Malcolm Swan – a few memories about my PhD supervisor

Malcolm was a kind-hearted supervisor. His real passion was designing mathematical tasks. I was lucky enough to become his PhD student at the Shell Centre in the University of Nottingham in 2010. The Shell Centre provided me with funding to evaluate the impact of the Bowland Professional Development materials on secondary mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices. The materials were designed by Malcolm based on his years of experience designing tasks and classroom materials. They are superb.

Malcolm and I found that we had a spare couple of days in San Francisco in 2012, having been working with Alan Schoenfeld at UC Berkeley. We had a great time, Malcolm was always engaging and gentle company. Here we are fooling around on a cable car.

What I could never really figure out is how Malcolm could understand how students and teachers would think and act when working on the activities he designed. But he seemed to know. I know he did lots of careful observation and would refine his designs as a result. But he had something extra, some extra bit of magical imagination. It was like that of any creative, an artist, poet or writer, he had an imagined world, a very sophisticated one. When you engage with a Malcolm task you are entering his world. It is a wonderful world.

You don’t just venture alone into Malcolm’s world, he entices you to go as a group. His tasks are wonderfully infectious. Even before I met him I was using the Improving Learning in Mathematics (Standards Units) materials with low-attaining learners who had lost a lot of confidence in mathematics. They couldn’t help but argue and think together. I remember smiling at two or three year 10 girls, who initially refused to suffer the indignity of doing maths while in detention, but within a short time they were furiously debating the meaning of negative numbers and operations. A testament to the power of Malcolm’s task design.

We didn’t always agree during my time as a student. Sometimes it could be downright frustrating. Malcolm had his ideas and I had mine. But we got through. Malcolm was always patient. We realised we were never going to agree on how teachers’ beliefs worked and how they influenced what teachers did in the classroom. But through this it made me make sure I knew my stuff. It made me a better academic.

It was only in the last year or so, while training new mathematics teachers, that I really realised what a profound influence Malcolm had on my thinking about mathematics education. I stress to trainees the importance of tasks in assessment. That is real assessment, diagnostic assessment. Using tasks so you can see and understand the deep concepts and processes that learners struggle with or master. None of your gap filling rubbish.

Malcolm will be missed. Gone way too soon. But in my practice as a teacher educator and researcher Malcolm is with me always. Farewell Malcolm, I’m sure there’s a corner of heaven really busy with a card sort of yours right now.

One of my favourites from the Standards Units or Improving Learning in Mathematics

Trolling, abuse and harassment on Twitter: the context of education (eduTwitter)

I will begin with a little context, for those of you who are not involved in education and social media in the UK. The issues of trolling, abuse, harassment, free speech on social media are general, so it is probably worth you tolerating an explanation of context to begin. Following this are my own views about how to deal with such issues.

In the last seven years, a growing group of activist teachers have been espousing a return to traditional teaching. An approach where the teacher leads and learning is characterised by the memorisation of facts, methods and information. It demands a strict approach to behaviour management. There is a widespread view that teaching methods should be assessed using  science-based research. There are teachers who share some of these views, but they do not believe in all these principles of teacher-led teaching, learning as memorisation or science-based education. For them traditionalism is not a panacea or a global solution to education. The traditionalists (trads) identify this dissenting group as progressives (progs). Progressives are all educators and teachers who are not traditionalists. I imagine the traditionalists view this more as a factional dispute. But I see it as a struggle of one group to assert power and a particular viewpoint over all of education. The traditionalist would view it as two tribes, trying to prove the validity and effectiveness of their preferred method over the other’s preferred method of teaching.

On Twitter, of a weekend, evening or during the school holidays, you will observe some intense interactions. Whether you see it as one side trying to assert their view or whether you see it as two tribes. Interactions are passionate, sometimes fierce, they can be aggressive, people get furious, things can become tense. Nothing every really gets resolved, the traditionalists don’t seem to persuade the progressives and vice versa. It is a stalemate, unresolved, tensions persist; it can appear really tense and tribal.

So you have the context.

I want to talk now – within this context – about trolling, abuse, harassment, insult and offence. First trolling. A trad may put a tweet on twitter, something like “progressives ignore science and harm kids in school [link to related news article]”. To the trad this looks like a fair comment. “It’s evidenced-based, it’s true, there is no arguing with it. It’s fact.” To the prog this is first-order trolling. “Oh! Dear God! It’s more complex than that! Why would they be so reductive?” They tweet: “Trads are like fascists, they want everyone to do it their way. Idiots.” Or something of the like.

Day-in-day-out, twenty-four-seven, you can find trolling and counter trolling. It may or may not erupt into combat. If a twitter battle ensues, the warriors rush in, daubed in their war paint. They arrive in hordes. Shoulder-to-shoulder they battle. A war of words in 140 characters. “Take that!” They cry. When pride is injured, tiredness takes over or they have something other to do, they limp back home.

It’s generally good fun. No one really gets hurt. Each army usually consist of the same people. They all know each other. They are sworn enemies, but they are regulars. Just like the Sealed Knot. Nothing ever gets resolved. No one ever says, after one of these exchanges, “You know what, I was wrong, let me join your gang.” Well, not as a result of a twitter skirmish anyway.

So trolling is OK generally. It’s a thing that happens on Twitter. It happens on British EduTwitter. It’s provocative, the language can be rich and colourful. The accusations and assertions and the ad hominem can be quite fruity, on both sides. It is mostly in general terms: “trads are like …” or “progs are like …”. You know, it’s bit like West Side Story.

Abuse is more serious. This involves singling someone out and attacking them individually. Intimidating and undermining them. If this persists, then it is harassment. Repeated abuse is harassment. It is up to the individual to deal with abuse and harassment when they are subject to it. It is hard and emotionally demanding.

In the first instance, if you find that you are subject to abuse and harassment on Twitter, it is important that you are assertive. If the abuse is concerned with race, gender or sexuality, then it should be reported to Twitter and to the police. If it is a threat of violence it needs to be taken seriously. The following advice is from Twitter:

Online abuse
Being the target of online abuse is not easy to deal with. Knowing the appropriate steps to take to address your situation can help you through the process.

When to report it?
We’ve all seen something on the Internet we disagree with or have received unwanted communication. Such behavior does not necessarily constitute online abuse. If you see or receive an reply you don’t like, unfollow and end any communication with that account.

If the behavior continues, it is recommend that you block the account. Blocking will prevent that person from following you, seeing your profile image on their profile page, or in their timeline; additionally, their replies or mentions will not show in your Notifications tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search).

Abusive accounts often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond. If the account in question is a friend, try addressing the issue offline. If you have had a misunderstanding, it may be possible to clear the matter up face to face or with the help of a trusted individual.

If you continue receiving unwanted, targeted and continuous replies on Twitter, and feel it constitutes online abuse, consider reporting the behavior to Twitter (see Twitter online support for further information).

Much abuse and harassment is at a lower level. It is still serious, upsetting and unhealthy, for all involved. In these circumstances, if you find yourself the subject of abuse, if it is directed at you personally, a useful starting point is to let the person know how you feel. This might be enough to make them stop. They might have been unaware of the impact of their words or actions. It might have been a misunderstanding. It is important that the person being abused lets the abuser know the impact of what they are doing. It is only the abused person who experiences those feelings and the interaction with the bully, it is only they that communicate this to the bully. An individual being abused may not feel they can do this. The abuser or harasser may seem so much more powerful. This is where friends can lend support and should encourage the individual to be assertive.

From the bully’s perspective, the testament of the abused can be very powerful, in my view it is more likely to change the character of interactions and relationships than punitive measures.

It may not work, the bullying behaviour may persist, if so then mute, block and report. But it is a an important and powerful first step.

I was involved in a discussion this morning about this (with a trad :)). Their view was that friends and associates should confront abuse on behalf of the person being abused. I disagree. In the prog versus trad context, this just exacerbates the tribalism and deepens tensions. It is important that your ‘tribe’, should you be associated with one, support you and not try to rectify the situation through confrontation, by proxy, with the bully. This leads to gang warfare and not to a productive solution. It also leads to false flags about online abuse i.e. using vexatious accusations of abuse in a harassing and intimidating way.

There are many things said and presented on Twitter that are offensive and insulting. It has to be remembered that offence is not necessarily abuse. If something is insulting or offensive and it is not aimed at you personally, you are not being abused, you are being offended. This is uncomfortable, but healthy. It is the exercise of free speech. If you don’t want to be offended do something else and don’t engage with social media. Offence as hatred toward a particular race, gender or sexuality is a hate crime that’s different. That must be reported.

Social media is a vibrant space for free speech and to share ideas. It should be kept that way. Hate should be called out. Prepare to be offended or insulted. Act assertively, if you are intimidated, bullied or abused.

On this issue, I welcome your comments below.

The learning styles debate: a triumph of rationality over criticality

A number of well-meaning and well-intentioned neuroscientists and psychologists signed a letter in today’s Guardian saying that the concept of Learning Styles has no evidential base. Learning styles are well and truly debunked.

I don’t disagree.

What alarms me is the prioritisation and politicisation of this issue. Learning styles have been attributed, as a bête noire, by neoconservative educators, as dangerous and foolish – a symbol of the maleficence of progressive education.

For the neoconservative educator, the destruction of learning styles represents a victorious battle in a war against progressive education. The fiction is that a progressive cabal has imposed such monstrous practices on teachers, for example: learning styles, group work and discovery learning. And science, when done properly and rigorously leads to the destruction of these myths, one-by-one. Science will destroy progressivism in death by randomised control trial.

Educational neoconservativism is a broad coalition. It includes the teacher who simply wants authority in their own classroom, who is apolitical. The egoistic demagogic rationalist, who sees opportunity in elevating themselves amongst traditionally-oriented teachers. The knowledge evangelicals, who claim to be apolitical, and it is simply about truth and giving (disadvantaged) children access to powerful knowledge through a conservative canon. There is an unholy alliance – whether it be inadvertent or by volition –  with the libertarian freemarket right wing, intent on the commidification of knowledge and the privatisation of state education.

Because, for the freemarketeer, there is nothing that suits economic rationalism more than procedural rationalism, i.e. the rationality of neoconservative education.

Learning styles were introduced into schools in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s. Their introduction was part of an attempt to develop personalisation, the identification of sensory preferences for the formulation of learning experience. Learning style identification was streamlined into an easily implemented questionnaire and data was kept and used by teachers to inform the planning of their lessons. To make them aurally, kinaesthetically or visually oriented for learners’ various preference.

The context of the introduction of learning styles in England was against a backdrop of  a cross-party consensus on neoliberal reforms. Marketisation through competition, commodification of knowledge and pedagogy and per-pupil funding, creating a quasi-voucher scheme. Learning styles under New Labour in the 2000s were typical of Michael Barber’s deliverology, where policy could be turned into prescribed action and monitored in the extent to which it was implemented. A way of showing, to the electorate, that a policy such as personalisation, could be implemented through a system of rationality and accountability. There was little concern about the efficacy of the process.

Neoliberal reforms, as result of financial liberalisation, have resulted in increased wealth inequality within nations like the UK and US. Unfettered state-subsidised capitalism permit the rich to get richer, while the rest become poorer. Neoliberal reforms in education have preserved the inequality that has developed in the wider political economy. We are now in a situation where large private-sector multi-academy trusts are in receipt of public money to expand their education businesses and develop regional monopolistic control on the education of middle class pupils. Schools in more challenging areas suffer as a result of an unequal and unfair education system.

When academic colleagues launch a public attack on learning styles, I wonder why they do not take a more critical stance on what is happening in our education systems. Are learning styles – while they have many limitations – really the major issue that we have to address in education at present? Should we not be attacking the privatisation of education and the growing inequalities of society? Should we not be attacking the reduction in funding given to schools?

I fear that these scientists have been hoodwinked into a debate by neoconservatives as party to a false battle against progressivism. They may be acting in good faith and in absolute belief that science provides us with truth. I don’t know. But I do see that science can be used as an anti-intellectual force, the search for evidence and validity becomes a parochial exercise and denies the context of political and economic forces that drive things.

It is necessary that we approach evidence, causality and context with a critical eye. Otherwise we can end up focussing our energies on the relatively inconsequential, as we have done in the endless debates about learning styles. I implore all to focus on what is really damaging our education system.

Blob life: overwhelmed by knowledge

Yesterday, at about 4pm, work kind of ground to a halt. I found myself distracted, with a nagging feeling that I should be revising a paper, but not actually being able to bring myself to it.

I did the pretty routine job of dealing with emails, emails that did not require much conscious thought. Satisfying in terms of production and job completion, but soulless and not deeply satisfying.

I looked at my bookshelves, books that I had collected on education and mathematics education. Books that I had inherited from my predecessor who was retiring. Books that I had picked up from other members of the faculty as they retired.

2016-11-18-09-59-20I thought to myself, “there are lots of these books that I haven’t actually read.” I began pulling them off the shelves. Finding things that I didn’t know I had, a book on gender and mathematics and a book on parents and maths. The gender book will be useful for a masters student and the other a colleague will find interesting. I leave them on the table.

By 4.30pm I was getting committed to a book sort. Should have been something I was doing at the beginning of the day. I was starting to pile up and collate books in themes. Certainly ‘research methods’ is an important and regularly used section, so are my class, society, social justice, sociology books, and then there are my psychology and learning books. Oh and the books on professional learning and professional development. I was pleased with the slightest semblance of emergent order. But it was all late in the day.

I lingered a while on Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. I had been reading about Scruton’s influence on education in the 1970s and 1980s. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read it there and then and my office was now trashed in a minor way (enough disorder not to be ordered).

I was overwhelmed with all the knowledge that was there on my shelf, and how much human effort had been used to generate it. What’s the point? No one lives long enough to read all this stuff. How do we make use of all this knowledge to improve education?

Perhaps I can write a book about it.


I am a grammar school dropout

As the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, floats the idea of a return to grammar schools, the debate about social mobility rages. And I tweeted I went to grammar school, that I left at 15 with one O Level.

But my story is not so straightforward. It is a story about me, grammar schools, comprehensives, teaching approaches, policy and the implementation of that policy.

Steve King Edward VI Grammar School 1976In 1976 I got the news that I passed the 11+ examination and that I would be going to King Edward VI Grammar School in East Retford, Nottinghamshire. I remember sitting the exam, the first formal exam I had ever taken, in the dining hall at Thrumpton County Primary School. There was no exam preparation, as there would be now for SATs, I just sat the exam. The result meant that I would not be going to the secondary modern, Sir Frederick Milner (which my father attended), nor would I be going to the town’s comprehensive, Ordsall Hall.

King Edward VI Grammar School was small, about 400 boys, with a sixth form. It was a gateway for the middle class and the aspirant middle class to university and on to the professions and to senior management. My parents were beginning to do well with the furniture and carpet shops they had in Retford, New Ollerton and Gainsborough. The 1970s were the start of deregulated credit, expanded consumerism and house purchase. The good folk of Retford were furnishing their homes individually and colourfully: fitted axminster carpets, Dralon three-piece suites, teak dining-room sets and made-to-measure curtains. My father was able to buy a new car every couple of years and we were able to have the occasional summer holiday abroad.
The now empty site of King Edward VI Grammar School, East Retford, Nottinghamshire

But when I think back to the kids who passed their 11+ and got a place at the grammar school, the split seemed to be more about social class; the middle class and aspiring middle class went to the grammar schools (the girls went to the high school). The others went to the secondary modern or the comprehensive. I have no evidence, but I believe the decision on places was not solely based on the outcome of the 11+.

I enjoyed the first two years at the grammar school. It was small, it felt safe and I enjoyed the lessons. I did very well in annual examinations. I talked about science with friends out of school. I read and was interested.

King Edwards 1X
Form 1X 1976, I’m back left!

Interestingly, teaching approaches were both traditional and progressive. The traditional teachers were experienced grammar school masters: austere and teacher-centred. My favourite was my Latin teacher Bernard ‘Boris’ McNeil-Watson. In spite of traditional formality, Boris was warm, witty and well-liked. I loved how he would send us out during a double lesson so he could have a smoke and how he became animated as he recited passages of Latin from the textbook Latin for Today.

In contrast there was a new cohort of teachers with new ideas about teaching and learning, they were attempting to introduce more progressive student-centred approaches. Phil Blinston was one of these teachers. His first post was at King Edwards and in his first year he was my form teacher, English teacher and Religious Education Teacher. I specifically recall how Phil had us debating fox hunting in RE. I remember being passionate, but not particularly articulate in my speech against fox hunting. I felt a sense of liberation and subversion, as I was given opportunity to express myself and hold a view in a school setting that was principally traditional and austere.

The mixture of traditional and progressive teaching made for a rich experience and left a lasting impression on me.

There were big changes by the end of my third year. Retford had held out against Labour’s educational reforms and had retained its grammar schools. But in 1978 pressure was mounting to end the selective tripartite system. My mother opposed it with other parents and became active in the Parent Teacher Association, they wrote to Shirley Williams. Their campaign was dismissed with a postcard from the Labour Secretary of State. Resistance was futile. I went into the fourth year as it merged with the secondary modern and there was an intake of girls into the first year.

I found the transition to a comprehensive extremely destabilizing, the school went from being small and well-ordered with compliant students to being larger and more chaotic. The change in population meant a change in culture but that would need time to establish. While a grammar school stream was retained the changes were too fast and not well planned. Some time in the fourth year I stopped going to school, I worked in the furniture shop or stayed at home. In the fifth form I just stopped going altogether and missed most of my examinations.

Of course I felt cheated by this, by the disturbance, and I felt angry that my stable selective school had been disturbed and my education disrupted. I felt sympathetic to grammar schools through my twenties. Although I began to reflect on the issues of selection and socioeconomic segregation.

When I trained to be a teacher at Sheffield University in 20o1, my first placement  was in a large comprehensive, Meadowhead School, in the south of the city. The effect of this made me regress, and I felt the same way as I did as my school became a comprehensive in 1979, it felt large and chaotic and I felt ill-equipped to work and teach there. I felt confused, isolated and anxious. It was no surprise then that I failed my first placement. I did however go on to successfully complete my second placement at Valley Comprehensive in Worksop. I subsequently worked as a mathematics teacher in challenging comprehensive schools in Cleethorpes and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire.

My view of grammar schools and selective education has changed. From being supportive, to ambivalent, to now, where I am strongly opposed to selective education. Selection creates segregation, increases inequality and does not encourage social mobility. There is an abundance of evidence to support this (see for example Sutton Trust).

I have heard it said that the argument should be that all schools should be as good as grammars: they should have an academic curriculum, behaviour should be of a high standard and they should observe some of the traditions. What they overlook is that teaching in many comprehensive schools is so different, it requires different kinds of skills from teachers. They need to have extensive understanding of the sociocultural context and an understanding of the psychosocial aspects of pupils’ learning. Teachers need to employ more advanced and ambitious pedagogy to meet the needs of pupils in a comprehensive setting.

Future education policy, therefore, should be focussed on teachers as professionals, highly trained, with excellent pay and conditions, as champions of education and democracy in their community and as experts in their subject areas as well as in the practical and theoretical aspects of teaching and learning.

Perhaps grammar school dropouts like me have the experience and perspective to contribute to this.





Honest, ill-judged or deeply cynical? Nicky Morgan at the NASUWT conference

At first sight, a brave act. Following what has already become a deeply controversial education White Paper, proposing the forced academisation of all schools in England, Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan addressed the NASUWT annual conference this morning in Birmingham. A tough gig by anyone’s standards. I am a little puzzled why she chose to do this. It was the first time a Conservative education secretary gave a speech at a teaching union conference since 1997.

Again on the face of it, an act of courage, but was Morgan coming to the NASUWT conference to be honest and sincere about her new policy, was it misjudged or was there another purpose?

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, as I understand from a few Tweets, had asked delegates to be restrained and polite. The General Secretary traditionally holds an intimate address to conference on the first evening, where public and press are not admitted. No doubt it was during this time that she would have requested that delegates be respectful.

Morgan began her speech, I understand, in a supportive tone, wanting to protect teachers from online abuse and from elsewhere. This prompted some warmish applause. It seems there was a little isolated heckling, but on the whole delegates behaved reasonably as she outlined policy from the White Paper. The initial restraint and politeness did not last. It was the point at which she accused the union of talking-down the profession and creating a negative impression of teaching, that the vast majority of the audience could no longer contain themselves, and were reduced to incredulous laughter.

Morgan asked that the teaching unions get behind the Government’s reforms and this combined with her direct criticism of the unions, in relation to recruitment and retention, was not a conciliatory or respectful line to take. There was no need to go there. There was no need to directly provoke conference delegates at this and the NUT conference that is concurrently taking place in Brighton.

So why?

My view is that the Government is expecting trouble over their proposed reforms. There is widespread opposition to forced academisation. It is even reported that members of Conservative party and even some Conservative MPs have expressed reservations. The Government has been bruised by poor public opinion in relation to the BMA and the action taken by the junior doctors. Morgan’s speech is a tactic. She has been sent to get sound-bites of badly behaved teachers to pre-empt and undermine any action taken by the teaching profession in the future. If you think I am being a little too cynical then imagine if you were in Morgan’s position and were genuinely looking to garner support and cooperation from a profession that is opposed to your reforms. Wouldn’t you have adopted a different tone and used a different line of argument? Would you have not attempted to reconcile views? Morgan’s line was provocative and divisive.

Although, we cannot know exactly what the Secretary of State was thinking, I have to conclude that Morgan’s speech was at best ill-judged, at worst deeply cynical. Thankfully though, delegates at the NASUWT conference were largely restrained.

It’s good to talk

This I wrote earlier this year in response to furious ‘debates’ on twitter about pedagogy. I decided to post it on my blog in response to this tweet. This is not the only piece of research that establishes that evidence alone does not change people’s views.

The debate over the relative merits of traditional or progressive teaching has become boring. This suggestion has caused outrage in some corners of education social media. While it has prompted a shrugging indifference by others. Since there are strongly held views about the right to have this debate, I thought I would re-examine it. I also examine the nature and value of debate in resolving this issue.

The main objection to subduing this debate is, first of all, simply, that it closes it down. But more importantly – and with some allusion to a sinister plot to undermine open discussion – it removes the right of teachers to express their views and have a voice. Moreover, that it is an attack on teachers’ professionalism. I use little hyperbole in conveying the strong feelings that were prompted by the suggestion that the trad/prog debate was over.

There is more.

There have been arguments that it goes against fundamental democratic principles by not allowing debate on this issues. Appealing to the precedence of academic and philosophical discursive engagement as established practice.  There have been claims too, this debate is central to improving education. Indicating a view that debate would be the means by which one or the other, traditional or progressive, could be proven the most effective.

On the other side of this debate about a debate. Teachers have argued, from a practical perspective, that I do both anyway; I have some rote learning and learning of facts, but I have some groupwork and project work. Others, have argued that the debate cannot really help improve things. Traditional and progressive are abstractions of what really happens in classrooms: they do not reflect what goes on in schools.

A further issue is that there are differences in the extent to which the two approaches can be defined. Traditional can be more clearly defined as a teacher-led transmission approach to learning, featuring teacher explanations, demonstration and instruction, followed by student practice or exercise, followed by review or assessment. Progressive approaches are less easy to define, yes you can say student-centred, you might refer to inquiry- or discovery-based learning, and you might refer to dialogic teaching, student collaboration or groupwork. But the variants are vast and approaches diverse. It is easier to define progressive forms as the things that are not traditional. The debate becomes traditional (T) vs not-traditional (not T). This makes debating the issue almost impossible, for reasons that I will attempt to make apparent.

What is a debate?

The purpose of academic debate is to explore different positions and viewpoints. It involves people communicating their views and presenting an argument and evidence in support. There is opportunity to question each other’s positions and examine the arguments. This presents each with an opportunity to reconsider and explore their thinking. It allows the quality of argument to develop. It is a meeting place of ideas, some of which might be in opposition. So it is a forum to formulate new understanding based on the ideas put forward. It might be opportunity for synthesis; for participants to formulate new positions or perspectives with which they collaborate and contribute to a shared and inclusive position. The character of debate is one of collegiality, which does not mean accepting without question what participants have to offer, but it does require that views are respected.

Suppose the debate begins and ends with opposition, that there is no ultimate agreement and that parties cannot find any shared ground. The debate is characterised by some strongly held entrenched positions with opponents unwilling to give any ground. Beliefs and views become fiercely contested. On social media this is where debates can end up.

The debate is no longer a debate it is a dispute.

How do you proceed once in dispute? I have observed people try to examine the logic of their opponent’s argument and to impress on them the sheer weight of scientific evidence supporting their position. With what aim? Presumably the aim would be to change the opponent’s beliefs. Yet changing someone’s beliefs in a dispute situation is unlikely.

In the traditional versus progressive debate, whichever side you take – assuming you do take a position – the evidence is equivocal. There is always going to be an argument, one way or the other. The implication is that the views on either side of the debate are based on beliefs rather than certain truths.

As an opponent in a dispute, what are the options? Agree to disagree? Or, pursue further argument and attempt to disarm the opposition with overwhelming evidence and by exposing the holes in their arguments?

If you pursue the latter course what is the likelihood of changing their view? The answer is close to nil. To change peoples’ views, it necessary to engage with their ideas over a period of time, to understand their perspective and the basis for that perspective. You collaborate. In return they do the same. In the end you learn about yourself and others. They learn about you.

Debate will get you so far with this, but only so far, because you don’t have opportunity for shared experience of practice (that’s where collaborative action research is a valuable activity).

What is destructive is the point at which the debate becomes a dispute. It becomes intractable and irresolvable: views even become more entrenched. Of course you might resolve a dispute in a civil court of law, but even after a judgement has been made, it is not going to change people’s beliefs.

Debate is valuable, but if it ends up in dispute, continuing the trad/ prog debate is so much worse than boring.

Political activism and the educator

The Labour Party leadership campaign this summer motivated me to become more politically active. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign represented a chance for greater democracy and fairness. I felt that for the first time in my life there was a chance that things could change. Importantly, I believed I had the power to contribute to change. Within a short time I became a political activist. I joined the Labour Party, and after Corbyn was elected got involved with the Cambridge Area Momentum group. A national group which was established to carry forward the grassroots enthusiasm generated during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Overall I felt a greater sense of political motive.

I decided, like my colleague and friend at the University of Nottingham, Peter Gates, to integrate my activism with my personal and professional life. I have never been comfortable with compartmentalising my life. I like it simple. But it comes with its challenges. The following are my reflections on being an educator, a researcher and on being politically active.

The thing is about people on benefits: talking with a taxi driver

I was leading some professional development at a Cambridgeshire school in December 2015. I had to get a taxi. The driver asked me what I did. I told him. We got onto the subject of welfare and benefits. He said he thought too many people had too little incentive to work. I disagreed. I explained that I thought people on benefits had been unfairly represented on television and in some newspapers. I also explained that I believed the way to help people who find themselves trapped on benefits is through education and through supporting communities. Things do not change for these people through punitive measures, they change by having opportunities, having the skills, knowledge and confidence to take those opportunities.

We talked about whether the nation could afford this. He said we had overspent and the country was in debt. I explained that this had been misrepresented. Debt as a percentage of GDP was at a reasonable level, cutting public investment in poorer communities would add to the national debt because communities in decline cost more in the long term in terms of health, crime and welfare.

Our conversation was robust but good natured. But in the end he had some advice for me. He told me that someone like me in education should not be political. That I had a responsibility not to impose my political views.

Advice from a political philosopher

A mathematics educator colleague and friend from Loughborough University had, it seemed, been thinking about being a researcher and being politically active. He Tweeted the following.

It made me think.

Bas van der Vossen, a political philosopher, carefully and thoroughly examines whether political philosophers should also be politically active. Marx said it was a necessity. That the point of philosophy is to change the world. But van der Vossen argues that in order to conduct effective philosophy, it is important not be drawn into activism; to maintain impartiality and objectivity. Matthew agrees and that by analogy, educational researchers must also stay out of political debate.

I disagree.

Imposing my political views and biasing my research: a defence

So as a teacher – the argument goes – it is important not to influence the views and politics of those for whom you have responsibility for teaching. A teacher holds a position of trust and therefore must not use that power to coerce and unduly influence.

As a researcher, engaging in campaigns and activism makes it difficult to detach those aims from research. The researcher will inadvertently push an agenda through their research.

Yet, I feel strongly about the level of  inequality in our society. It is a political choice not to provide adequate services to support communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. I do not believe the freemarket is the answer. But I am not opposed to business either.

The political educator and researcher

When I trained to be mathematics teacher, I soon became concerned with New Labour’s education policy. It oversimplified the learning process and undermined teachers’ professionalism. I became involved in the NASUWT and regularly attended the annual conference. The current education policy under the Conservative government is concerned with further privatisation and an even greater oversimplification of teaching and learning. I could not imagine that was even possible. As a teacher I have a duty to campaign for education on behalf of other teachers and on behalf of students and communities.

Even when I was less politically active, I was keen to encourage students to be aware of the politics of mathematics. In the classroom, I showed students how mathematics and statistics are used to influence opinion and beliefs. We looked at and discussed news items that used statistics. I explained how mathematics has and continues to be used to exploit those without mathematical knowledge. I was keen to develop mathematical literacy as citizenship.

Now as a teacher educator, I believe that trainee teachers, in order to become professionals and future leaders in education, should be in a position to critique education policy. They should understand how mathematics pedagogy might be effective with different groups of learners, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who do not find the learning of mathematics straightforward. I also want trainees to be aware of their own working conditions and pay, and that professionals need, at times, to act with solidarity to campaign for improvements. Improvements that allow them to be better professionals.

As an educator I encourage students to be critical and examine the bigger questions about the politics of mathematics and the politics of education. I draw the line at trying to impose a particular viewpoint or recruit students to political organisations.

As a researcher and academic, my work is applied social science. It is concerned with how to understand and improve educational practice and structures: to improve learning and consequently to improve society. My research is within a political context. I am not researching as a disinterested observer or as non-participant, I am part of that process. My beliefs drive my actions as much as logic and reason.

If I am politically active how can my research be valid?

The philosophy underpinning my approach to research is pragmatism. The philosophy proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910), and developed further by John Dewey (1859-1952) in and around education. Pragmatism presents truth not as determined through abstract reasoning,  i.e. through rationalism. Neither can it be determined through experience, i.e. through empiricism. For James, truth could only really be determined by what actually works in practice. Pragmatism is a practical kind of truth.

In my research this means carefully observing classrooms, theorising practice, developing approaches and assessing their impact using qualitative and quantitative approaches. My starting point is exploring existing practice, identifying and explaining patterns of behaviour using social science theory. The next stage involves formulating questions about how learning is taking place. This is followed by propositions about how practice might be changed or developed. Finally the change is examined and its usefulness is considered. The test of validity is the extent to which developments are implemented and that implementation is sustained. The approach is further explained and exemplified here.

The way in which I integrate my political activism with my teaching and research is by giving students the opportunity to be politically aware of the subject being taught but not imposing a particular view. In my research, validity is sought through pragmatism, it allows decisions to be guided by what works rather than by a political position.

I believe that being political is not really a choice. You can try and ignore political inclinations or you can try and integrate them into your practice in a critical and ethical way.



Into the VAK uum

This is a response to Peter, but also some more general points about VAK and learning styles.


I acknowledge that there is much evidence that using VAK learning styles is not that useful in schools. However, the evidence is equivocal. Most importantly, there is so much more to learning theory. If then, as it has been claimed, VAK is still in use schools, then the solution would be, over a period of time, to encourage teachers to participate in PD with an emphasis on learning theory (I do that, for a fee, perching! :)). In my experience, even starting with VAK is a useful way of developing a sophisticated perspective on learning, through dialogue over cases and examples.

A further point – that I so humorously raised in my previous blog – let’s get this into perspective.  There are some really critical issues in education, in schools. VAK just ain’t the end of the world. I fear that those that make it so have another agenda and a point to make (perhaps more on this to follow). VAK makes me cringe too, but it is not as damaging as other aspects of our education system  (again see my previous blog to see my priorities here).

A final point: what is really helpful is for teachers to be able to clinically analyse the learning they observe in the classroom. That is the fundamental nature of (formative) assessment. To be able to observe, analyse, diagnose and develop tasks and activities. I disapprove of a model that is simply about implementing a proven programme or method. There is so much more to being a professional teacher.



Mass debate about education: my top 1000 priorities for schools

  1. New in at number one (as correctly prompted by Sue Cowley) Children’s mental health.
  2. Improvements in social justice and reductions in inequality.
  3. Increasing democratic participation and decision-making for students, parents, communities and teachers.
  4. Increasing democratic accountability of schools to local communities.
  5. Improve professional standing of teachers, ensure appropriate work-life balance, fair pay and conditions. Teacher well-being and mental health.
  6. Make teacher training a 5 year doctorate qualification. First 2 years university-school partnership, then 3 years in practice.
  7. More professional development opportunities for teachers, teachers having access to masters-level qualification at least.
  8. A more open discussion about data, evidence and research claims and its potential to improve practice and how it might impact on learning.
  9. An open discussion about the role of the private sector in public education.
  10. Greater transparency in the formation of policy.
  11. A review of testing and accountability.
  12. Accountability measures through sampling rather than universal testing.
  13. Ofsted to be more independent of government.
  14. Greater funding for a wider variety of educational research, reduce focus on RCTs.

28. Letting teachers who want to use synthetic phonics use them if they find them useful.

995. Review teaching practice which involves teachers categorising students as having a V, A or K learning style.

997. Review whether teachers wanting kids in rows memorising stuff is a good or bad thing.