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

ThisIsNotAPipe.png

(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.

 

References

(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

2009

Research? I’m just a blogger.

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:

  1. Speakers have been drawn from the ‘trad’ side of the great educational debate, or from the ‘trad’ group of teachers on EduTwitter who maintain the false trad/prog dichotomy.
  2. Speakers are not engaged in research; they’re just bloggers.

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.

 

References

(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

The Impact of Impact: Research, Schools and the Chartered College

Great piece. And my first reblog.

A Chemical Orthodoxy

I was very 50/50 about whether or not to join the Chartered College. I’d read the blogs and watched the inevitable Twitter flame wars and wasn’t convinced. But it was right at a time when I thought teacher professionalism was on its way out and the offer of access to research papers was very tempting. In the end, my ego got the better of me. The idea of being able to refer to myself as a “Chartered Teacher” or even a “Master Teacher” just sounded too exquisite to pass up. So I joined.

I couldn’t go to the big London launch because we had a newborn knocking around and it just wasn’t the right time. I would’ve loved the chance to meet some of my tweeps and to hear Rob Coe speak, but ended up pretty grateful I didn’t have to massage any strangers or put on my karaoke best

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Schools, Prisons and Foucault

I recently enjoyed reading this post by @jamestheo. In it, James deconstructs five common arguments made about schools and learning. One of which – the picture of different species being instructed to climb a tree – I wrote about here.

However, one of his examples of a bad argument chimes with one of my own issues related to the work I’ve been reading as part of my EdD studies: the school=prison argument.

@jamestheo presents this argument with the following picture:

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As @jamestheo points out:

… we could easily draw attention to similarities between all sorts of institutions based on these structures and rules. If you worked at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, you’d find much of those lists above structuring the way the place is run.

And I agree. Having said that, it’s easy to see how such comparisons can be drawn between institutions such as schools and prisons. In particular, I’m thinking of some schools buildings that I’ve visited over the last few years – new builds with three floors whose corridors look down onto the ground floor. Imagine if prisons had been designed by Google, with plenty of glass and grey carpets.

Version 2

Of course, this comparison between prisons and schools was articulated by the French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault – the theorist whose work I am using to build a theoretical framework for teacher discourse on Twitter. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault makes this grand claim:

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault, 1995, p.228)

What Foucault is talking about, though, is the development of the disciplinary society – a society in which we are inculcated into being docile bodies, capable of self-discipline. Foucault is not necessarily critical of this development in a negative sense; indeed Foucault throughout his oeuvre is keen to point out the creative potential of this kind of disciplinary action and what he calls biopower (probably a topic best saved for another time, when I’ve got my head around it).

In his blog post, @jamestheo presents that interesting comparison to The Magic Kingdom in order to draw out the absurdity of the school=prison argument. However, I think that Foucault might well have agreed that – in terms of the disciplinary aspects – The Magic Kingdom does resemble a prison, even if not physically. Employees are expected to behave in particular ways at all times, and are under the constant gaze of customers/guests as well – no doubt – as the CCTV systems. Have you ever watched one of the performances that process along Main Street? Each member of the cast is performing exactly the same routine in exactly the same way each time – just as the automatons do in It’s A Small World. I know because I was forced to endure that ride each day of our visit because children. Actually, because Mrs Sputnik.

And, to a certain extent, we as customers/guests perform a role too, and we conform to the rules of the institution – we queue patiently through the labyrinths that provide access to each ride; and we use only the permitted access gates to enter and exit the kingdom.

Furthermore, The Magic Kingdom could be seen as a heterotopia providing an other space which exists simultaneously within the real world and outside of it; a little bubble universe growing like a boil on the skin – or skein – of the universe of our daily stuff. Schools, too, are heterotopias, just as prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks are.

But Foucault’s claim that schools resemble prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks has always bothered me. I could just as easily say that schools resemble art galleries, museums or National Trust properties. Many of the schools I’ve worked in have been ugly, brutal things built in the 1960s, cold and brutal; and some have resembled the workhouse, with elegant Victorian functional elegance. Inside, of course, many schools are lightened with nice carpet, nicely coloured walls, engaging displays and beautiful artwork. In contrast, one school I worked in – a former grammar school – had glorious parquet flooring which, in some rooms, had been covered with foul carpet tiles.

In my current school, I’m fortunate to work in a variety of buildings: converted houses, the Palace, and one custom-built 1980s built wing. Each has its own character and charm. My teaching room is a one-time lounge, I think, which has been divided up into two perfectly fine classrooms with enormous windows and beautiful wood panelling. It certainly doesn’t feel like a prison.

 

Reference

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage

Political Leanings

There’s been a few blog posts of late that attempt to align “traditionalists” in teaching with right-wing, neo-liberal political ideologies. Some of these blog posts have been written by people who appear to have some kind of vendetta, and have been found on Twitter hurling abuse at those who disagree with them, as documented by @oldandrewuk.

On a personal level, it appears that I have been aligned with the traditionalist end of the trad/prog spectrum; looking back on a post from a few years ago it wasn’t how I might have labelled myself then, but I have done since. Taking Old Andrew’s amusing quiz puts me down as a traditionalist.

Some on #EduTwitter might have you believe that my views about education, and the kinds of questions that I ask, make me a hard-right winger. Indeed, I was labelled an alt-right, pseudo-trad fascist by one prominent headteacher. But, much like @DavidDidau, I think that children deserve an education designed to empower them by inculcating in them an appreciation of the best that has been said and written (etc etc). This is especially true of those children from poor or/and deprived backgrounds – society owes to them its stores of knowledge and wisdom; this is their inheritance. I also believe that children deserve to be given moral and social frameworks to guide them in being happy citizens, to develop their self-control and self-discipline; not just so that they are obedient, but so that they have the confidence to embrace the opportunities with which they may be presented, and to create opportunities all their own.

Traditionalism isn’t about viewing children as empty vessels into which facts can be poured; traditionalism is about enriching children within traditions which have a heritage, but also equipping them for a progressive forward movement into a future which they will create, guided by the past but not slave to it.

Does this make me a right-winger? To find out, I took the test at Political Compass. I’d done this before, a few years ago, but perhaps my position had moved since then. Perhaps I had become more right-wing. Well, the results suggest not:

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 22.20.55

As you can see, I’m an ultra-right fascist sympathiser.

 

And which of the main UK political parties match me best? Well:

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 22.21.14

Now, things have changed since the last general election – upon which these party placements are based. I suspect that under Corbyn, the Labour Party will have moved to the left and I reckon the Liberal Democrats probably have too. It will be interesting to see what Political Compass makes of the UK parties in 2020.

In the meantime, let’s stop this nonsense of linking a preference for traditionalist philosophies of education with a mythical infiltration of the ultra-right.

 

Learning Lessons about Language #EduDiscourse

I was on the end of a teachable moment recently. In fact two teachable moments. And I’m very grateful for them.

For reasons I can’t be bothered to go into, I’d tweeted a link to this blog post from a few months ago. In that post, I critiqued a particular view about differentiation. I received this tweet in reply from @lazymum:

A short while later, I received this tweet from @nancygedge:

Nancy then clarified with this tweet:

In the resulting conversation, Nancy made an excellent point about the medicalising nature of the language that is employed around SEND. I’m sure there must be a whole bunch of interesting research which has been done around this, and I’d be glad of any links anyone might be able to provide to such work.

In the day or so since this conversation, I’ve been thinking about how this links in with my thoughts around the kind of language that we generally use in the field of education, and specifically in teaching. I had been planning to continue my critique of the language of teaching job adverts, and I still might, but a more productive avenue of contemplation would be to consider the ways in which our everyday language in the classroom, the staffroom, in meetings and so on, might reflect the nature of the discourses which flow through and inform our thinking. There is a close association between language and thought, and the way that we speak about the children in our care is, naturally, closely associated with the ways in which we think about them – there is some debate, I believe, about which comes first.

I remember during my B.Ed being taught about labelling theory and its implications and effects in education, and I think it’s probably fair to say that we have all seen examples of it. And yet we allow a plethora of labelling within education in the UK, often making use of initialisms or acronyms. SEN, of course, is one but add to that FSM, G&T (which has now developed into the rather unfortunate acronym MAGAT) and so on. We know that teacher expectations can have an impact on outcomes for pupils, and yet much of our discourse is around the deliberate and specific labelling of children one way or another. Sometimes, it isn’t about these deliberate labels. In daily practice in schools, it could be something as trivial as having “top”, “middle”, or “bottom” sets. I’m wondering about the nature of awards and certificates that we routinely give out in schools – what are they called? What are they celebrating? What do these suggest about the culture of the school? What does the school really value, and how does this compare with what the school claims to value?

Labelling also occurs with regard to staff, of course. The infamous aspirational Outstanding – a word which oozes through the educational discourse like a thick pus – is a holy grail in teaching, despite Ofsted’s opting to no longer grade individual lessons or teachers.

I’d like this reflection of the language of education to continue, and I would be grateful for any observations that you might have about the kinds of language which, if we were to just stop and think about it, we might see as problematic. Please comment below, or tweet me @sputniksteve.