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


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

View original post 892 more words

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:


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.



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.


Hello. How’s things?

So, I asked for some suggestions as to what to write a blog about. I didn’t get many. But I did get this one:

And then Naureen beat me to it.

The discussion around this topic has been fascinating, and has been going on for a long time. Specifically, the debate over phonics continues to be an issue around which the debate spins. Of course, this has been an issue for some time now, with proponents of phonics claiming it is the best way to teach reading, and critics claiming that reading is about more than decoding – which is what phonics is all about. I don’t intend to retread this tired debate, but I am interested in its recent resurfacing following two recent conferences which occurred on the same day: #rEDLang and #OxReadingSpree.

I wasn’t at either event. But reading through both hashtags was interesting. The former, unsurprisingly, has a lot of material about research and evidence informed approaches to language, whilst the second shares discussion of  some fantastic and lovely kids’ books. As a teacher of English at secondary level, I appreciate the need for, and value of, both strands of this reading debate. However, these two events help to serve as perfect symbols of the wider debate in education. This debate is often framed as trad vs prog, as alluded to by Naureen in her tweet. However, as I wrote about previously, I think it is more reflective of a dichotomy that goes even further back than the phonics debate.

On the one hand, reading is the physical act of decoding and deciphering written or printed shapes on a page which represent phonic articulations that we call speech. Learning to decipher the phoneme/grapheme code is crucial for children to do well in school and beyond, and I’m sure there’s lots of research to support this position. However, on the other hand, reading involves far more than decoding and deciphering the squiggles. It is about comprehension and understanding.

Following these two events, a discussion – often a little heated – arose following this tweet from @oldandrewuk:

Inevitably, I think a lot of this discussion was about crossed-wires. Some of the reaction to Andrew’s comments revealed a passionate (yes, I used that word) love of childrens’ literature. I particularly enjoyed my conversation with @redgierob about the ways in which picture books convey narrative, as exemplified here:

which included this image:


I am a big fan of this kind of work, and can see how reading includes this sort of text. But here’s the crux of the problem. For Andrew, this ain’t reading. For me – a teacher of GCSE English, A Level English and sometimes media studies – this is partly about semiotics.

Have a look at the Eduqas GCSE English Assessment Objectives:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 22.32.13

AO1 gives us the phrase “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. This is a kind of deciphering, but it is about what isn’t written just as much as what is. And look at this question from the old version of AQA GCSE English Language: “Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text. ”

[The past paper from which this comes can be found here, whilst the matching insert can be found here.]

And now have a look at the National Curriculum for KS2:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 22.43.58

So, case closed? Reading really is about more than just decoding via phonics. Sorted.

And yet. In order for kids to really be able to do any of that other stuff, they really do need to be able to read in the strictest, basic sense of decoding.

The more I think about this sort of stuff, the more I’m inclined to see Martin Robinson’s Trivium as a good model. And, as I tweeted to Old Andrew:

Will that do? I’d like to eat my Bournville now.