Advice for education academics who engage with teachers online

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I recently wrote a piece for the Australian edition of The Spectator. In this piece, I praised the idea of teachers taking more control over their profession and I was critical of the role of the traditional gatekeepers of research. One academic involved in teacher training commented on Twitter that, “This constantly painting of edu academics as the problem and others as the cure is deeply antagonistic, uncollegiate and I have to confess deeply hurtful.” Nobody wants to cause hurt and that was certainly not the intention of the article. However, I do think that education academics have to take some responsibility for the situation as it stands and, in that spirit, I offer a little advice. I will tackle what not to do before I go on to my positive recommendations. I take it as obvious that nobody is obliged to follow my advice.

It’s worth noting that academics do not need to respond on social media. There are some who I converse with via email and who eschew Twitter, Facebook and blogging entirely. This can be a wise course of action because emails are often more considered than a hastily composed tweet. Even if you are on social media, you are under no obligation to respond to questions or provocations. It is better to fight the impulse to reply than to reply with something that let’s you down.

There are four main kinds of reaction that let down academics and alienate them from teachers. Firstly, there is a high-handed, dismissive response, something along the lines of, “When you have read enough about this then you will see things differently.” Implicit in this is the academic asserting their own superior scholarship. Nobody is questioning the credentials of academics, what teachers are trying to do is work out the practical implications.

The second response is offense.  It is rare for teachers to make genuinely offensive comments about education so any academic who finds themselves offended should wonder why this is the case. Perhaps the discussion has touched on a matter that the academic is deeply, personally committed to. That’s fine, nobody has to engage. But it is worth bearing in mind that one person’s life’s work may be legitimately queried by another.

The third unhelpful response is to invoke a law or regulation. I have recently seen the U.N. convention on the rights of the child used to argue against certain school policies. The argument requires a particular interpretation of the convention and its scope and this is open to debate. However, even if you accept this interpretation then a reasoned case still needs to be made. Another example is the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. These require teachers to differentiate work for different students and yet many forms of differentiation lack solid evidence. Arguing that teachers must differentiate because it is in the standards may be technically accurate, but it’s not going to win any hearts and minds. Blind deference to authority is not a characteristic that anyone would wish to encourage.

Finally, it is worth asking whether a comment has any practical consequences. Splitting hairs about the relative merits of slightly different theoretical models, refusing to accept any generalisations at all and asking questions without ever putting forward a view may all be of genuine academic interest, but if there are no practical consequences then this approach is unlikely to be helpful to teachers.

None of this precludes academics having strong opinions about education and challenging teachers who they disagree with. Here are my suggestions for how to do this:

Be specific. I once debated critical thinking with an academic. I made two or three pretty focused points. The reply was to suggest that if I bought and read a whole book that the academic had written then this would answer my questions. It is far better to point to a specific paper, or even a section of a paper, that addresses the points made. Skillful users of Twitter will copy and paste relevant passages from texts into tweets. It is also helpful to use sources that are freely available because teachers generally lack access to academic papers. This can be a drag – I would often like to refer people to a text on cognitive load theory but I try not to because it is an expensive book. Academics can help here by making pre-print versions of their articles available on their own blogs and websites.

Specificity extends to criticism. Suppose, for instance, a teacher refers to randomised controlled trials that seem to demonstrate that, for novices, worked examples are more effective than problem solving. Suppose that the teacher then draws the inference that they should demonstrate worked examples in class. If an academic objects to this line of reasoning then they should be specific as to why. It’s really not good enough to label it as ‘positivism’ and point to a text about that topic. Instead, an effort should be made to demonstrate explicitly what is wrong with the chain of reasoning in this instance. If it falls down due to positivism then explain why. The teacher may then be won over to the positivism argument in a way that they won’t be by a general claim.

I suppose that this amounts to recognising the teacher’s position, their right to that position and addressing it, rather than some related idea. I am sure this is frustrating but it has the best chance of being effective. After all, how many academic papers have been written about an educational intervention that did not work because the teachers subverted it in some way? If we take teacher’s views seriously, get those views on the table and make them explicit, then we have a far better chance of addressing them in the future.

 

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A pretty big misconception to hold

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Giovanni Gentile was an Italian philosopher with views compellingly familiar to those of us who read education blogs and debate ideas on Twitter. For instance, Gentile set his face against ‘positivism’ and ‘scientism’, deciding that, “what may appear to be the ‘external, objective world’ is in fact ‘either invented or constructed by thought, and can be nothing other than thought’.”*

He carried this through to his views about education and his work as an education minister. Gentile had ideals that, at the time, were typical of educational progressivism. An interesting sketch of Gentile and his philosophy is drawn in a near contemporary account written by Valmai Burwood Evans.

Evans observes that, according to Gentile, “The master’s mind is not full of ready-made knowledge which he can impart to a waiting ignorant mind. The knowledge has to be adapted to that ignorant mind – in the end, it is the pupil who makes his knowledge.” This is the central argument of constructivism and it is still a powerful idea in education today.

Gentile believed, “we must realize that education consists not in the giving of information but of a longing for knowledge. This is the task of the teacher, and unfortunately there is no science from which can be learned the art of teaching…  Education is no mere instruction. It cannot be given by means of textbooks or mechanical short-cuts of the kind sometimes suggested in schools of “method”… What teacher and pupil alike need is the will to solve particular problems.” So there is no such thing as a teaching method and a goal of education is to create a positive attitude towards problem-solving; some more familiar ideas.

Giovanni Gentile was Mussolini’s Minister of Public Instruction and a fascist.

Why do I point this out? It is not to impugn proponents of progressive education and suggest that they are fascists. Rather, I simply want to note that this educational philosophy has been associated with fascism in the past and therefore take exception to the view that proponents of the main alternative are the ones who are necessarily in league with right-wing or even far-right politicians. I am prompted to do so by a tweet I saw earlier today that associated phonics instruction, a bogeyman of progressive educators, with ‘back to basics’ and the Alt-Right, a label that according to Wikipedia, stands for a ‘loosely-defined group of people with far-right ideologies’:

The main alternative to phonics instruction – so-called ‘whole language’ – was being promoted until quite recently on the basis of constructivism and other ideas similar to those espoused by Gentile. You may find this surprising because you may associate these ideas with the political left. But this is not a paradox because political views simply do not necessitate views on teaching and learning. A particular way of teaching reading is either more effective than the alternatives or it is not. Your personal convictions on privatisation, tax, foreign policy or the imminence of socialist revolution have nothing to do with this and, whatever your view, cannot change reality.

Those of us who write about explicit teaching often find ourselves the subject of slurs associating us with far-right politics, regardless of whatever political views we might actually hold (I’m on the centre-left, for what it’s worth). E. D. Hirsch wonders whether this is partly the result of an accident of naming; whether people simply assume that ‘progressive’ education must align with ‘progressive’ politics.

If so, it’s a pretty big misconception to hold. And it is a misconception that we need to be rid of if we intend to mobilise a diverse teaching profession in order to improve the quality of education for all of our children.

*However, his burgeoning fascism got him into a muddle on this point because of his need to assert a ‘national will’ which had a relationship of some sort to the individual will

Category errors

Custard is precocious

Desperation is teal

Parliament is ionic

Phonics is right-wing

Daisies are lexicographical

Tuesdays are plush

Whisky is a cannon

Knowledge is conservative

Turnip is exculpatory

Geography is deciduous

Choral music is bovine

Explicit teaching is oppressive

What did the Australian Education Union find when it surveyed its members about their teacher education?

As I have mentioned a number of times (most recently here), when anyone points to the inadequacies of initial teacher education (ITE) they are likely to be met with a call for evidence. Evidence of the effectiveness of ITE is generally lacking because few people collect it. Yet it is well known among teachers, and those who recruit them, that ITE is not great, with many of its practitioners focused more on French philosophers and revolutionary politics than the practical concerns of the classroom.

Nowhere is this more evident than in classroom management. We have about the best information that we are likely to get on behaviour in Australian classrooms and it is deeply concerning. Yet this is largely dismissed by Australian academics, probably for ideological reasons. Given this complacency, it is hard to imagine that ITE could deliver adequate behaviour management training.

We now have a little more evidence in the form of a survey of teachers conducted by the Australian Education Union (AEU). It found:

“Of surveyed public school teachers with less than four years’ experience, just 13% rated their initial teacher education as “very good”.

Around 79% said training to teach students with a disability was only “of some help” or was “not helpful”. Similar strong concern was raised around training for involving parents and guardians, managing students with behavioural needs, and ensuring consistent and comparable assessments.”

This is an entirely unsurprising result but it is interesting because it adds to the evidence base while coming from an unusual source. Most ITE providers would consider themselves ideologically aligned with the AEU and will see this as an unwelcome attack; a kick in the guts.

However, the AEU have done exactly what a good Union should do: they have highlighted the concerns of their members. Maybe this will wake ITE out of its slumber.

Be safe out there

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If you are a teacher and you blog or tweet in favour of explicit teaching, stronger discipline or a knowledge-rich curriculum then you are a target. The more prominent you become, the more of a target you become. That is a fact. Don’t be fooled by online talk about how the traditionalist / progressive (or constructivist / instructivist etc.) argument in education is a false choice. Progressives exist and a significant number of them want to take you down.

The wisest approach may be to blog anonymously. However, you need to be aware that there may be people seeking to expose your identity and it can be hard to conceal. You need to avoid references to anything specific to you and your context. I used to blog under the pseudonym of ‘Harry Webb’ but some people figured out who I was at a researchED conference and then one of them trolled me about it online. They see this kind of thing as a way to attack and discredit you without having to refute your arguments; something that is far harder to do given that you are likely to be right.

If you blog under your own name then be careful because you may be the subject of complaints. It might be worth having a chat to your boss. No headteacher is going to give you carte blanche to write anything you like but it is worth just sounding him or her out.

As a citizen of a free country you have a right to express views about education. As a professional, it could be argued that you have a duty to do so. This does not extend to personally attacking individuals and so I always advise that you criticise ideas and not people.

The other thing you need to make clear is that you are writing in a personal capacity; that your views do not represent the views of any school, university or other organisation that you may be associated with. You might think this ultimately doesn’t matter but I have experienced situations where it does.

An alternative avenue that your critics may follow is that of legal threats. Nobody wants to be involved in a costly defamation case but it’s worth remembering that you cannot be sued for defamation if what you write is true and you can prove it. You should always link back to articles or reports that substantiate any controversial statements you make, and if you can’t, you should wonder whether your mind might be playing tricks on you. This happens to me a lot: I feel certain about something but I can’t find the evidence when I look. I never publish.

It’s worth thinking about who your are up against. The education establishment is not heterodox. Education research is full of derivative papers with bizarre names and its constant reproduction relies on everyone playing along. There is no room for small boys pointing out that the emperor is naked. In fact, satire is a deadly threat to this order. This is why people often take themselves very seriously indeed. Satire is a valid and powerful approach when directed at ideas but it can be harder to explain than a simple critique.

When you criticise an idea, you may think you are offering an alternative perspective or some fresh evidence. But it will not be perceived this way.

Educational progressivism has constructed what sociologists might call an ‘imaginary’; a thought world in which orthodox ideas are seen as virtuous, the possession of these ideas as a virtue and criticism of these ideas as evil. You may think you are querying the evidence base for inquiry learning but don’t be surprised if you get called ‘right wing’ or worse for doing so.

The imaginary has developed concepts such as ‘scientism’ and ‘positivism’ that it seeks to use to immunise itself from logical and empirical arguments. Which is why, sadly, there is little point in engaging. Instead, focus your attention on other teachers and the wider public. This won’t prevent you from being attacked and complained about, but it will have a better chance of helping change education for the better.

Did the U.K. and Australia do well in the PISA collaborative problem solving test?

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Last week saw the release of the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) collaborative problem solving results. This was accompanied by headlines suggesting that Australia and the U.K. had performed particularly well in these assessments.

I’m not sure about this.

In PISA 2015 science, Australia was ranked 14th. On the recent problem-solving test it was ranked tenth. This seems like an improvement. However, you have to take into account the number of countries that participated. In the science tests, 72 countries took part whereas only 51 took part in the collaborative problem solving test. The Australian performance of coming tenth out of 51 is roughly equivalent of coming 14th out of 72. So it’s pretty much the same. Similarly, the U.K. came 15th out of 51 in collaborative problem solving which is the equivalent of coming 21st out of 72; a worse performance than in PISA 2015 science where the U.K. came 15th out of 72.

We could perhaps argue about this. For instance, if the countries involved in the collaborative problem solving test were generally stronger PISA performers than the ones left out then this might make a difference. Perhaps. I haven’t run the numbers.

But all of this fades when we consider the fact that collaborative problem solving is not even a thing.

The OECD report notes that the countries who perform best are those that also top the charts for maths, reading and science. It states:

“Collaborative problem-solving performance is positively related to performance in the core PISA subjects (science, reading and mathematics), but the relationship is weaker than that observed among those other domains.”

There is no discrete skill of problem solving that can be taught in schools. Schools can only teach solution approaches to specific kinds of problems. There are clearly differences in individuals’ problem solving performance but these will be related to general intelligence and domain knowledge. For instance, solving a science problem will depend on science knowledge. This is why PISA’s test of collaborative problem solving skills correlates with a country’s performance in science, reading and maths.

In PISA’s bizarre assessment, students had to solve problems by interacting with imaginary, computer generated agents via a computer. So this would also have been affected by various cultural factors related to how comfortable and familiar students were with such an approach. Essentially then, PISA’s test measures a messy conflation of content knowledge and cultural factors.

So it really tells us nothing at all.

Letting the side down

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I was struck by a recent interview with Katherine Birbalsingh on BBC Radio 4.

Birbalsingh drew attention by making a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party conference in the U.K. in which she talked about the poor state of the British education system. After losing her job and a few years spent in the wilderness, she set up Michaela Community School, a Free School in West London that takes a ‘no excuses’ approach to discipline and uses teacher-led instruction in order to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum.

I expected that I would learn some of the history of how the school was set-up. I did. However, I didn’t expect to learn about race relations. I have attempted to transcribe the key part of the interview. I am not an expert at transcription so apologies for any errors:

“It took us three years in the end to open and that was mainly because of our detractors who were trying to stop us… Every time we would invite local parents to find out about this possible new school… you would have to pass through a whole 20-odd people protesting with placards… and they would come and sit among the parents and when we would try and speak to the parents they would interrupt constantly, shouting things or doing things to disrupt. The vast majority were white… and the vast majority of the parents were black and all desperate for another option of school…

At one event, a young white woman jumped up and started shouting at me and saying, “You betrayed us when you went and spoke at the Tory party conference,” and I thought, ‘Well who are you? I don’t know who you are. How can I have betrayed you? All I did was get up and say what I thought’. You might disagree with me and that’s fine but it was this real sense of betrayal and I did think that that is because of my colour: The Conservative Party is evil, you [Birbalsingh] should not have gone to their conference and as a black person you should know better because you owe us.

That is something I suffer from all the time… and I think that reaction shows how far we have to go in terms of race relations.”

This played on my mind. Are some white, middle-class people actively working against the wishes of communities that they seek to support?

I am not totally convinced by the ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ concept. Firstly, I dislike the labels because they suggest an inflexibility that I suspect many of these schools don’t actually subscribe to. And I use the word ‘suspect’ because I have never visited one and so I don’t really know.

Although different from Michaela in a number of ways, many Charter Schools in the U.S. use a zero tolerance model. Again, I have some reservations. I have reservations about staff churn and curriculum content – are they endlessly drilling kids in reading comprehension strategies? And I have reservations about attempts to teach character traits like ‘grit’. I’m not sure whether teaching grit is really possible or desirable and I’m not sure what it would look like.

And so it was with interest that I read a post on the AARE blog about Charter Schools by a researcher who used to work in one. I expected that I would have to peer through the lens of a devastating critique. I would have spat out my coffee if I found myself reading anything positive about these notoriously ‘neoliberal’ institutions on the site of the guardian of educational righteousness. And I think it really was intended to be a blistering attack. Yet I couldn’t help reading it and thinking that the schools in question sounded quite good.

This passage in particular drew my mind back to the Birbalsingh interview:

“While the institutional practices of a zero-tolerance approach to student behaviour and teacher underperformance in CMOs [Charter Schools] have been extremely contentious amongst the community of education researchers, these approaches simultaneously have become very popular amongst disadvantaged African-American and Latino parents competing for access to quality schooling in large urban centres. Parents from these communities want their children to go to the top performing charter schools..”

Again, it seems as if parents are letting the side down. Education researchers must be pretty disappointed.