Speaking out

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I recently met someone with a senior role in Australian education. As is often the case when talking to someone for the first time, the discussion began with potted biographies. I explained that I had worked in comprehensive schools in London but when I moved to Australia I struggled to find work in government schools and so I took a post at an independent school. “You probably would not be able to write what you write if you were in a government school,” came the response.

I have been aware for some time that there are restrictions, both formal and informal, on what teachers are allowed to say in public. Government school teachers from New South Wales have told me that they are prohibited from writing anything controversial about education policy. Yet it is teachers at the chalk-face who are best able to comment on the practical effects of policy decisions.

On the other hand, academics are protected by academic freedom. And the kind of freelance talking heads who run training events and offer consultancy advice to schools are able to advance their arguments with little restriction. The imbalance in freedom of expression between teachers and those who see their role as that of telling teachers what to do is one that is unhealthy for the state of the education debate.

Yet it is also clear that some people are working hard to maintain this imbalance.

Witness the reaction to researchED, the movement that organises conferences across the world. ResearchED ostensibly threatens nobody. If you think it focuses on the wrong things or selects the wrong speakers then there is nothing stopping you from creating and promoting your own event. Who knows; hit the right tone and it might gain traction.

At the moment, people are throwing anything and everything they can at researchED. It’s ugly stuff and it makes me wonder about the motivation for it. I can’t help but notice that one recurring theme in the criticism is that researchED gives a platform for teachers as well as researchers. We shouldn’t be hearing from teachers, it is claimed. They are, ‘amateur psychologists,’ who are not expert enough to interpret the research evidence for other teachers. This is very telling. It’s fine for teachers to connect online to share resources, but anything more sophisticated should be left to the true experts.

And these attempts at silencing play out in lots of small ways. When I used to blog under a pseudonym, there was a whole group of people working to expose me, presumably because they thought I was a government school teacher and exposure would shut me up. We have seen similar behaviour in the U.K. where teacher bloggers who quite legitimately challenge the status quo find themselves threatened with legal action. Nobody is condoning the kinds of vicious personal attacks that we sometimes see on social media but to try to shut down fair comment is an attack on democratic principles.

The lack of freedom of expression for teachers is the main reason why we can’t have nice things. It is why we don’t enjoy the same professional status as doctors, lawyers and engineers. Nobody would find it odd for a surgeon to read the appropriate research, complete a heart operation and then give a presentation about this at a conference. Medical professionals are able to move seamlessly between research and practice in a way that teachers are not. All power to researchED for trying to make this a feature of our profession too.

So how and why has this situation arisen? Why is there a need to silence teachers? I think it is as simple as this: Education experts believe in absurd things. They promote notions about behaviour management that simply don’t work. They encourage the use of impractical teaching practices and policies based on eccentric ideologies and yet they present these as accepted ‘best practice’. Teachers can see the effects in the classroom. They live in the absurdity and so they must be prevented from giving their testimony.


18 thoughts on “Speaking out

  1. I’ve criticised rED for lack of rigour in research presented. The ‘research’ in question was what the teachers had read about and experienced. No problem with that being presented at a conference, but needs to be subject to rigorous critique if we’re to avoid reinventing the wheel.

    • There isn’t just one piece of research presented in all talks. It is wide-ranging. Unless you can specify what it is, and your objections to it – this is just not a reflection on rED so much as your own limited take on it.

      As for rigorous critique. Agree it’is important and no is stopping anyone from making it, either at the conferences or after. However, your comment doesn’t constitute this either.

      • My objection was that it wasn’t really research. It was teachers’ reading and experience. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it looked like anyone could say anything vaguely of interest and there appeared to be no robust scrutiny of what they said, either before (when submitting their proposal) or during the sessions. Critiquing after the conference doesn’t help people listening to the speaker.

  2. Stephen says:

    Ok teachers might be getting gagged.

    So are academics. I was handed out breach of academic code of conduct for sending out an email to my academic colleagues in my intuition deploring the state of assessment in mathematics teacher ed programs. The justification used was “non- compliance with IT protocol” or something like that. Later a journo published some of my data on primary school trainee teacher’s knowledge. The drama, meetings and demands that incurred cost me weeks of work and a lot of sleep. None of it was pleasant. Try getting funding or even ethical approval for a research project that questions the current methods of teacher preparation. You have to be very careful with the way it is phrased. I can see that within the university there is strong incentive to present a very positive and cheerful face in order to compete in a neo-liberal quasi enterprise market place.

    Probably the most disappointing censorship happens at the publication level. I think it is much harder to publish in mathematics teacher education journals if your views fall outside of the consensus. Saying something like “maths teachers need to be taught the maths they will be teaching, as well as how to teach it at teacher training institutions” can get you in trouble and not published.

    Maybe if you are a teacher you can get sacked for speaking out. Maybe it is harder to sack an academic unless he/she falls down in some other way, but the pressure to conform is definitely on. Put it this way, valuing diversity of thought is not held in high regard if it threatens the self-interest of those in authority or their perception of what is good for their institution. So, we all have to be cautious.

    Here is a little example. I am trying to get a paper on middle school teacher training and had some data from China (n=97) and Australia (n= 192). The little example below was representative.

    Question 3. Let a =2, b = -1. Calculate the value of H when 1/H = 1/a + 1/b.

    This problem is pure algebraic procedure and involves: substitution, fractions and integers. Fluency while working with algebraic fractions is a Year 10 expectation (ACARA, 2012). The Chinese sample had 90% success rate and the Australian samples averaged 24% success.

    Question 5: “A ball is dropped from a height of 12 metres. It bounces on the ground and reaches 3/4 of its height. It continues to bounce this way, each time rising to 3/4 of the previous height. What height does the ball reach after three bounces?”

    Start 1st bounce 2nd bounce 3rd bounce

    Thus the height after the third bounce is 12×3/4×3/4×3/4 = 81/16 or 5 1/16.
    Figure 1: Possible solution to question 5.
    A trainee teacher who found the solution by modelling such as above would be demonstrating ‘mathematical knowledge for teaching’ (Hill et al., 2005). A trainee teacher who could not solve the problem via any method would be demonstrating a low level of MCK.

    The fraction computation in Question 5 is Year 7 level in Australian schools (ACARA, 2012). The Australian trainee success rate was 22% and the Chinese trainee teachers had a 94% success rate. This question is not pure procedure; the context requires a little thought unless the student readily recognised depreciation and index structure.

    The reviewers had all sorts of reasons, entirely reasonable and clever; after all we are dealing with clever people here, as to why the data was not relevant.
    Censorship takes many forms.

      • Jennifer says:

        Have recently looked at research on assessments of preservice teachers knowledge and skills. Found 12 on maths skills and of these the PSTs were judged to have adequate knowledge of what was assessed in one study, mixed results in 3 and the rest were inadequate – so some of the research is escaping. SOme of the authors also noted the need to teach primary school maths in teacher ed courses. But of course they don;t need more effecgive isntruciton, they need more constructivism. What is to note of course is that over the 10 years I looked at there were only 12 studies that actually assessed knowledge – many more assessed perceptions of knowledge which are not the same at all.

  3. Mitch says:

    Government teacher here. Always happy to play the contrarian at school, with my bosses, at PDs, even union meetings. Sometimes lots of people agree with me, sometimes not. Usually at least someone agrees and adds to the discussion. Sometimes teachers (and others) can make the most outlandish claims about education and not get picked up on it. Some pet peeves are blaming the ‘department’ or board of studies for restrictions that are clearly in the best educational interests of our students like the HSC NAPLAN requirement. I do, however, always try and keep it civil and try to understand where they are coming from.
    I’ve never felt worried about my job even when disagreeing with my boss and I haven’t had too much trouble climbing the ladder. I hope it doesn’t hurt me in the future.

      • Mitch says:

        No, often considered it. Especially to formalise and rationalise my viewpoints but I’m a fairly slow writer and often just want to switch off after work. I enjoy how prolific you are though!

    • Most of the fellow contrarians (or realists, as I prefer to think of them) that I’ve encountered during my 14 years in govt. schools just keep their heads down and get on with the job, occasionally indulge in a bit of gentle heckling at PD sessions (I’ve done a lot of that over the years), and share their eye-rolling and gripes in the playground, the corner of the staffroom, or the pub. The sad thing is that the proportion of such people among the staff of most schools seems to be diminishing rapidly, since recent grads seem to have been hypnotised into believing that however much ludicrous paperwork and grossly insulting PD sessions they are forced to suffer through, somehow, in some mysterious way, it’s all NECESSARY.

      You feel like you’re corrupting the youth a bit when you start with the it-doesn’t-have-to-be-this-way line with them, since they’re all so wide-eyed and admirably determined to be good teachers, and are completely cowed by all the usual arguments-from-authority. But I think things are verrry slowly changing, largely thanks to people like Greg. We’ll see.

  4. Sigh. You can only say what is acceptable in some places. I miss the scientist, David Bellamy, who has not been on TV (or anywhere) since he came out as a man-made climate change sceptic. I agree with him – but even if I did not I object to his views being censored.

  5. stan says:

    Here in Ontario I have had teachers and other staff whisper stuff to me like – the pendulum swing too far or they are concerned memorization is not getting enough attention. They clearly didn’t want their colleagues to hear them say this stuff.

    So we certainly have this issue here where teachers don’t feel they can speak up if they question the current approaches.

  6. stan says:

    On the complaints about teachers not understanding the research that should be an own goal. In engineering or medicine if the engineers in industry or frontline doctors where not able to understand the research in their field that would be a complaint about they way the research was presented not the engineers or doctors.

    But I think: go make your own conference if you don’t like ours is a poor response too. Far better to call people on the worthwhile points – getting teachers and researchers to discuss the research – who is doing that better that we can emulate or hand this off to? Transparency of funding – where is the best example of this we can follow? Transparency or criteria for presenter selection – who should we emulate?

  7. I don’t have any restrictions on what I write as I have chosen not to be employed for 14 years now. My only motive for writing on FB, my Blog and LinkedIn is to share what I have learned from my students.

    The problem is that what I have learned from teaching, observing and interviewing my students does not appear to qualify as research in the eyes of the educators.

    However, when is a researcher ever going to listen to disengaged kids reading in Malay and romanised Mandarin and teach these (shut-down) kids on a one on one basis for more than 10 years and learn what I have learned.

    Daniel Kahneman says in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’: ‘We are far too willing to believe research findings based on inadequate evidence and prone to collect too few observations in our own research. The goal of our study was to examine whether other researchers suffered from the same affliction. We found that our expert colleagues, like us, greatly exaggerated the likelihood that the original result of an experiment would be successfully replicated even with a small sample. They also gave very poor advice to a fictitious graduate student about the number of observations she needed to collect. Even statisticians were not good intuitive statisticians.’

    ‘……..during the years of our collaboration, neither of us (Amos and Kahneman) ever rejected out of hand anything the other said.’

    Yes, people are throwing anything and everything they can at ‘Researched’. Anything that has not been ‘Researched’ is inacceptable.

    Shutting down fair comments, not responding to fair comments and disconnecting members from one’s connection is not acceptable to me.

    I have mentioned time and again that a majority of so called ‘dyslexic’ kids are just kids who have shut-down or disengaged from learning to read and I have indisputable proof of this.

  8. You’ve hit another critical nail on the head, Greg!

    Nobody following the conversations about ResearchED on Twitter in the last couple of weeks could seriously doubt the veracity of the description you give of the poisoned environment against models that create open forums, unbeholden to the establishment narrative, to talk about education research with teachers present.

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