A small group of UK obsessives or a giant multinational conspiracy?

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I believe that education is about transmitting important cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. This is because I view the civilisation that I treasure as vulnerable. It is vulnerable because it is not the natural state of humans to live in relatively free, democratic societies that tolerate difference. Education is one way that we protect and preserve these societies.

I also believe that we are not doing the best possible job as educators due to the influence of bad ideas. We need a strong curriculum based on foundational knowledge that is taught explicitly. And yet this is not the orthodox view which instead mistakenly sees education as an extension of natural human development.

I am not alone. There are many of us now. And there are plenty who oppose us. The correct way to oppose us is to analyse our arguments for logical flaws or to present evidence that conflicts with our assertions. This is surprisingly rare. Instead, most attacks come from asserting one of two contradictory positions.

1. A small group of UK obsessives

The first line of attack characterises my position as the obsession of a few anorak-clad trainspotters. Outside the UK, it is also observed that this minuscule group exists mainly in England. The discussion is painted as traditionalists arguing against a straw man they have erected; a straw man they have named as ‘progressivism‘.

The argument continues that most teachers have never heard of the debate and when various people on Twitter go out into schools and ask teachers about it, teachers profess bemusement. Instead, the vast majority of teachers are claimed to be pragmatists who want to do the best by their kids by whatever means suits that end. Engagement in the traditionalist / progressive debate is therefore unproductive.

The main problem with this argument is that majority opinion is not necessarily right. Simply demonstrating that a view is held only by a minority does not refute that view. Indeed, we have numerous examples from the past where minorities have turned out to be correct. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis’s pioneering work on germ theory was largely dismissed by other doctors. If this debate played out on twitter today, he would likely be accused of being divisive, with others claiming that he had nothing new to offer and professing their profound boredom at the whole discussion.

An interesting example of the ‘only a small group’ argument was made recently by Laura McInerney in this piece. In the middle of an article she had written that focused on a trivial bit of tittle-tattle about UK ministers, she claimed:

“This is very cute if you’re into masturbatory inter-ministerial argument, about which I’m sure there’s a bigger point to do with progressives and traditionalism and all that stuff that a small group of people like to bang on about.

But let’s get real.”

It’s a bit like someone in a chicken costume telling you that your tie is too garish.

I talk to a lot of teachers and I agree that most have never heard of a debate between traditionalism and progressivism. But they still become interested when I start to explain what the debate is about. They tell me anecdotes about their attempts to implement inquiry learning, or some other fashionable teaching method, and how it didn’t go to plan. They seem relieved to hear the fault may not lie in them.

And I think back to a time before the debate opened up in England. This was a time when Ofsted enforced a style of teaching that incorporated group work and criticised teacher talk, and when a national curriculum was produced, denuded of knowledge. It’s clear whose ends a lack of debate serves.

2. A giant multinational conspiracy

It is obvious that a set of ideas cannot be both the obsession of a small few in the UK and a giant multinational conspiracy, and yet opponents of the explicit teaching of a knowledge based curriculum seem to easily flit between these two positions.

The narrative is that there is some force, neoliberalism or neoconservatism or GERM, that acts as an invisible hand influencing policy. This force is a malevolent manifestation of the political right, far-right or even fascism. Statements made by traditionalists are then associated with these positions and given as proof for a conspiracy that cannot be falsified because it consists of after-the-fact rationalisations. Every new utterance is seen as a sign of complicity, and if that sign is not obvious then that’s because it’s a dog-whistle.

On a personal note, as someone who identifies with the political centre-left, it is deeply upsetting to be associated with the far right. It is also upsetting to see people you respected responding to these attacks with variations on, “What a thoughtful contribution.” It’s not thoughtful, it’s fantasy. If I wanted to cynically make lots of money then I wouldn’t be writing an education blog. But there is an answer for that, of course; I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m a useful idiot.

Despite being disrespectful of the honestly held opinions of teachers like me, this argument makes no sense at all. If I could identify any common features of neoliberal education reform they would include; free/charter schools, standardised testing, a utilitarian view of education as preparation for work, flirting with performance related pay, a view that we need to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and a ‘skills’ view of learning more generally. Traditionalists tend to have mixed or ambivalent views about the first two items while explicitly rejecting the rest. It just doesn’t stand up.

Better criticism

If you are involved in education and are not interested in what we teach and how we teach it, then you’re probably in the wrong business. Go and profess your boredom somewhere else. If you really have no interest in the debate then you don’t have to engage. There are plenty of debates that take place on Twitter that I don’t engage in; some because I lack interest and some because I don’t know enough about the issues.

If you are keen on conspiracy theories then you probably should get out more. Put down the tinfoil hat and open the curtains. And before you heap praise on a conspiracist, think about whether the long chains of cause-and-effect that have been invoked are plausible and think about who has been named and who might be hurt by encouraging this kind of hatred.

Nevertheless, it is still reasonable and constructive to challenge ideas about teaching and learning. In fact, it is essential if we are going to move forward. Traditionalists are gaining influence but are unlikely to be right about everything. If they are the only reasonable voice in the room, these errors will not be uncovered and we will be condemned to making avoidable mistakes.


8 thoughts on “A small group of UK obsessives or a giant multinational conspiracy?

  1. I think the point is not so much that teachers are unaware of “the debate”, it’s that they don’t really see it in those terms. Those of my acquaintance see it more in terms of Things We’ve Done That Work vs. Endless Fads That We Know Won’t Work.

    Perhaps the reason why the pushback against the torrent of bad ideas in education is strongest in England is because of Ofsted’s willing embrace of them, pre-WIlshaw. Some of the stories I hear on Twitter and elsewhere about the petty, humiliating and fundamentally stupid enforcement of progressivist ideas that went on under the auspices of Ofsted are just unbelievable. You couldn’t do that in Australia without facing a virtual teacher revolt.

    • “Those of my acquaintance see it more in terms of Things We’ve Done That Work vs. Endless Fads That We Know Won’t Work.”

      This is why, in my opinion, the label “traditionalist” is a misnomer. Because the KEY difference between traditionalists and progressives, at least in the area of methodology, is that traditionalists have a high regard for evidence and the need to maintain an outlook of openness to corrigibility, to the extent that they would change their views if appropriate evidence appeared. Indeed, many traditionalists have ‘converted’ from progressivism for that very reason.

      Unfortunately, in my experience, those who only see the debate in the terms you describe also tend to assign the blame for this to “government interference”, rather than where it ultimately belongs – with those who originally designed and pushed progressivism, and continue to advise governments: primarily education academics, whose teachings have created a network of progressive educationalists not just in academia, but in educational media, consultancies, the DfE and other government organisations. As long as teachers don’t recognise that much “government interference” actually arose and continues to arise in REACTION to the detrimental effects of progressive ideas, the profession will continue to be vulnerable to such interference.

      • Agree with this 100% – once one sees through the union/academic/consultant line of us vs them with the government there is no going back. It’s then a question of getting what we need in order to do our jobs better.

        The people who know how to play the teachers best are the academics – they recruit us in the first place and know what buttons to push to make teachers feel bad or guilty in order to peddle their ideas through schools.

  2. Stan says:

    I think you are on the right side of this debate Greg. But I suspect it will be another 20 years before you are widely thanked your efforts. The increased public accessibility of the research and the increased use of more concrete research data is taking things in the right direction.

    The worst thing those arguing against you can do is get you to retaliate in kind or otherwise let your annoyance at their rhetoric influence yours. You need an extreme charity and patience when wondering about their motives despite getting the opposite from them. I think you do that pretty well.

  3. David F says:

    Larry Cuban says that teachers are “dynamically conservative” in that they do make changes, but are not genreally prone to fads due to the many examples of “bad ideas in education” that we have been exposed to through the years or poor implementation/follow through of reform efforts (borrowing the concept from Donald Schon’s 1970 lecture). https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/change-and-stability-in-classrooms-schools-and-districts-part-2/

    However, I recently put together a PP presentation for my department on “common myths in education” highlighting ones we have been exposed to recently by outside consultants…interestingly, all have been used to promote progressive educational models….to my knowledge there are no myths that have been spawned in support of traditional methods. Why is this?

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