Wild-eyed conspiracy theories

Or what to do when you've lost the argument


Over the last ten years, a teacher-led movement has emerged, centered on the UK, that has questioned many of the educational orthodoxies of the past. It has been enabled by social media, Twitter and the ability for anyone to publish their thoughts in blog-posts without having to pitch to an editor or set-up a magazine.

It is easy to forget what it was like in the before-times. In 2008, the Building Learning Power website could claim ‘masses of scientific evidence’ for its dubious learning-to-learn approach and be taken seriously by schools. In 2004, the UK government released a practice guide on how to cater to students’ preferred learning styles, a notorious ‘neuromyth’.

By pursuing evidence, three major themes have emerged. The first is to question the evidence for whatever funky initiative is being proposed by a government, consultant or school leadership team, particularly those stemming from ideological and romantic views of childhood. The second is a recognition that explicit teaching has been neglected, unfairly maligned and actually has a robust evidence base. The third is a realisation that there is no evidence to support the fashionable idea of replacing rigorous academic content with a nebulous 21st century, cross-curricular, project-based, makerspace, make-up-another-word-beginning-with-C skills agenda and that the content of the curriculum remains as important as ever.

I would typify this movement as doubtful, cautious and measured. While grand claims are greeted with scepticism, only small claims are advanced. There are many blog posts on the arcane details of planning lessons and plenty of disagreements even within the constraints of an evidence-based approach. I am not personally convinced by the case for ‘dual coding’ even though others are. And I can imagine plenty of my favourite bloggers struggling to cope with working in my maths department with our centrally planned curriculum.

What I am pretty sure about is that those of us who argue for a more evidence-informed approach are not a ‘cabal’. We operate in plain sight. Everyone knows what we think because we compulsively write about it. There are no hidden agendas. Where we can influence policy, we will. And we will do so pragmatically, across party lines. It seems to be an odd feature of this discussion that left-wing politicians are largely, if not completely, uninterested in what we have to say.

Another odd feature is how we have come under the most ferocious and unhinged attack from those who really should know better. Most recently, Guy Claxton - of Building Learning Power fame - has called advocates of explicit teaching and a knowledge-rich curriculum “DIRKists” and has tried to infer some lurid conspiracy from the fact that people who agree with each other often endorse each others’ books.

Another example is from Yorkshire Bylines, part of a network of online magazines set-up by the March for Change UK anti-Brexit group. In an article in April this year, someone called Jack Blythe regales us with a fever dream of guilt-by-association spanning former education minister Michael Gove, EduTwitter and the authors of a recent government report on racism in the UK (there’s an excellent long read on this report by Damian Counsell in Quillette). At one point, we are presented with tweets from a former official where the official suggests he’s heard that, ‘notable twitterati were… palpably, and utterly, useless in school.’ Watch those claws. Ouch.

What Blythe doesn’t do, of course, is challenge the basis of what any of these awful twitterati are arguing for. Because that would require a little more than innuendo. That would require hard work and solid evidence. Instead, Blythe resorts to the common tactic of arguing that his ‘divisive and populist’ opponents do not have the authority to comment whereas his allies have this authority in abundance and are being tragically ignored. Oh, woe!

I find the charge of ‘divisiveness’ particularly amusing in its lack of self-awareness. It basically means, ‘these people don’t agree with me’ and versions of it have been used to justify silencing dissidents in every authoritarian regime.

And you can tell that the educational establishment in Britain think that levelling the charge of divisive ‘right-wing populism’ at ordinary teacher bloggers who are neither ostensibly right-wing nor populist is a winning argument because they are publishing special issues of journals on the topic, complete with flawed and ethically dubious sociological research. Within their tiny circle of influence, they must find this charge compelling.

I guess it is a kind of compliment. As their gatekeeping power slides away under the democratising power of the internet, they are thrashing about, looking for something to grip that will provide purchase. But nobody cares. Certainly not anyone in power who can give them back the authority they crave. They are howling their conspiratorial prophecies into the void and teachers have moved on.