Words, Words, Words Part 1 #rEDRugby 2017

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.


Part One


(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?

(Hamlet 2:2)

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.

The Discourse of #EduTwitter

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:

  • Trad
  • Prog
  • Troll
  • Dick

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

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images

(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


Sonnet: On Target

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