I would contribute.

“I know about these guys,” I said. “King Tut had a very big butt and Howard Carter was a stinky farter.”

“Daddy!” My daughter exclaimed, disapprovingly, “That’s not what we were taught.”

She went on to outline how Howard Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and described the number of doors he had to get through. She then explained that Tutankhamun’s father had moved the Egyptian capital and made everyone worship only one god but that Tutankhamun had restored the old ways and many gods. She seemed particularly taken with the idea that Tutankhamun had ascended the throne at only nine years of age.

We had an interesting discussion about grave goods. My daughter thought it was wrong to take them away given that Tutankhamun believed that he needed them for the afterlife.

I know that my daughter has been studying Tutankhamun at school. I know this is part of my school’s core knowledge agenda and I know that she otherwise would not have had this experience.

Her interest in ancient Egypt appears to refute a common idea: that children can only be engaged by the immediate; by contexts that they know a lot about through personal experience. This is simply not true. Children have a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for ideas. They can imagine themselves into ancient Egypt as easily as they can imagine themselves into Narnia. We underestimate them when we assume that they cannot and, in the process, we obscure the jewels of civilisation from their view.


Blogging and Australian law

The post below is not intended to constitute legal advice. If you are intending to take legal action or respond to legal action then you should seek advice from a suitably qualified lawyer.

These days, Twitter and blogging seem to have become increasingly litigious. I have had a couple of people mention legal action in response to my posts. For instance, in a blog about me, David Price OBE wrote that he was ‘investigating the potential for defamation‘ before, ironically, launching a crude personal attack. And Paul Garvey mentions defamation in the comments on a post of mine where I refer to Ofsted reports that he co-authored. Other bloggers and tweeters have been subjected to similar responses. Those mentioning legal action invariably come from the educational establishment and appear to hold broadly progressive views about education.

It is interesting to speculate on the rise of this new phenomenon; one that often comes hand-in-hand with complaints to bloggers’ employers or university departments. It may not be fashionable in today’s climate, but I am broadly in favour of free speech. There are limits, but we should always err on the side of allowing people to voice their opinions. After all, we have fought long and hard for the right to express a dissenting view. I don’t care for some of the posts that people write about me and I sometimes believe that I have been misrepresented. However, I accept this is part of having a profile on social media.

So what do Australian bloggers need to be aware of when composing their posts? I have found an excellent resource that has helped me to understand the law as it stands in Australia. It is produced by the Fitzroy Legal Service, a community legal group based in Victoria. Defamation law is uniform across Australia and so it should also provide a good guide in other states.

Firstly, Twitter and blogging certainly appear to be covered by defamation law. Defamation is anything that lowers a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of the community, or causes the person to be ridiculed, avoided or despised by members of the general public. Note that it does not matter what an author intended when writing a post, it matters what a reasonable person would interpret that post to mean. So ambiguity is not much of a defence. Neither is talking in a kind of coded way that at least some of the people reading the post will understand.

This seems pretty broad. Potentially, any criticism could be argued to lower a person’s reputation. In education, we might find ourselves criticising an idea that a consultant is earning a living from. So there is a danger here.

However, there are a number of defences for defamation. For instance, truth is a complete defence to defamation actions. Unfortunately, the law reverses the usual burden of proof in defamation cases – the defendant has to prove the claim true rather than the plaintiff being required to prove it false. So it is always worth having documentary evidence for the points that you claim. Note that people often delete posts and tweets that become contentious so you should take a screenshot or make a copy if you intend to make claims on the basis of them.

The defence of privilege does not seem to be open to bloggers. However, the defence of ‘fair comment’ is probably more applicable. This covers opinions that are honestly held – although not necessarily ‘fair’ – and that pertain to matters of public interest. To defeat this defence, a Plaintiff could prove that the defendant’s motives in expressing the opinion were malicious and that the opinion was not honestly held.

I am not a lawyer but I personally doubt whether there are many education bloggers out there making genuinely defamatory statements that are not covered by the defences above. I suspect that a lot of what we are seeing is a reaction from people who are simply unused to criticism. However, it is possible that an aggrieved party might instruct a lawyer to draft a letter in response to a post or tweet, even if the case for defamation is not completely sound. Such letters are likely to be scary to receive and responding to them through your own lawyer can be an expensive business.

My approach is to express opinions honestly on matters of fact and to avoid personal attacks. Whether it protects me or not, it is a morally defensible position to hold.


Detentions don’t work

It was probably around 2005. I was driving to work in London listening to news on the car radio. They were running a piece on Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and, as it progressed, I became irritated. 

ASBOs were effectively restraining orders sought by local authorities and issued by the courts. They forbade those subjected to them of committing certain acts on the basis that these were antisocial. ASBOs were issued for things such as vandalism or abusive behaviour.

ASBOs attracted a great deal of criticism, much of it justified, but I was baffled by the argument I was hearing on the radio. Apparently, ASBOs did not ‘work’ because around 60% were breached. This appeared to be accepted uncritically by the presenters.

If the 60% figure was true, I did not think this conclusion was justified. It seemed that in 40% of cases, ASBOs were successful in halting the targeted behaviour. I don’t expect miracle cures for human behaviour and so this seemed pretty effective to me.

I get a similar feeling when someone gestures towards a real or notional detention hall and says, “Detentions don’t work. Look, it’s the same kids in here week after week.”

There are two important points to make. Firstly, in considering kids who are already in detention, we are selecting on the dependent variable. If detentions are intended to have a deterrent effect then we have no way of knowing how many students are not there because they were deterred. To attempt to answer this question, we would need to investigate the effect of detentions on the whole school population, not just those in detention.

The second point is that we should not have the same students in detention every week. Something else needs to kick in at this stage; a new layer of intervention. This could be punitive, such as a day in isolation, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes explicit teaching of organisational or anger management strategies might be the best way forward. Sometimes parental involvement may help. For instance, I’ve asked parents to shadow their child for a day, especially if I think the child is presenting a distorted picture of the school to his or her parents. Sometimes, there are managerial options around seating arrangements or where students eat lunch that can stop problems before they arise.

And all of this needs to sit within an overarching philosophy. You may not care for Michaela Community School’s pyramid of behaviour – being ‘top of the pyramid’ is when you behave well because it is ‘who I am’ – but a model like this provides a common reference and common language for a school community.

If you are looking for a one-size-fits-all miracle cure for all human behaviour then no, detentions don’t work. However, as part of a thoughtful and strategic approach to managing whole-school behaviour then they can certainly have a part to play.


What will be the greatest impact of Australia’s new education bill?

This week, Pauline Hanson stood up in the Australian Senate and expressed an ill-informed opinion about the inclusion of kids with autistic spectrum disorders in regular classrooms. This is nothing new. Hanson has form for all sorts of wacky views such as the ones she has expressed on vaccines.

Hanson is the leader of One Nation; a fringe right-wing populist party. She’s like a female version of Donald Trump but without the intellectual grunt. While some commentators have calmly and proportionately rebutted her claims, others have been whipped-up into a feeding frenzy. This is unfortunate because an attack on Hanson by the establishment is only likely to increase her profile among those who would consider voting for her. Hanson is trolling us.

The context for Hanson’s remarks was a debate about a new funding deal for Australian schools; a bill that has now passed the parliament. The deal is complicated because Australian schools are supported through a mix of federal and state funding. In addition, federal government also funds a proportion of the costs of  non-government schools. This reduces fees so that, for instance, regular families are able to send their children to catholic schools. So although it’s a contentious arrangement, no politician is going to throw away votes by removing this support.

The new deal increases funding overall while cutting the amount going to some non-government schools. The system will be simplified to a needs-based model that supersedes the mess of separate deals that currently exist. The Labor opposition have criticised the deal mainly on the basis that they would have spent more money. 

This all provides plenty of fodder for policy wonks with big calculators. However, potentially the most significant long-term impact of the new deal has hardly had an airing this week.

Simon Birmingham, the education minister, wants to ensure that any extra funding improves outcomes. He seems frustrated with an Australian context of increasing educational expenditure coupled with the kind of declining performance that can be seen in the results of international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS.

Later this year, a review will commence into the best (and worst) ways to spend money in the education system. I am hopeful that this will be driven by evidence rather than educational theory. If so, this could represent a quiet revolution. We might be able to move on from balanced literacy, constructivism and the project-based learning fad in favour of teaching methods that actually work. Let’s hope so.


Is Australia better at teaching English than the English?

I was intrigued when I saw the headline, ‘Australia better at teaching English than the English’ in an article for the West Australian. You might be intrigued too.

You might be wondering how such a judgement could be made. You might think that the researcher in question, Paul Gardner, had his hands on literacy assessment data from both countries. You may further imagine some kind of statistical analysis demonstrating that any differences were down to the teaching and not other factors. You might expect this analysis to be contentious and open to discussion.

What are you, a POSITIVIST!!??

You need to free your mind from always asking for ‘evidence’ and ‘data’ and be more respectful of research. Go read Biesta or someone like that and you’ll see why. It’s not up to me to educate you. Suffice it to say that education is far more complex than healthcare because it involves human beings and so you can’t use positivist paradigms based on deficit thinking. 

No, Gardner came to his conclusion by reading the curriculum documentation of the two countries. Having done so, he reckoned that the Australian curriculum documentation was better.

This is all solidly based in theory. Gardner conducted a ‘discourse and content analysis’. He applied ‘Cox’s five models of English’ and ‘Kalantzis et. al’s four paradigms of literacy’. In doing so, Gardner found that the curriculum in England is really narrow and didactic whereas the Australian one includes broader sociolinguistic views of language. Which obviously means it’s better.

And this, of course, is why we shouldn’t have a phonics check in Australia like they do in England.

So now you know.


Draft programme released for researchED Melbourne 2017

A draft programme has been released for the researchED Melbourne conference taking place on Saturday 1st July at Brighton grammar. As if to prove the point that researchED is a grassroots, shoestring initiative, there are still a few typos, including in the blurb for my talk:

Programme

If you would like to purchase a ticket then you can do so here:

Purchase tickets

I will be discussing the history of education. In particular, I will propose that educational ideas that are presented as shiny and new are often nothing of the sort and have a rich lineage. Moreover, many of these ideas have been proven wrong repeatedly by successive generations and are inconsistent with up-to-date understandings of cognition.

If you want to get a feel for my arguments then read this post.

I love that researchED is a conference organised by teachers, for teachers. As such, it feels different from conferences run by academics or commercial interests. I value conferences about education organised by any interested group but I do believe that researchED adds something a little different and special, particularly in the mix of teachers, academics and policy specialists that it manages to attract. If you’re familiar with traditional education conferences then you might hear something at researchED that surprises you.