This one weird trick will protect your ideas from scrutiny
I started blogging in 2012. Much has changed over the years, but the potholes in reasoning that bust our suspension and send us off the road have not been filled.
I took to my keyboard to criticise the bad ideas I had seen implemented in schools in the previous 15 years of my teaching career. I wanted to hold these ideas up to scrutiny. Maybe I was wrong about them. Maybe I was right. But let’s thrash it out, argument versus argument and evidence versus evidence. I soon learnt that most of my opponents would not accept the terms of the debate.
When I wrote of ‘progressive education’, I was told that it did not exist or, even if it did, it was an historical movement that was no longer current or maybe it was something that nobody fully aligned with and so it was not worth discussing. Providing statements made about ‘progressive education’ by John Dewey or, latterly, Alfie Kohn made no difference. I did not understand these statements or maybe the authors of them did not understand what they were writing about.
When I turned to the education literature, I found another label that was broadly synonymous with many of the teaching practices associated with the philosophy of progressive education: constructivism. But again it appeared that I did not understand this term well enough. Constructivism is a theory of learning and has nothing to say about teaching methods. And anyway, what kind of constructivism was I addressing? Cognitive, social or radical?
Kirschner, Sweller and Clark had a go at addressing the labelling problem in their seminal 2006 paper. By including every term they could think of in the title of, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” they probably thought they had all bases covered, but they were wrong. Apparently, nobody uses ‘minimal’ guidance when teaching and so the scope for flatulent equivocation is endless.
And so it is with a sense of weary, wryly amused recognition that I observe the current discussion in the US about ideology in the classroom. The right have started a culture war, apparently. This war was obviously not started by teachers teaching children the revealed truth that society is structurally racist, dominated by whiteness and white supremacy, and that white children have white privilege and suffer from white fragility when you point this out. No, this war was started by conservatives who tried to label this teaching as ‘woke ideology’ or ‘critical race theory’, neither of which exist or, even if they do, are not properly understood by the conservatives who are using these terms.
It’s a neat trick.