I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at rED17 in September. Here are the slides that I used. I also did some stuff on teaching job advertisements, but I’ve already written about those here.
In this blog post, I attempt to summarise a section of my EdD thesis which explores the ways in which participants in #EduTwitter and members of the Tweacher Society construct an identity in their exchanges online. This exploration is viewed through a Foucauldian lens, taking as a theoretical framework Foucault’s What is an Author (Foucault, 1991).
Foucault essentially presents the author function as being a separate entity to the subject behind it. For example, our cultural representation of the author figure of Shakespeare has been constructed over the centuries such that it may or may not hold very much resemblance to the subject – the man who penned the plays and sonnets. Furthermore, how might our perception of the author be affected by a new discovery?
For example, should we discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house with which he is associated, it might alter our understanding of the life of the man, but it would not change the nature of our relationship with the text of Hamlet. “But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions” (Foucault, 1991, p.106). The words would remain the same, the iambic pentameter would be intact, and a quatrain would still be a quatrain. But our relationship with the Statement would be fundamentally altered. And what if we were to learn that Shakespeare had actually written a work which we had previously ascribed to a different author? How might our relationship with that work be affected?
And what if the writer uses a pseudonym? In what way then do we related to the author and is this different from how we might relate to the subject behind it? It is easy enough to point to examples in literature and popular culture where pseudonyms are employed for different reasons, from George Eliot to Mark Twain; from Vic Reeves to Keith Lemon. To what extent is our relationship to the what-said affected by our conception of the who-said? Does the quality a ‘debut’ detective novel suddenly improve when we learn that it is written by J.K. Rowling? Or is its quality diminished by a perceived association with ‘children’s books’?
This plays out daily on #EduTwitter, where the what-said is overshadowed by responses that focus upon, or are influenced by feelings towards, the who-said. There are a number of high profile tweachers who, it seems, are likely to receive negative or hostile responses purely because of who they are and not because of what they have said. Perhaps I’ve been guilty of such responses myself. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability about this. My own animosity towards certain national newspapers is likely to taint my personal reaction to anything they may publish. Similarly, anything that Gove says is likely to upset people just because it is Gove saying it. So there is nothing new or surprising about this, perhaps.
On #EduTwitter, we see some figures who quite deliberately and consciously construct a presentation of Self which, perhaps, they wish to market. Those with a consultancy to promote, or a book to sell. There is, of course, nothing wrong in this per se.
But I think to some extent we all do this, whether consciously or not. We all play games of identity construction and identity presentation on Twitter. And it is possible to have some fun with those games. Equally, it is possible to make a deliberate effort to shape the Self, through the articulation of ideas, views or beliefs, or through the questioning and interrogation of the ideas, views or beliefs of others; the interrogation of Statements. And, through our use of Twitter, to open up that Self in turn for interrogation bringing about the constant feedback loop to enable on-going formation and re-formation of the Self.
Foucault, M. (1991) “What Is an Author?” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. [online]. New York: Penguin. pp. 101–120. Available from: https://monoskop.org/images/f/f6/Rabinow_Paul_ed_The_Foucault_Reader_1984.pdf
In my previous post, I gave a brief comment on the changing usage of the term outstanding, noting how Google nGram Viewer reveals a shifting from its use as a term of economics to one of glorification.
In this post, I’d like to return to a favourite topic of mine which is the language of teacher job advertisements. I find these fascinating. I’m intrigued by what they may say about our profession in general, but also about the schools that write them. What version of a teacher is being promoted as ideal? What kind of school is being promoted as ideal?
Each of the advertisements below were selected from the TES Jobs website in or around June 2017. I have removed any references to the names of the schools, or academy chains.
The first that I’d like to look at is this one:
Deputy Headteacher – Curriculum and Standards
We have outstanding students and our aim is to always provide an outstanding education for all of them. As a school we will constantly strive to make the learning experiences of our students the best it can be. We aim to fill their days with happy memories and experiences so that they enjoy their learning and develop a thirst for knowledge and make the best progress possible and the greatest success in examinations. xxx (part of xxx Multi-Academy Trust) is a mainstream, non-selective, comprehensive school for students aged 4 -16. xxx School is built on traditional values. Pivotal to this is a positive ethos and culture of learning and success for all students. There is particular regard to outstanding achievement for all students whatever their academic starting point and a commitment to lifelong learning for all stakeholders.
I like the way this advert attempts to do something different with the term outstanding, subverting our expectations. Notice how, despite using the term three times, there is no direct request for an outstanding teacher. Rather, the students are outstanding and the school aims to provide an “outstanding education for all of them”. Furthermore, “There is a particular regard to outstanding achievement for all students”.
There is an interesting mix of student-centred philosophy where the school aims “to fill their days with happy memories and experiences”, along with the claim that the “school is built on traditional values”.
It’s all going pretty well isn’t it, until we hit that final word: “stakeholders”. Meh.
Now for one of my all time favourite job adverts.
Teacher of English + TLR
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’… Are you passionate about teaching English? Looking for a step up in your career? Or are you wanting to be supported to develop into Leadership? Then xxx would love you to be a new member of our English department!
The xxx Academy are looking for a passionate, enthusiastic and dynamic English Teacher to join our successful Academy. ‘We recruit for attitude and train for skills’ so if you are interested in leadership we have the opportunities available within the Department.
There’s clearly been some thought put into this one. Someone has decided that a good way to attract strong candidates for English teaching might be to quote Shakespeare. And if you’re going to quote Shakespeare, why not go for perhaps the most famous line? Indeed! Here, they’ve taken this line – a line which perhaps challenges indecision – to be about being brave. To apply, or not to apply: That is the question. The ad goes on to ask if the potential applicant is “Looking for a step up in your career?” And I like the final sentence of the first paragraph: it’s very encouraging.
But wait. Let’s take another look at that Shakespeare quotation. This is taken from Hamlet and at this point in the play, our Danish Prince is contemplating the unthinkable. This isn’t about having the courage to face your fears and do something great. The man is contemplating suicide. In context, this is regarded as a sin. Hamlet is trying to decide which is better – to face the horrors of what he has to do in order to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle (who has then married his mother becoming his step-father too), or to end it all and face the eternal damnation of hell.
What is this school saying about itself?
Oh, and the ad goes on to use the word “passionate”. No, this isn’t my favourite advert of all time. I hate it.
Let’s see if another advert for a teacher of English post can improve the mood.
Second in Charge of English
More than just an exceptional classroom practitioner, you’ll be a thought leader in English – supporting the rapid evolvement of the department and placing us at the forefront of innovation and best practice. You’ll make sure that no child is left behind and that every student enjoys clear direction in order to ‘Aspire, Endeavour, Achieve’.
What is “evolvement”?
Yeah, I know; it’s been ages since I wrote Part 1.
In this post, I want to give a brief account of observations I made about the use of the word “outstanding”. This was one of most mentioned words in my survey of words that annoy on EduTwitter.
I admit that the methodology here wasn’t particularly academic! But it may serve as the beginning of an interesting analysis of the developing use of this word in educational discourse, amid discourse more generally.
I used the Google nGram viewer to compare the lexemes satisfactory and outstanding, identifying these two terms as being highly associated with Ofsted. The fist term has, of course, disappeared from the lexical set used by Ofsted. Perhaps this was in recognition of the feeling that satisfactory no longer meant satisfactory in its description of schools, having shifted to mean something akin to “not good enough”. I shan’t include anymore discussion of the word satisfactory here because it is redundant in terms of educational discourse.
The resulting nGram looks like this:
The blue line for outstanding indicates a massive rise in usage between 1920 and 1940, where it begins to ebb, but remains in use. This Google tool gives links enabling you to view the texts listed for particular time periods.
For the period 1880-1900, we see that the texts listed are mostly to do with discourses around economics, where outstanding is used to mean an owed amount of money.
Compare this to the list of texts for the period 1994-2004:
Here, most of the texts use the term outstanding to mean something akin to “standing out for being particularly good”. There are examples of outstanding personalities such as sportspeople. There’s also a biographical text with the subtitle “An outstanding life”. There’s also, amusingly for me although I don’t know why particularly, there are several texts in a series of American craft projects.
There has clearly been a shift in usage between these selected periods, suggesting a move from the economic to that of celebrating achievement: what might be labelled The Cult of Outstanding. And I think this is reflective of the trend in education in terms of usage of this term, where there has been a rise of the cult of outstanding lessons, or worst still, the outstanding teacher. It’s with great relief and pleasure that I note Ofsted’s clear attempts to move us away from the cult of the outstanding teacher by dropping lesson gradings and so on.
Now, it needs to be noted that Google nGram viewer defaults to texts published in the USA; repeating the search to include the search term UK yields a similar trend. The default settings of the nGram viewer are but one potential problem for using it in any meaningful academic research, although people have done so. However, it is, at least, an amusement. But more than that, as I said above, it can I think offer the beginnings of a potential analysis.
It might also interest (or amuse) some readers to ponder the etymology of the term outstanding too.
In my next post, I shall return to a favourite topic of mine: Teacher Job Adverts.
I was honoured to be invited to speak at ResearchED Rugby, and it was an absolute delight to attend this event. It’s impressive to see so many teachers, academics, and educationalist come together on a Saturday to share their views, beliefs and ideas about education, teaching, and learning. And it is humbling to be surrounding by such good stuff.
This blog post is Part 1 of an exploration of some of the ideas I presented during my talk.
(Image taken from https://foucault.info/file/margritti-not-pipe-jpg)
Michel Foucault wrote a book about this picture (1). It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise what Foucault has to say about how this image operates and the astonishing juxtaposition that it presents. I have used this image in my teaching as a beginning to semiotics – this is not a pipe, but a representation of a pipe. We recognise this representation because we are imbued with a cultural recognition of that object.
The painting, by Magritte, presents us with a juxtaposition that jars our perception. The title of the painting is The Treachery of Images and Magritte himself said of it:
The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying! (2)
The point of using this in my teaching is to lead into the notion that words themselves are, in fact, representations – signs which point to a potentially huge array of possible meanings, depending upon context.
At this point in my talk, I briefly mentioned why I think discourse studies are important in education, which is summed up in this quotation:
“The ways we think and talk about a subject influence and reflect the ways we act in relation to that subject. This is the basic premise of discourse theory” (3)
I am very keen to embrace the kind of empirical studies that talk to us about how children learn and the kinds of teaching interventions that are most likely to yield the best learning for our pupils. However, I am even more keen to encourage my colleagues to look beyond such studies and to embrace the theoretical and, perhaps, more quantitative kind of work that might be conducted. Education, after all, is a human endeavour and such endeavours are ultimately personal and social.
The name of the talk upon which this blog post is based comes, of course, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where we find this glorious little exchange:
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words
Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
This is, of course, a joke. At this point in the play, Hamlet is playing the fool, pretending (is it a pretence?) to be mad in order that he can say the unsayable to uncover the murderous truth of his father’s death. Throughout the play, he shows utter contempt for Polonius, mocking him and making lewd comments about his daughter – the former object of Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, who herself is driven insane by Hamlet’s cruel words. Oh, and the murder of her father.
In this short exchange, Shakespeare makes a wonderful play of the notion of double meanings. But the joke only works if we understand the various meanings and connotations of the words at play. Even the word words is used to manipulative effect, like a private joke between Hamlet and the audience. And the word matter is also the subject of semantic tomfoolery. These are only effective if we know how these words actually work. This is a nice example of how the signifiers can be twisted to point in unexpected directions.
In the discourse of #EduTwitter, and education in general, words as signifiers can be used to point to intended meanings, but can also reveal some intriguing thinking and ideas. Often, the words can point in twisted ways to produce unintended consequences.
It would be unrealistic to imagine that I could present here a detailed critique of the discourse of teachers and educationalists on Twitter; it is dense and fast moving. However, there are a few things that have emerged over recent weeks that have caught my interest.
The first is around the very event upon which this blog post is based – #rEDRugby, its speakers, and the very notion of research. I have blogged separately about this, but I also spoke on Saturday about what I consider to be the flawed analogy between education and medicine. However, I think that could warrant a blog post of its own, so I shall leave that for another time.
I then picked out a small selection of words that I perceive as being either dominant in the discourse of #EduTwitter, or of sudden and significant impact:
It would be quite possible, I think, to explore each of these in some detail. One could chart a genealogy of each term in turn, unearthing the layers of history to determine, in a Foucauldian sense, the conditions in which these notions have come to be. However, I don’t intend to embark on such an exercise. But I do want to emphasise what I see in the discussion around these terms which is the emergence of a clear sense of the teacher as a defined subject: a professional (whatever that term means) who conforms to a set of social and discursive practices. There are, of course, written doctrines of such codes of conduct – they can be found in any person specification in a job advert, in the national teacher standards documentation, and in what appears to be arising as part of the Chartered College of Teaching. However, there also seems to be an unwritten code of ethics at play; certain lines that should never be crossed.
The terms trad and prog are positional in relation to pedagogical beliefs and practices – some would say tribal positioning. The term troll is certainly one of some controversy – being used by some to refer to perceived abusive behaviour, and being being decried by others for being, in itself, an abusive term. And equally, dick crosses certain lines which some commentators found wholly inappropriate whilst others found the reaction to be exaggerated. It is not my intention here to comment on the rightness or wrongness of using any of these terms, but rather to use them as markers, signifiers, of a general discourse of teacher identity and professionalism which I find quite interesting. There is clearly something about the public presentation of the teacher which is deemed to be important. It could be interesting to chart the development of the figure of the teacher and how that has been, perhaps, problematised with the advent of social media.
In the next part, I shall explore the kinds of #EduWords that fellow tweachers find annoying.
(1) Foucault, M. (1982). This Is Not A Pipe. (J. Harkness, Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from: https://monoskop.org/images/9/99/Foucault_Michel_This_Is_Not_a_Pipe.pdf
(3) Karlberg, Michael (2005) The Power Of Discourse And The Discourse Of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 10, Number 1 http://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol10_1/Karlberg_101IJPS.pdf?scrlybrkr
The fatal kiss of targets blows upon
The wind like whispers heard in darkened rooms
The measurements become our only truth
Imagination murdered in the womb
And who would dare to question how and why?
For fear of fateful consequence to come
And judgement is that numbers are the key
For raising the attainment of just some
It’s more to justify the jobs of those
Pathetic parliamentary pimps of hell
Who prostitute our children’s future dreams
And have no souls their own that they could sell
There is a secret hanging in the air
It’s only known by those who really care
It’s been a busy few weeks for me with work stuff, so it’s taken me longer to write this post than I’d hoped.
In recent weeks, the ResearchED conferences have come under some scrutiny, with critiques and accusations ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. I don’t intend to engage with the latter, but would like to explore a particular facet of some of the discourse that has emerged in these critiques.
I must confess at this point some inevitable bias. Having attended a rED conference for the first time last September, I was impressed by the willingness of people from a range of education practice, theory and positioning to spend their time sharing and discussing an even wider range of topics. Some of these people are university based academics, others are classroom teachers, and others still are members of the inspectorate, consultants, politicians, academy chain employers and so on.
A further aspect of my own bias is that I’m honoured to be speaking at two forthcoming rED events. So I accept that some of this response is likely to be influenced by some personal attachment to rED and what I believe it can achieve.
So, the two main criticisms of rED that I took particular notice of were aimed at the rED Rugby event and can be summarised as follows:
A quick glance at the line-up of #rEDRugby should be enough to reveal to anyone that neither of these arguments is accurate. The first argument is baffling since it has been put forward by the same people who argue that the trad/prog thing is a false dichotomy, and that ‘trads’ are the ones who maintain this false dichotomy. But, even we if are to accept that there is some ideological battleground (and I strongly suspect that there is, even if some don’t wish to fight on it), it’s hard to see how the #rEDRugby line-up consists of predominantly ‘trad’ voices, unless we are using the term ‘trad’ to denote something other than “traditional” in its, um, traditional sense. Perhaps ‘trad’ is now being used to refer to teaching practices which aim to be informed by, or even grounded in, a certain kind of evidence. I’ve also seen some recent concerns expressed about a perceived reliance on cognitive psychology, suggesting it is being used as a kind of crutch for arguments being put forward by people who don’t know about cognitive psychology. Indeed, this particular branch of science is being critiqued on EduTwitter as somewhat unreliable. Now, I’m not an expert in cogpsy, so I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of it as a science. However, it does seem to me that an approach to teaching which attempts to make use of the latest findings from scientific investigation into learning can hardly be labelled as harking back to some imagined Gradgrindian past – which, despite being a stale cliche, is still the image that is often used to portray the ‘trad’ teacher.
[I do have my concerns about this sort of approach to evidence, though. I’m not all for a complete turn to scientism, or for the apparent push for empiricism that seems to be driving some thinking in the call for research informed education. But that’s for another time.]
The point is, that seeing these speakers as being dominated by a ‘trad’ voice is, to put it gently, odd and somewhat misleading. It only serves to enforce the very divisions that these same commentators bemoan in the discourse of EduTwitter.
The second criticism of #rEDRugby, that its speakers are not researchers, is a far more interesting one as it raises the question of what constitutes research and who can conduct it. For example, one term that came up was “serious academics”. This seemed to be offered in contrast to the kind of people that speak about research at events like researchED.
This view has echoes of the notion that research shouldn’t be attempted by school teachers, as apparently espoused by Professor John Hattie amongst others. Indeed, the debate over whether teachers should be involved in research, or the extent to which they can be involved, was explored by Tom McAleavy in his report for the Education Development Trust.
The NFER is quite clear that “anyone can do research” and I would argue that anyone who actively reflects on their own practice in a systematic way, making informed decisions about their strategies and methods, is involved in research. ResearchED exists as a platform for people to come together to immerse themselves, and actively participate, in a culture of informed practice. This may lead, ultimately, to publication in peer-reviewed journals, but that shouldn’t be a necessary prerequisite or even the goal. (It’s also worth noting that the state of education research published in peer-reviewed journals can be described as wanting; ask Stephen Gorard (@sgorard) for his views on this.)
Ironically, this criticism is more aligned with the kind of scientism of which I am so wary, promoting a certain kind of research which not only leans toward empiricism, but also maintains traditional structures of power. Meanwhile, many of the voices across the various #researchED events problematise and interrogate some of this hard-science way of thinking; see Martin Robinson (@trivium21c) for a good example. My own presentations will be very much grounded in a theoretical positioning – the empirical stuff is interesting and important, but it’s for other people to do.
The second criticism of #rEDRugby is also echoed in some of the wider criticism of #researchED more generally – that some of its big names may claim to be involved in research, but are merely curating and reheating the work of others. And yet, these acts of curation and dissemination are a fundamental aspect of discourse; indeed, as Foucault explores in his essay on ‘Self-Writing’ (1), the act of reading and synthesising that reading in our own writing is an important act in the forming of the Self. By bringing together various snippets and doing something with them, we internalise them, we consume them, and they become part of our being. A further element that Foucault pursues is that of “correspondence”. Here, by sharing our writing with others, we open ourselves up to scrutiny, to interrogation, and to challenge. These in turn help to form us. Education blogging – and tweeting – is a modern extension of Foucault’s self-writing; his hupomnemata and his correspondence.
A book like What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong by David Didau (@daviddidau) (2) serves two principle purposes. Firstly, it reveals Didau’s own acts of self-writing. It is the culmination of hours’ spent reading and questioning material from a range of sources. It documents his own shifts in understanding, how his own shibboleths have been shaken. And it presents a moment in Didau’s own journey; he may well revisit some of the ideas presented in it, he may even abandon some of them. Didau’s blog, www.learningspy.co.uk is a fascinating map of the progress in his thinking; just look at how his views about SOLO taxonomy have shifted.
Secondly, Didau’s book provides a prompt for our own building of Self, as it challenges our thinking. Whilst we may not be able to argue with the pages before us, this is none-the-less a form of correspondence as we turn those pages and offer ourselves up to its challenges.
And so, the criticism that #researchED hosts speakers who are not really researchers, but are just bloggers, is flawed. It is flawed because many of the speakers clearly are researchers in the academic sense. But it is flawed too at a more fundamental level. It ignores what research actually is and what it can be. It denies that research can be – and often is – the process of identity formation. It pretends that curation isn’t a kind of research in and of itself. It fails to see that research is the critical ontology of the self.
And as I come to the end of this blog post, whilst I acknowledge the potential of my paranoia, I strongly suspect that these criticisms are a carefully constructed ad hom.
(1) Foucault, M. (1997) “Self Writing.” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) Ethics, subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 1. New York: The New Press. pp. 207–222
(2) Didau, D. (2016) What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? Carmarthen: Crown House