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.