Forget Trad vs Prog – there’s some genuine debate to be had!


Let’s talk about beliefs, convictions and assumptions.

Let’s talk about those inclinations and cognitive structures that often lurk unseen for months in the backgrounds of our minds – perhaps being pushed aside in favour of simply catching the balls which are thrown our way, as the firehose of term-time school life … (the overcrowded curriculum, the unmanageable lists of non-negotiables, the ever-more-complicated-than-we-would-like-it-to-be conundrum of how actual children think, feel and act…) … hits us squarely in our faces.

Yes, let’s try to bring back out into the open those underlying ideals which perhaps drove us into teaching in the first place, which were fanned and inculcated in us during our initial training, and which underpinned how we imagined we would approach everything which lay before us.

But let’s stop talking Traditionalism vs Progressivism for a few moments. Let’s assume that both of these labels identify IDEOLOGIES – and by that I mean systems of beliefs – things which only really apply if you buy-into the whole package, but which seem to dominate the entire landscape at the grittier end of the educational blogosphere and EduTwitter. Why…?

The Trad v Prog debate stifles real discussion for the following reasons:

  • It is assumed that the two full-on polarities of Traditionalism or Progressivism must categorise everyone, despite the fact that there are multiple blends possible of the different aspects which make them up. Quite probably [made up stat alert] more than 95% of teachers wouldn’t identify themselves fully as either properly Prog or Trad.
  • To make things worse though – to avoid people simply absenting themselves from the proper Trad v Prog war – there is the insistence by Andrew Old, the king of the teaching ‘battleground’, that you are only really a trad if you fulfil all the criteria which make up the full ideology (he lists them under the headings of Authority, Content and Methods) – and critically – if you don’t fulfil those criteria, you are, by default a Progressive (explained here and here). It’s as if he’s generously giving the other side a much bigger team, but that act forcibly sweeps up multitudes of people who really don’t think the label fits, who don’t want to fight on those terms anyway, and who – together – don’t have any coherent group identity other than simply being ‘not pure-blood trads’. It’s a clever sell to a degree, in that people who are disappointed as to have not made the trad team due to maybe a third of their approaches being outside it, feel compelled to buy-in to the full creed so as to belong. It regularly happens in religions and political parties of course. [You’ve described yourself as politically centre-left Andrew – so are you a Communist or a Capitalist..?!]
  • Finally, the whole teaching philosophies and practices cake could actually be cut in multiple other ways anyway, if we really tried to mark out the lines and get some steam up. How about banging-on about the real war being between the following 3 philosophies, and categorise each other according to them?
    1. Behaviourist: Children are basically part of the animal kingdom, and need to be trained by stimulus-response, and assessed by outward signs of behaviour.
    2. Cognitivist: Children are basically rational information-processing mechanisms, and need to be programmed to function in the most logical way, and assessed according to levels of rationality.
    3. Humanist: Children are spiritual beings which need to be set free, and should be nurtured to be the most creatively distinctive and truly individual people they can be.

These categories have been used very actively to keep debates going in the realms of psychotherapy for decades – why aren’t they our battle lines?

Or – if binaries are your thing, why not sort ourselves into whether we think human education should be completely devoid of digital technologies, or whether it should be enhanced by them as much as possible? There is of course plenty of this debate going-on anyway.

Of course, as with the Trad/Prog differentiation, both of these ways of carving ourselves up are probably met with the vast majority of teachers saying… “but it’s more complicated than these positions – it’s not necessarily either/or.”

But why does this stifle, rather than stimulate, proper debate?

The really big problem I think with the flaws of the Trad/Prog debate outlined above, is that it is gradually turning a lot of people to say that there really is no fundamental disagreement about teaching approaches or positions to be had at all. Not only is it not about those two ideologies, it’s not about beliefs, convictions or assumptions either – we just tend to pragmatically pick and choose ‘what works’ according to the needs of the situation, and we should just discuss techniques based on how well they fulfil that need in our differing situations.

Now, I would largely agree with this, and describe much of my varied practice being ‘pragmatic’. But then, we still find ourselves at loggerheads about ‘what works’ – for example whether or not there is good research evidence to support our claims, and we end up talking past each other in never-ending Twitter discussions, quibbling over details which aren’t actually the things which are getting in the way.

This is because, beyond the need to teach-to-the-test, our opinions about what works are massively coloured by the individual beliefs, convictions and assumptions – whether conscious or not – which we bring into the classroom each day.

THESE are the things which we need to try to bring out into the open if there is disagreement on technical details, and try to have fertile, respectful, energetic debates about – without trying to constantly herd each other’s opinions towards one of two polarised mega-ideologies.

The things we need to be getting our teeth stuck into:

If you’re wondering what I might be referring to, try these as starters:

  • What do you believe is the natural essence of humans and children…?
  • How do you believe children naturally best learn…?
  • What do you believe to be the primary purpose of education…?
  • What do you believe the primary purpose of schooling should be…?

Personally I don’t believe that there is a single overarching answer to any of these, but it would appear that many teachers believe that there is, or indeed that there should be one single, fundamentally overriding, soundbite. Do you personally have ones which you like to profess or bring to mind?

Additionally, if you’re really struggling to avoid the shrug of the shoulders which says “I really do just go with the hunch of what’s pragmatically the best thing to do in each situation,” try starting with the phrase “In an ideal school….” and play around with different endings and the response they prompt in you. For example:

  • In an ideal school… children would discover as many things for themselves as possible.
  • In an ideal school… children would know as many things as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I would personalise the education of children as much as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I, as a teacher, would be almost invisible in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… the teacher would be deferred to as the relative expert in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… children would show respect to teachers irrespective of whether it had been ‘earned’ or not.
  • In an ideal school… there would be no subject boundaries at all.
  • In an ideal school… what gives each subject its distinctive flavour would be passionately communicated to children.
  • etc. etc. etc.

I think that most of us would find ourselves either agreeing or disagreeing with most of the statements above – in other words, we have a belief or conviction which will colour our pragmatic choices whenever we have some freedom to choose. And if for any of them you found yourself saying “Well, DUH! Of course! Doesn’t everyone think that?!” then you really do have underlying assumptions which are worth pulling-out into the open and discussing with others as to why they might not agree with you. All of the above will make a significant difference as to how we all teach, and experience teaching, over time.

Of course, some of the things I’m talking about might be based on such personal beliefs and world-views that to debate them would either be crass, futile, or more usefully discussed in a different sphere of human discourse. Nevertheless, acknowledging them, and pointing to their roles in underpinning our educational decision making, is vital for real discussion of contentious issues.

There’s some genuine debate to be had out there!

Understanding then Compliance, or Compliance then Understanding…?

Compliance then Understanding

A key phrase struck me when reading Cassie Cheng’s most recent blog post, concerning the way in which lesson observations are handled at Michaela (a very positive post I thought overall).

It was this phrase included in an example of the kind of email feedback which she gets…

…You don’t always need to seek understanding from the kids, but if they have any kind of negative reaction, give them a second DM.  They’ll get the message! ..”

Now, as Cassie has clarified in the comments section to this post, there is a carefully calculated procedure going on with this, and this post isn’t an analysis of what is actually done at Michaela. However, when I initially read it, I paused for thought, and contemplated the notion of simply driving-home the punishments irrespective of whether or not a child understands why they are getting them. I have to be clear, in the same feedback on Cassie’s post it is made plain that the reason for a demerit should be openly stated, so I’m not for a moment suggesting that what is going-on here is obscure or hidden. Rather, I think that the point being made is that teachers shouldn’t have to justify the RULE, even if they do justify (in positive terms) why the CONSEQUENCE is being given with reference to the rule. Indeed, as Cassie points out below, the key thing here is signalling the DM without the lesson being de-railed.

However, pondering the thoughts opened-up by this reminds me of two forms of Catholic schooling experience which I had as a Primary School child. One of these was in Blackburn, at a (now demolished) prep school. I recall the Head Mistress there – a nun called Sister Gabriel (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) explain that the reason why it was appropriate to smack children was because they didn’t know what they were doing. In other words, since children couldn’t be reasoned into good behaviour, they needed to be trained behaviourally.

I then moved down to a state Primary School in Devon – again led by a nun – Sister Canice (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) – who I recall explaining that because children didn’t know what they were doing,  it was unfair to smack them. In other words, they didn’t deserve punishment.

I’ve always looked-back with fascination on such an opposing conclusion being drawn from the same apparent starting point – not least because I understood both their perspectives. Sister Gabriel’s position was from a forward-thinking formative perspective: you need to get children to a particular position behaviourally, irrespective of whether or not they are able to reason themselves to that position, or are even old enough to understand why once it is pointed-out to them.

Sister Canice’s position on the other hand was from a retrospective restorative justice perspective: It was unfair to treat these kids as if they knew what they were doing, and punish them accordingly; they simply didn’t deserve it.

Now, of course it is also possible to see Sister Canice’s position as being a kind of forward-thinking one; She wanted to create humans who valued fairness and reasonableness as they moved-forward in life. However, the question which I find myself pondering is: at what level might conformity serve us better than fairness…?

It is clear that there are some areas where we really need to train children to comply without waiting for them to discover for themselves why, or without even needing to give them a reason why. For young children, sticking fingers into plug sockets and running towards roads are two examples. It is also clear that – if they’re being brought-up as humans rather than dogs – we should seek understanding from them if we expect them to toe the line. Perhaps allegiance to a particular political party, or adult participation in a religious tradition would be examples of this.

Where do we stand on this with school rules? How much does the social cohesion of a pattern of respected school norms – with the knock-on in productiveness in other goal-seeking areas (i.e. a minimisation of distractions in lessons) – prove itself to be more important for the creation of an 18 year old mature human, than the pursuit of understanding and full-hearted consent? To what degree does this follow the tension between micro and macro justice which I wrote about here?

I know full well that this isn’t a fully clear binary issue, and the truth of the question may rely entirely on the exact circumstances of the situation we find ourselves in. I’m more raising it as a question rather than proposing a definitive answer. However, I can clearly see situations where in the past, my own formation through areas I neither understood nor had choice over, gave me a strength and an understanding which, with hindsight, I’m not sure I would have had otherwise.

To quote from the most recent Doctor Who episode…”Your consent must be pure…” Must it really be in education? As a society, can’t we actually justify NOT requiring consent of children for school rules based on our own experience of seeing the usefulness in our lives retrospectively? Isn’t there a case that – imperfect though they are – human adults are a little less imperfect than human children when it comes to judging what will be in the interests of said children, and the classrooms which they inhabit? I spent some years in charge of a boarding-house for 7-14 year olds, and a proclamation I occasionally heard when laying-down the law (and despite my best efforts at having justified it) was “But I don’t see why we can’t…..!”. “Yes,” I would respond, “and that is why we don’t have 13 year olds running the boarding house…”

A final reflection: Both my parents were piano teachers. We had two pianos in the house when I was young, and for me they were like TV’s. Every house has a piano I thought. My mum kept trying to teach me piano, but kept giving-up if I lost interest (which I tended to do after 3 weeks). She never wanted to force me to learn, and so I never did. If I resent my mother for anything which she has ever done, it is that she never forced me to learn piano when I had such an opportunity! (It’s ok Mum – I don’t really resent you for anything, but………….)

I would really welcome responses to this….

Why Michaela can never be generalised

Michaela Adapted

This post is nothing to do with the overall theory and educational approach of Michaela School. It is not a critique which suggests that there is anything about the way in which it is doing things which is wrong. It also is nothing to do particularly with whether or not society will ever any longer tolerate a ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling – of any kind. I have not visited Michaela, and I have not even read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers yet (it’s taken its place in line on my Kindle though).

Rather, it is about inevitable features of the school which makes it fundamentally different to the majority of similar schools which might follow, and perhaps which might be worth bearing in mind when its public exam results start to roll-in and (hopefully) people also reflect down the line on the success of its ex-pupils in life beyond education. It’s going to be a while before we can truly assess the model of education which it’s espousing…

Michaela is both trail-blazing and it is unique – and it is this uniqueness which means that they are going to be hard to replicate. For a start, as David Didau and Katharine Birbalsingh acknowledge, good schools create a belief in their children that their school is special, and that they are in some way the fortunate ones for being there; a special in-group which is defined by how much better it is than the ‘out-group’:

“This is, I think, how successful schools in disadvantaged areas operate. They create an in-group where ‘we’ are different to everyone out there. ‘We’ feel privileged to be in the in-group and appalled at the idea of what it must be like to be a member of the out-group. ‘We’ notice everything that makes us different from ‘them’ and we revel in the differences.” (From The Learning Spy)

“If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that. At Michaela, we so believe in the sentiment that we have ‘Top of the Pyramid’ painted on the wall. We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.” (from To Miss With Love)

Why do schools do this? It is a psychological trick to help create self-fulfilling prophecies, where children work in line with the aspirations which they have now acquired due to their belief that they actually have everything to play for in life. Perhaps it’s quite allied to Growth Mindset theory.

Of course, the danger is that many children – particularly cynical and increasingly worldly wise teens – are likely to see through this unless they genuinely are privileged to be at a particular school due to the special features it objectively has compared to other schools. (Which is easy to convince yourself of if you are at the only Grammar, or Independent School in the area).

However, Michaela literally has these objective features in bucket-loads, without it needing to be academically selective or fee-paying, and hence I think that its generalisability needs to be viewed with caution.

To explore why this is the case, let’s look at 3 areas: Their Head, their teachers and their pupils.

The Headmistress – Katharine Birbalsingh.

By any fair assessment, Katharine Birbalsingh is an incredibly impressive person to have running a state-funded school. She had an international upbringing, went to Oxford, and taught in 5 inner-city secondary schools in 10 years. She developed her belief in a knowledge-based education when it was still rude to talk about it publically, and became so passionate that she made headlines at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference by speaking-out about the British education system.

Not only is she the Headmistress of Michaela, but she was also its founder – the school is there because of her vision and her efforts, but – despite being utterly dedicated to its own success – she is still heavily committed to fighting the wider cause of knowledge-based education:


The Michaela pupils will see Katharine appearing on national television talking about Michaela’s uniqueness and vision. They will also see the regular rafts of visitors to the school – including camera crews – and have it consistently reinforced to them that “this school is special!”

When Katharine actually stands in front of the school and then does indeed tell them with great conviction that they are the “top of the pyramid” – the lived reality will make her own authority to say this very hard to contest. This is no game-playing illusion creation, she genuinely believes it, and she will appear to have an almost mythical status when declaring her visionary words, compared to most inner-city secondary school heads.

I have no doubt that the children will rise to things accordingly. Good luck to the rest of the Headteachers across the globe to match that!

The Teachers:

“So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong.” …

“To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.

If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.” (my bold emphasis) [from To Miss With Love]

It is clear that Michaela have super bright (according to the post above) and super committed (according to various other criteria) staff. Including Birbalsingh, 14 individual members of Michaela staff have their own blogs, and 3 other members contribute towards the Arts blog.


Almost without doubt, teachers there will have been individually challenged at some point by people beyond the school with regards to their allegiance to Michaela, and, whilst it could of course be argued that the current hostile climate towards the school might make it hard to attract staff (which wouldn’t be the case if it was a standard model of schooling), the fact that it does have that situation means that only the most committed teachers are likely to be teaching there. Teachers who – again – are going to be highly dedicated to proving that the model can work.

It is also possible too – and I will happily be put right on this – that the current fame of Michaela could attract able and dedicated teachers from a far wider area than is the norm for state secondary schools.

In other words, it cannot be expected that the vast majority of schools could ever have such a similar body of committed professionals working for them – unless they managed to stand-out from the crowd and – by default – draw nutrients from other schools.

The Pupils

What is immensely impressive about Michaela is that it is an inner-city school, without special entry requirements, which appears – from the media available online – to be predominantly made-up of people from British ethnic minorities. As was mentioned with the staff, it is quite possible to imagine the disproportionate degree of hostility directed towards Michaela as being a negative factor which shouldn’t be the case if their model of education became widespread. However, even with the difficulties they face, Michaela appear to have a waiting list for each year group, and – though the children may well be from a great spread of economic backgrounds, and bring with them a broad spread of academic aptitudes – I think that there could be little doubt that they will all have supportive family backgrounds. What family would send their child to such a publically controversial school otherwise?

Again, I could be very wrong about this, and am happy to be told so, but I imagine that most children don’t arrive at Michaela now without their parents being highly committed to the project which the school is pioneering. In other words, as with the teachers, there has been a degree of natural selection for Michaela pupils which means that whatever the school does, it will be unusually strongly supported by the parents (for a state school). Of course – as with independent schools – there will always be a cusp of parents who want to believe in you, but are nervously waiting to be convinced, and – at any moment – could back-out of the project. However, I simply can’t see the make-up of the parent body at Michaela as being representative of what you would get from a randomly sampled state school across the country, even if Michaela’s educational philosophy was to become the dominant form of schooling.


So, what is my point? My point is that, whatever trailblazing, pioneering, prejudice-busting, paradigm-changing effect Michaela might have on our education system down the line, it – in itself – will never become a template that could become a normal model within our education system.

This is irrespective of the rightness, or adoptability of knowledge-based education as a whole: Michaela is always going to be a unique and un-generalisable point in time – whatever it manages to open the doors to down the line, and this will need to be borne in mind when the public exam measures of school success start to flow in.

Twitter and the Evolution of Reason – Part 3: The “Justification” for Injustice

The Borinqueneers

When can an injustice be done in the genuine pursuit of justice…?

This is the third in a sequence of posts triggered by one of many messy fall-outs on Twitter, and the Edu-blog community in general.

The first post, trying to step-back from a heated “he said – she said!” debate pointed to how the ‘quibbly’ nature of Twitter might well be all part and parcel of our DNA. Our reasoning ability has quite possibly evolved to serve an argumentative nature designed to ensure cohesion at a superficial level in the pursuit of survival – to silence dissent and smoke out deceivers in a group structure which is stronger than the individual.

The second post looked at how – just because we don’t fling spears at each other – we nevertheless often try to use tweet debates to simply prove the ‘others’ wrong – irrespective of how civil our rhetoric might appear.

In this last post I wish to draw attention briefly to a dark, but common area of warfare in general – whether military, political or ideological – and it could well have infiltrated the original debate under discussion – from either or both sides.

This is the notion summed-up in the expression “All’s fair in love and war”.

Now, many of you might smirk at the idea that there is a ‘war’ going on in education (there are many I think), but it is true. Although some of us might vehemently try to distance ourselves from it, and there are plenty others who don’t realise that they are committed to one side of it or another, there are deep-seated, ideological convictions regarding the way schooling should be conducted, and there are people on both sides who feel very strongly about this, and engage doggedly with their opposites.  Sometimes these exchanges are polite, and sometimes they are not, but there are people firmly committed to both the rightness of their position, and the long-term goal that it should prevail as the dominant code. As Old Andrew commented to me on this blog: “Traditionalist bloggers fought for years to get some freedom of speech in education.”

What I am interested in here is the darkest side of wars of any kind. There is a factor in all kinds of ideological struggle – political, religious, ethical, or in this case educational – where the pursuit of our perceived moral ends permits the dubious morality of our means.

This can be looked-at through the lenses of Micro and Macro Justice.

Micro justice refers to the bottom-level fair treatment of individual participants in a situation. Is this person being treated fairly?

Macro justice refers to the larger-scale societal situation, which – if achieved in itself – should supposedly cascade-down a more fair and just life. Are these systems and institutions set-up fairly?

Of course in famous 20th Century military conflicts there was the massive bombing of civilians in an attempt to end a conflict once and for all… I’m really not trying to open that debate up.

A more recent – non-military – example of this struck me during the Blair ‘New Labour’ period in Britain. “Positive Selection” processes were adopted in some situations, where ‘All Women’ or ‘All Black’ shortlists of political candidates were drawn-up, so as to try to ensure an increased level of gender and ethnic balance in Parliament. This was part of a war on inequality in society.

To many, this procedure seemed an unjust way of doing things at the level of the individual. What if there was a white male candidate on the ground who, by every reasonable measure of political ability, was simply the best person available? Surely it would be unjust to discriminate against him based on his sex and the colour of his skin? This seemed a clear level of injustice at the ‘micro’ level.

At the macro level however (the level of overall social fairness and justice) it was clear that the proportion of females and black people in Parliament simply didn’t represent the proportion of women and blacks in the culture as a whole. Whether due to a toxic culture in Parliament itself which was unconducive to them, or due to a shortage of positive role models which stopped people putting themselves forward, or due to prejudice in the voting public, there seemed to be a large degree of ongoing injustice.

Consequently, whilst the act of positive selection might seem to be unjust to some people, and could have a negative effect on their perceptions, in the long run, if it does indeed lead to a greater number of MPs who are female or from ethnic minorities, and this changes the overall pattern of people coming forward into politics and the voting public becoming more accustomed to people of both sexes and with a skin colour of any type, then a large scale level of injustice will have been corrected.

In other words, some injustice at the micro level could be seen to lead to justice being served at the larger macro level.

Do we see this happening in the public ideological battle between Progressivism and Traditionalism? Did some high profile Progressives knowingly act unfairly towards a naïve Traditionalist blogger, because they felt it would serve the greater ‘good’ of the war? Did some high profile Traditionalists knowingly act unfairly towards one or more of these Progressives – setting them up as arch-villains, so that they could use them as public examples of what all Progressives are like – and thereby allowing them to advance across some territory in the overall war?

I really don’t know. Maybe all, some or none of this took place, but I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a war which goes on, where things like this don’t happen. Small acts of micro-justice take place perpetually in the service of the greater good, and educational debate is far too close to political debate in my mind for this not to be happening.

So, what is my constructive suggestion?

It is absolutely the case that, for decades, teaching according to a Traditionalist philosophy and methodology was out of fashion with ITT, Ofsted, and school leaders. There was an open hostility and disparagement towards people who believed in its validity, and attempted to practice according to it. OA has been born of the hurt and frustration of this period.

In the past hand-full of years there has been a huge amount of ground regained by Traditionalist educators and educationalists, and – as a concerted theoretical movement on social media – they are very much in the ascendance. The tricky part is the next bit.

Can a situation be created whereby our dominant intellectual vision involves a recognition of the time and place for a plurality of educational purposes and techniques? Yes, certain techniques can be shown experimentally to be more efficient at achieving certain focused aims (always narrow in order to make them scientifically measurable). But to try to replace an existing stifling hegemony with another one is doomed to failure – as history shows us so abundantly. The outcomes of Civil-War Britain, Revolutionary France and many other revolutions show that – if the pendulum swings too in the opposite direction after a change of power, then it will inevitably – in time – swing back towards the opposite extreme again.

Andrew Old has fought for parity and acceptance for years. It is quite understandable that – in the schools of Britain – the news of the Traditionalists’ regained respectability lags some way behind how it appears on the cutting edge of social media. Consequently, it is understandable that the vigilant traditionalist won’t want to ease off on the big push just yet. They haven’t felt the sea-change in their own schools yet.

It is also possible that many of the most ardent Progressives will feel a threat in this push, and want to push back – particularly if the Traditionalists turn the push into a renewed version of “This IS the purpose of education, and this IS the scientifically best way to achieve that”.

I just don’t think that this is a ‘war’ which requires a final victor. This instead should be an increasingly rich and fertile dialogue regarding which techniques seem to bear the richest fruits, when used in certain situations, to achieve particular aims.

There need not be a ‘conqueror’.

Nelson Mandela fought for decades (incarcerated for 27 years) in order to achieve equality in South Africa. Yes, he ended-up victorious and on top, but he didn’t then try to reverse the polarity of the oppression which he had experienced. Rather, his big push was for reconciliation and genuine partnership moving forward.

Please, let’s start looking for bigger pictures of how and why different visions of education, and different approaches to fulfilling them, can fulfil the bigger goals and needs of human society as we conceive them.

I personally am working hard on such an encompassing vision, and I hope that you will read about that with interest over the forthcoming months.

Twitter and the Evolution of Reason – Part 2: Naked and ‘Civil’ Aggression


In my previous post I tried to take a distanced and reflective perspective on a recent online furore which started on a blog, escalated in a very messy way on Twitter, and has now found a home back on the blogosphere (partly here, but mainly on Scenes From The Battleground).

Though I purposefully didn’t mention any names or link to SFTB in the first post, as I’m really wanting to look at the general dynamics which seem to be in play, rather than make it personal, I will name a couple of reference points here for orientation’s sake – though I’m still going to look at a wider perspective.

Essentially, one reasonable point which Old Andrew made to me on SFTB yesterday, was that my rarefied – ‘external snapshot’ – picture of the incident didn’t take into account the historical actions of some of the participants. Consequently, what might appear to an outsider to be an uncharitable way of interpreting the intentions and motivations behind some ambiguous actions, is missing the bigger context which makes the intentions and motivations much easier to read. Consequently, I myself can’t fully appreciate the justification for publically ‘calling out’ such suspects, and identifying the trend in the broader swathe of Progressives.

There is a lot of truth to this. I don’t know for sure that someone who protests that they are being unfairly portrayed as ‘threatening’ someone, when they say they were merely ‘warning’ them for their own good, is really stating the absolute truth. The words can be painted-onto either intention.

It is also true that I don’t know for sure whether someone who expresses indignation about what they are being accused of, actually has decent intentions for doing so, or whether they are cynically using this to avoid a debate which they don’t want, and maybe weakening the opposition.

Andrew is confident that he knows for sure because he says he has seen a similar track record for those people. I do not intend to take an ultimate position, as frankly I don’t have sufficient information, and it only seems to lead to a witch-hunt in one direction or another – which I’ve never found to be helpful.

However… this situation still actually leads to several interesting ponderings. How about this:

On the one hand, if you get enough seemingly ambiguous data points building up, the likelihood of them – together – painting a broad picture of a certain kind could well increase. In that sense I can respect the pattern-detecting senses of OA which is based on pretty-much unparalleled immersion in the sphere of educational social media and wider reading and debating over the past 10 years. He has seen and participated in, and achieved, a huge amount. I genuinely think we should ‘doff our caps’ to Andrew for what he has battled-through, committed-to, and presumably sacrificed in order to get us to the parity of discussion positions which we now enjoy. He surely must have a perspective born of detail which not many of us could perceive…?

On the other hand, if you get someone with a strong enough belief system, who’s head gets buried enough in the data, then a string of random, ambiguous coincidences can certainly start to look very much like a particular thing. I mentioned confirmation bias in the previous post. In support of this, OA will himself admit to how much he has had to fight over the past decade to gain both the right to teach the way he believes is the best way to teach, and the respect for a long out-of-fashion educational philosophy. He knows the blood, sweat and tears which he has had to sacrifice for this cause. He may well naturally see conspirators in every shadow, and there certainly seems to have been an increase in the number of combative self-proclaimed Progressives to prove right his long-made conjecture that there is a real battle between Progressivism and Traditionalism. So is he not ripe for a paranoid over-reading of events…?

I really can’t say which of these two preceding dynamics are at play here, and I don’t wish to damn either side of the particular debate by giving a hunch one way or another. Quite possibly, both things are actually in motion at the same time – “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that the world’s not out to get you”.

Despite my reluctance to get my hands dirty, and to add to the broil, there is a third line of reflection which I do wish to pursue instead – which critiques us all – and it is closest to the ideas I was ruminating about in the previous blog, when I was musing on the purposes for which reason seems to have initially developed over hundreds of millenia.

In this sense, I’m interested in the overall dynamics at play in a war such as the one between the increasingly declared Progs and Trads. For – despite my desire to see it as otherwise, it IS a war – it is a desire to convince, to convert and… it would seem… to conquer.

Naked Aggression vs Civil Aggression

First of all, in this war of educational ideologies, there are skirmishes, such as the regular spats on Twitter – none of which are ever going to change the mind of anyone who’s involved through reasoning (though according to the comments section of this blog some casual observers do get converted); they are normally the cover-fire for the proper battle, or the occasional firing of random shots over the trenches.

It would seem that there has been an escalation in the attempts to draw real blood in these exchanges in recent months, with an increase in the amount of openly abusive (not even simply barbed) tweets. To his credit, OA has blogged head-on about this problem recently – he is after all on the receiving end of a significant amount of it – and I do agree that it is the lowest form of activity on Twitter, and it is particularly disappointing to realise that it is coming from educators and educationalists.

Now, adapting and subverting some ideas from Habermas, these openly aggressive tweets could be described as Instrumental Action – or what I will term ‘naked aggression’. Rather like someone coming up and punching you, it doesn’t seek to convert you or to compromise and join with you, just to hurt you directly. Perhaps this is for revenge, or to chase you off the block, or in order to fulfil a personal twisted craving, but it is just intended to hurt. You become an object to act directly upon.

Fortunately, most Edu-Twitter interactions aren’t like this – and certainly not most of the blog exchanges (which is the arena in which I most often tend to get involved). This doesn’t mean that everything is benign and collaborative however…

Things could be fertile: My own preferred is for what Habermas calls Communicative Action. I can’t personally help being a bit of a seeker with a relatively open mind (it’s not humanly possible to have a truly open mind – to paraphrase Dawkins: “to have a fully open mind is to have a fully empty mind”). I personally try initially to never see either side of a broad debate as either being fully right or fully wrong, and I’m always pondering if there isn’t a bigger, or better way of seeing things, which manages to incorporate the nuggets of truth – or at least ‘reasonableness’ – in both sides of any honest discussions. In this respect I’m influenced by Integral Theory. With communicative action, people seek to find a joint understanding – through debate and discussion – not simply through everybody simply agreeing with everyone else in a nice and agreeable puppy-dog manner.

I think that there is of course some of this happening on Social Media (even Twitter!), but I don’t see that much of it. I very rarely see proper debates on Twitter which include comments such as “I do actually agree with that point,” or “You know, I actually think you’re right”.

Rather, between the extremes of Instrumental Action and Communicative Action, there is what could be called (again, subverting Habermas) Strategic Action, and I think this is the biggest form of Twitter debates. This is civil, rational discussion/debate, where everyone sounds like they’re listening to each other, but only in order to ensure that they can get their point over, and – ultimately – to convince others that they personally are RIGHT. This may be in a genuine attempt to get the other participant to join a side which they believe to be entirely correct, but it can also just be a ‘civilised’ attempt – but pretty much akin to the instrumental action of hurling abuse – to get one over on them and prove that you’re stronger, they’re weaker, and they need to scurry-on back to where they come from.

Discourse Analysts will tell you that there are plenty of ways of doing this. I’m certainly trying to convert you over to my opinion now by using the rhetorical device of ‘balanced reasonableness’, others may use an air of ‘thorough conviction’ (many preachers succeed with this), ‘disarming niceness’, or – of course – pure, detached, ‘mechanical rationality’ [these are not necessarily official DA categories – I’ve just made some up – Discourse Analysis is itself an arbitrary social construction used as a rhetorical device to serve someone’s ends… if it is to be believed – so we can all make up our rhetorical categories 😉 ]

Consequently, in the messy situation which developed last week, and which I ruminated about in part one of this post, any one of the participants could be portrayed as using a particular form of rhetoric in order to defend or advance their position on their preferred side of the battle-lines. The truth-value of each of their positions is a matter of perspective and interpretation – we’re not talking hard science or matters of pure logic here.

In that respect, I’m deliberately refusing to quite be drawn fully onto either side of who was right or who was wrong in it. Sorry! Rather I’m wanting to encourage all participants in Edu-Social-Media debates to become more aware of what they are really wanting to achieve through their posts, and being more reflective of what impression they are really giving to the people reading them (irrespective of the exact semantics of the words being used).

Furthermore, on the Christian Theology site Ship of Fools, they have a multi-layered discussion forum, whereby people can either post light-weight fluff in ‘Heaven’, embark on serious – but civilised – theoretical discussion in ‘Purgatory‘, or roll-up their sleaves for a more emotive fight in ‘Hell‘. Does our experience of Edu-Twitter suffer because of the lack of such distinctions…?

In the third ‘coda’ to this I will ponder another (quite grim – but universally prevalent) kind of dynamics which we could find ourselves inhabiting in an ideological ‘war’ such as that between Progressives and Traditionalists, but also a positive direction for how we could better move forward…

Twitter and the Evolution of Reasoning – Part 1: A Right Old Classic Tragedy



Twitter is a great resource for the quick dissemination of information, and it is hard to imagine being without the sharing of links, ideas and resources on Edu-Twitter these days.

And then… there is the ‘debating’ value of Edu-Twitter….

According to Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber’s The Enigma of Reason, the power of human reasoning didn’t evolve in order to help us better conquer the world through problem solving, nor even to help establish for us the ‘truth’ of things. No, they contend that it evolved to close-down dissent, chase-out cheaters, and seal-up the ‘in-group’, thereby improving our ability to function, survive and thrive as a powerful group organism in a primitive world.

In other words, we have evolved and sharpened our thinking skills in order to be very good at quibbling, arguing the toss and separating people into ‘us and them’. (Gossiping is another evolved trait designed to bond-us together tightly with our kith and kin.) Additionally, we have honed our talent for ‘confirmation bias’ – attending to and celebrating those parts of arguments or bits of evidence which support our case – whilst being blind to the power or even existence of arguments or bits of evidence which don’t. I’m sure I’m falling victim to it right now (and probably so are you).

It’s true that, sometimes, some of us are in a position whereby we can shift our opinion and even our overall worldview if we do hear a really good logical case. We genuinely can hear a speech, read a book – or even a single article – which completely changes how we see things, but we normally require quite strong emotional preparedness, and probably a sufficient level of previous doubts, that we’re already waiting for the straw which will break the camel’s back. We then take on the super-reinforced mantle of ‘the convert’; it is much harder for us to shift back again.

Essentially, we very rarely keep an open mind on a big topic once we’ve come to a public decision on it, or have decided to adopt a particular worldview which gives us a sense of identity.

Over the past week or so there was yet another messy Edu-Twitter furore, which reminds me both of a truly unfortunate classic tragedy, and also of just how close to Mercier and Sperber’s picture of reasoning Twitter, and indeed Social Media as a whole, brings us.

It was absolutely classic ‘Us and Them’ tribal behaviour, and it thrived on a bit of initial naïve emotional ‘button pressing’ by a person writing a blog on one side, plus a corresponding emotionally charged misreading of exactly what had been said by those targeted on the other side. Their resulting righteous indignation – and urgent warnings that saying such things could land the writer in real trouble – was then taken by the initial provocateur as a sufficient threat for them to delete their blog and Twitter account.

In response, fellow members of the provocateur’s tribe leapt-in to defend her, escalating the Twitter sniping and leading to an increase in skirmishes with the initial ‘victims’ – now being pilloried as ‘persecutors’. These counter-attackers could have politely and clearly pointed-out the semantic misunderstanding [the initial criticism suggested that the accused had publicly ‘sneered at and denigrated’ the principles ‘espoused’ by a particular school, but this was misread as stating that they had ‘sneered at and denigrated’ the ACTUAL school – which they said they had never done, and which could consequently be defamation].

However, instead of pointing out this misunderstanding, and possibly getting-in a bit of teasing about this careless misreading, they decided to portray the overreaction as a deliberately knowing strategy to bully-out a supposedly vulnerable person who happened to publicly disagree with them.

Whilst the Twitter venom focused on decrying with increasing moral outrage the actions of individuals, a blog post was then launched by the rescuing side in order to take the offending incident, and the – now firmly interpreted as callous – actions of the isolated ‘victims-come-persecutors’ as something which could be GENERALISED to be something indicative of their tribe as a whole.

I got caught-up in the furore myself at this point – not quite knowing the full details, but not liking the smell of the rhetoric on the blog post, and suspecting that there was an attempt to make some political capital by blowing-up a much more nuanced situation.

And so…. here we are, with me trying to ‘step back a little’, and ponder just how much we can learn about ourselves from Twitter, the evolution of reasoning, and a distastefully messy ‘right-old classic tragedy’.

In a follow-up to this post, I discuss the dynamics involved when people seem to engage in debate on social media.


In Character Education: Part 1 – the Deconstruction, I pointed to various ways in which I suspect that the whole notion of ‘character’ in schools is currently used as a rag-bag of disparate concepts and traits which lack discrete concept validity, are probably only apparent in specific domains and circumstances, and which are probably such different kinds of things from each other that to try to have a standard uniform approach to teaching individual elements is naïve.

Indeed I suggested that perhaps ‘teaching’ some character concepts might not be possible at all [though some schools do treat it as a teachable module].

In this post, I want to take the arguments a little further, but offer a guide to how I believe we might indeed educate for character in children – if not ‘teach’ character.

Firstly, a deliberate diversion…..

What is actually the best route to take in order to achieve certain goals?

During the high publicity given to the International Space Station in Britain last year, probably more than a few of us were struck for the first time by the process it takes to get a rocket/capsule to meet-up with it. The ISS only orbits 400km above the Earth’s surface. Couldn’t we just ‘see it coming’ and send a rocket on a trajectory ahead of it to intercept it at the right time and place – a bit like throwing a ball to someone who is running?

Given this intuition, the time of a least 6hrs that it takes for a meet-up (2 days prior to 2013), seems intensely slow for a rocket which can get into orbit in 8 minutes 48 seconds.

The reality of course is that it doesn’t just head straight for the space station, it sets off at a seemingly random time, from a seemingly odd location, into a seemingly arbitrary trajectory, and has to fly around the planet 4 times until it is at the right place, at the right time, at the right trajectory and just the right speed.

What is the purpose of this metaphor? Basically, how many things which we want to achieve, and how many characteristics which we want children to have as adults, might not be best acquired ‘obliquely’ – without aiming directly towards them – either because they are more complex behaviours than we give them credit for, or we underestimate the process of natural maturation and general social education.

Essentially, I believe that there is a bit of a cargo cult approach to ‘teaching’ character in some schools these days. Indeed, I think that the whole notion of ‘teaching’ character is fundamentally a cargo cult movement. The cargo cult analogy is used fairly often these days in education blogs whenever people are seen to be looking at the emergent surface features of a successful person or organisation and then attempt to mimic that particular aspect of them, in order to become successful too.

So if Richard Branson was characterised by being a risk taker, then lets teach children to be risk takers and they can be Richard Branson. Or if Roger Federer has come to be regarded as somehow better than Djokovic or Murray because of his ‘graceful play’, then let’s teach children to hit the ball gracefully, and they will become like Roger.

Indeed, recently Martin Robinson has drawn a similar comparison around Lord Nash’s pronouncement that schools should be more like businesses. McDonalds is successful; shouldn’t schools then all simply mimic the working practices of McDonalds to become successful?

Just because an attribute can be linked with successful people, this doesn’t mean that those people were ever successfully taught these things; they might simply always have been like that – or found themselves in a set of circumstances which allowed those characteristics to flourish, or indeed – might have done other things which has enabled those characteristics to emerge, particularly if those characteristics are possibly a bit of an ephemeral, transitory illusion (which character might be).

A colliding thought: How do we truly get the best out of humans?

For anyone who has ever looked inside the mechanisms of a musical box, it is a delightfully simple set-up. There is a set of tuned prongs which in turn get ‘pinged’ by small metal nodules on the outside of a cylindrical barrel. With a small implement it is possible to pluck the prongs individually to see what they sound like – but they sound muted, and it would be very hard to get a coherent tune out of them. To play the music, we don’t pluck the prongs at all, we ignore them and wind-up a spring so that the barrel turns, and if it turns a full rotation, we get a coherent melody being played. What is the equivalent for educating children? I would say that many initiatives to develop character are like this analogy.

Another analogy further into the realm of human experience: I was particularly struck by Karen Armstrong’s 2009 book The Case for God. This wasn’t a ‘tit-for-tat’ logical counterpoint to the ‘new atheism’ of Dawkings, Hitchings, Harris & Dennett. Rather, she contrasted thinking logically about the ‘truth statements’ of religion (Logos), with simply living the experience of a religious life (Mythos), and contended that the latter is how we’ve actually evolved to connect with the absolute. We experience something that we can’t deduce, which is why the logical arguments of atheists rarely completely wipe-out religious sentiment, or even pure belief.

[Whatever your interest in religion, the ‘Argumentative Theory’ of Mercier and Sperber (2011) – which periodically gets big press, such as last month in the New Yorker – I think complements Armstrong’s contention quite nicely.]

Is there something in the previous two analogies which we can take into our notion of human character here as well? Should we stop trying to atomise traits, stop trying to precisely specify, teach and argue them into existence, and instead focus on – to the best of our ability – setting the barrel of human life fully turning, so that we can experience it as we have evolved to experience it?

How does this translate?

Our notions of modern childhood have radically transformed the experience of the modern child. As much as possible we have tried to remove fear, exploitation and abuse from their lives, and replace them with a safe haven in which to discover the opportunities of life as fully as possible. This is utterly to be applauded.

However, in the process of doing this, we have also refined many parts of life beyond all recognition from the pattern of experiences that our physical and mental processes evolved in response to. Relative to their predecessors, children no longer know how to deal with a world which is intrinsically unfair, or which takes them beyond what is pleasantly comfortable, or which doesn’t leave them with a choice or a voice, or requires commitment (particularly in the long term). Consequently, we are scrambling to create character education to fill the void.  We have stripped so much fibre out of the modern educational/lifestyle diet that we’re having to invent nutritional supplements to make up for it.

Back when a childhood of education was the preserve of the wealthy, they had to create quite harsh circumstances in those schools to try to give the, otherwise too-pampered and soft, idle rich some challenging formative experience.

Poor kids on the other hand had their character tempered by everyday existence. They had to function – full-on – in an environment of hardship reminiscent of the millions of years of our ancestry.

Probably, back in those days, the uneducated poor likely derided the school experiences of their wealthier ‘masters’, as being cossetted and leaving them without real ‘grit’ or whatever vernacular would have been current. After all, they didn’t know what ‘real’ life was like.

These days however, the habits and traditions of the classic British Public schools (that’s ‘private’ to those reading from certain other countries!), are often derided as being both anachronistic and indeed ‘abusive’; relentless focus on sport, compulsory cadet training, long days in a boarding environment, a high premium placed on ‘competition’. What kind of world are they trying to prepare children for?!

So what is my solution to all this? Well, I’m not simply saying that we should become like traditional independent schools – though there is a big reference point there. Instead, I think we can create a model here which we can all learn from – rich, poor, liberal, trad.


It’s simple really. If we have a GOAL of wanting to develop a particular character trait in someone, we don’t focus on it. Instead we focus on a PURSUIT which could give rise to that particular trait if done in the right DYNAMIC.


What does this mean in practice?

This means that if we do want to develop intellectual skills such as the ability to ‘analyse’ (the goal), then we might be best-off engaging the children in the pursuit of some worthwhile area of knowledge development (the pursuit), in the context of some creative challenge (the dynamic).

Or if we want to develop character traits such as ‘resilience’ (the goal), then we are possibly best off engaging the children in the pursuit of some emotionally charged competitive situation where they are likely to fail at some point (sport or whatever), and wisely guide them in meeting the two imposters of triumph and disaster just the same (the dynamic).

I’m going to say more than this though. I’m going to suggest that we don’t worry too much on trying to isolate the individual character traits that we want to develop in the first place anyway. Far too many of them are too fuzzy and ephemeral as concepts and seem to lock-arms tightly with each other.

Instead, set ourselves the GENERAL GOAL OF WANTING TO DEVELOP ‘CHARACTER’ – that ‘extra thing’ which helps humans cope and thrive through the diverse challenges of life, then commit to fully encouraging children into A BROAD SPREAD OF CHALLENGING PURSUITS, and use our relationship with them as teachers to ensure that these are done in A DYNAMIC WHICH ALLOWS POSITIVE RATHER THAN NEGATIVE FRUITS TO EMERGE.


The kind of pursuits I’m recommending are things where, for a limited duration of time, they are the only ones that matter. They are the experiences where children commit themselves fully and strive to give the very best of themselves in the process. These experiences should cover a broad spread of endeavours, and – crucially – include things which the child is naturally good at and things which they aren’t; things which they enjoy, and things which they don’t.

So yes, this would involve some arduous physical endeavour, knee-quaking public artistic performances of some kind, utterly personal long-term creative obsessions, and intellectual adventures which leave you stunned, disorientated and questioning what you’ve always assumed. Along the way, you almost certainly would find your ‘element’ or ‘bliss’, but you wouldn’t short-circuit the formation of broader character traits by flying straight to it by the path of least resistance.

The overtone to this naturally brings to mind a competitive culture of some sort, and that is certainly a component of it. However, in pondering this, it’s worth bearing in mind the distinction between two different kinds of competition:

  • Closed, Bounded, Limited” competition – such as sports events, working for exams, proving yourself in an isolated challenging situation.
  • Open, Unbounded, Unlimited” competition – struggles to survive, to make your way through an uncertain life of relentless pressures.

The first of these can create a perfectly healthy, necessary schooling in essential character development, and can help people deal with the second, which can result in a debilitating, destructive effect.

And following-on from that, it is worth also noting the difference between two different types of stress:

  • Eustress – Positive stress which motivates, focuses energy, feels exciting and improves performance.
  • Distress – Negative stress which causes anxiety, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, causes mental or physical problems.

What is worth noting is that whether something is limited or unlimited, or is a source of eustress or distress, can, for an individual person, be a psychologically relative experience for them; We can’t simply create a definitive list of each kind, which applies equally to everyone. Rather, this is something which we manage through the DYNAMIC we apply to the situation of each child.

INDEED… a situation which initially causes a child some distress, because it feels beyond their ability to cope, could eventually become a source of eustress, because they have been carefully supported and shown that they CAN cope (the development of ‘self-efficacy’). Isn’t that what growing up in the hostile, unpredictable environment of our existence must be all about? Learning how to deal with, and cope with hitherto discomforting and threatening experiences?

Despite the apparent fulfilment here of the ‘Traditional Independent School Dream’, I do believe that the instincts to do something more are well founded. So….


Having appeared to rubbish recent moves to teach character in schools, and having appeared to wink towards the traditional all-round character education of the private sector, I do now want to show that much of what schools have recently tried to do is actually helpful, as it can provide the key dynamic through which the competitive, driven, committed approach to pursuits enables us to actually achieve the goals which we have in mind:

  • Labelling concepts helps give life to them and guides behaviour I do think that it is highly valuable to give children (and adults) a rich vocabulary to use in describing the behaviours around learning (though like the moral education we’ve done in assemblies for years, it in itself won’t guarantee changed behaviours – even if people cognitively ‘believe’ in what they preach). Essentially, it gives children a framework in which to view behaviours, and potentially internally measure themselves by.
  • The ability to think about thoughts adds agency and control Allied tightly with the previous point – children must develop the metacognitive reflective impulses to enable themselves to separate their thoughts from their actions (or indeed other thoughts) from time to time, and navigate through the framework that they’ve acquired. At this level I would also see certain simple mental habits becoming essential – suspending judgement, searching for parallels, trying to ‘take a step back’ & placing themselves amongst alternative perspectives. These really must just become reflexive responses to whatever it is that places itself in front of us. They can’t be thinking strategies; they need to be cognitive perspectives which we initially think about enough to make them something we stop thinking about and purely start thinking WITH.
  • Beliefs about the ‘self’ produce ‘self’-fulfilling prophesies Whether or not it is easy to change to it from other beliefs, the concept of ‘growth mindset’ does point to the reality that we can create self-fulfilling prophesies around our beliefs about ourselves. Developing a strong sense of self-efficacy – through the ACTUAL experience of having achieved something through our own efforts – is both the real route to ‘self-esteem’, and – to my mind – to a growth mindset.

To Summarise….

I believe that the human mind naturally develops many of its best attributes through a full engagement with a rich human life.

As educators we facilitate this through exposing children to a challenging and varied overall school experience, which continually pushes them to step out of their comfort zones and to commit themselves to wholeheartedly giving of their best.

Along the way, we give them the vocabulary to help them narrate and shape their experiences; we give them the reassurance to help them keep treading forward without too much distress; and we give them the coaching and wisdom to learn positive things from success and failure in equal measure.

Whatever we do though, we should not seek to protect them at all costs from adversity, and then seek to teach them what it would have felt like had they experienced it…