I am one of education’s debunkers. I challenge arguments and research. I don’t just restrict myself to obvious targets such as learning styles, I question a whole range of claims, observations and experimental designs.
Yet I don’t sit aloof. Everyone has an agenda and it’s transparent what my agenda is.
I advocate for access to a rich, unashamedly academic curriculum for all students. I advocate for explicit teaching. And let me be clear about this; I don’t mean that all of every lesson should involve a teacher stood at the front of the room explaining and asking questions. I do mean that new concepts are fully explained to novice learners from the outset and that there is then a gradual release from teacher-directed to independent work. I value students being able to tackle complex problems on their own. The subjects I teach, mathematical methods and physics, have VCE exams which always involve novel questions of a form that students will not have experienced before and so the ability to tackle such problems is the goal of my teaching.
I see a pivot point about which explicit teaching and alternatives such as inquiry learning turn in different directions. That pivot point is roughly the first, everyday explanation of a phenomenon that a teacher can articulate. Alternatives to explicit teaching will deliberately miss out some or all of this explanation. Explicit teaching will add to it, breaking it down further; including the why and addressing the common misconceptions and errors.
I don’t have such strong views on schools structures. I want more schools that give ordinary kids access to a rich academic curriculum and explicit teaching but I can’t honestly say I am certain of the best way of achieving this. Recently, I have become more convinced that models like Charter Schools in the U.S. and Free Schools in the U.K. are the best chance because they relax the control of central bureaucracies that tend to disapprove of the schools I want to see. Only a small number of schools of this type emerge under these structures, but this does give them the chance to prove the principle and so influence other schools in the system.
More broadly, I am socially liberal and politically left-of-centre. I would be inclined to nationalise monopolies such as water and electricity utilities. But I won’t go toe-to-toe in an argument with you about this because I don’t know as much about the issue as I know about education.
So that’s where I stand. It should be familiar to anyone who regularly reads my blog because I’ve written all of this before.
Yet there are some debunkers, some critics, who won’t make it clear where they stand. It’s not transparent what they are advocating. We see this whenever the term ‘progressive education’ comes up. People try to deny it is a thing, despite its long, well-documented history. Why?
I think there are a number of reasons why people try to obscure their agendas. Firstly, it is human to think that other people are ideological and doctrinaire whereas you are balanced and can see all sides of the argument. However, if I can name the ideology that you subscribe to then this undermines that view. It’s the power held in a name, if you will.
Secondly, I think some people believe that it is a sign of intelligence to be nuanced and to point to the incomplete nature of any models that others propose. But models are models. By nature they are incomplete abstractions. So although at best this kind of critique can shed new light on a subject, at worst it is an irrelevant parlour game.
Thirdly, obscuring your own view is a good strategy for winning arguments. The socratic questioner does not have a position that can be refuted, creating a power imbalance. After all, you can keep asking, ‘why,’ until it’s just turtles all the way down.
Finally, some people may have a view, but it might not be based on much or it might not be very well supported with evidence. So they hold back, like I would with an argument about nationalisation. However, I can’t imagine myself then becoming involved in the minutiae of a debate about the subject. If anything, I would watch and learn.
I am not convinced that anyone is entirely neutral. Even in ignorance we have a preference. This is why we have science and the scientific method. It doesn’t stop scientists from having human biases; you can’t. But the scientific process is bigger than any scientist and, when it is working properly, involves checks and balances that should mean we edge ever closer to the truth. We should treat debate in a similar way. The teaching community is not generally made-up of scientists but we should see our debates as having a similar aim. I am probably wrong in many of the positions that I take but in order to refute them you need a better argument. That moves us all forward, if slowly.
Here is what I suggest. When you next find yourself arguing with someone whose own position is obscure then ask them outright what they advocate. They can put it in their own words and don’t have to accept someone else’s labels. Let them define what they believe. If the terms are very general then ask for specifics; ‘So what precisely do you mean when you say you are in favour of inclusion? How is an inclusive school different to one that is not?’ Establishing people’s positions serves the wider discussion. It aids clarity, letting us know which options are being compared.
And if you can’t get a straight answer then that’s probably a sign that genuine discussion is not going to happen.