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.
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.