On compromise

//On compromise

The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what circumstances does the exercise and vindication of the right, thus conceded in theory, become a positive duty in practice? If the majority are bound to tolerate dissent from the ruling opinions and beliefs, under what conditions and within what limitations is the dissentient imperatively bound to avail himself of this toleration? How far, and in what way, ought respect either for immediate practical convenience, or for current prejudices, to weigh against respect for truth? For how much is it well that the individual should allow the feelings and convictions of the many to count, when he comes to shape, to express, and to act upon his own feelings and convictions? Are we only to be permitted to defend general principles, on condition that we draw no practical inferences from them? Is every other idea to yield precedence and empire to existing circumstances, and is the immediate and universal workableness of a policy to be the main test of its intrinsic fitness?

On Compromise, John Morley

Whenever two or more competing ideas are in circulation there will always be those who call for compromise. To do a bit of both. To exercise a bit of give and take. The dictionary is instructive on this: The noun is defined innocuously enough: an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions. But the verb’s more damning definition is: the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few months now, ever since I expressed my view that compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled in this post. As aphorisms go it’s nicely pithy, but does it contain any truth? Well, that maybe depends on why we set out to compromise. If it’s to appease others than we have a problem. As Margaret Thatcher said, “If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.” She was famous for refusing to compromise: “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.” I do realise I maybe on shaky ground with some readers by setting Old Maggie up as someone to emulate; inflexibility is clearly not a positive virtue. But she’s got a point; if we’re only interested in appeasing others, we will be buffeted by the winds of change and may will founder on the rock of opinion.

Now, I’m not saying we should never compromise. Clearly this would lead to a pointlessly uncomfortable existence. Robert Louis Stephenson rightly pointed out that, “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.” It’s a practical and realistic approach to many of life’s niggling little irritants. But would we compromise on our principles? On what we hold most dear? Speaking for myself, I’m prepared to compromise on anything except that which matters. This doesn’t have to be aggressive. Gandhi, known for passive resistance was nothing if not a man of principle, and he had pretty clear views on this:  “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”  In typically uncompromising form, highly principled Principal, John Tomsett, mentioned my axiom in passing in his opening speech at the recent #NTENRED conference in York and said, “I don’t think I can become less principled but I do believe in a bit more compromise.” And so do we all. As long as we can retain those pesky principles. My principles are my fundamentals. If I’m prepared to compromise on what I believe most passionately to be true what would I be other than a coward?

By these lights, compromise is a refuge, a hiding place for those without strongly held guiding principles. And that’s fine. I don’t say that if you lack these principles you are somehow lesser; there are many areas of my life where I have no strongly held opinion. I am therefore happy to compromise. But who among us compromises on what really matters? And where does that lead us? Ruskin believed, “You may either win your peace or buy it: win it, by resistance to evil; buy it, by compromise with evil.” Strong stuff and throwing around such words as evil in terms of education debate is unlikely to win over hearts and minds. And that’s an important point: How far should we moderate our views? In his extraordinary 1886 essay On Compromise, John Morley set out to explore these very issues:

According to the current assumptions of the writer and the preacher, the one commanding law is that men should cling to truth and right, if the very heavens fall. In principle this is universally accepted. To the partisans of authority and tradition it is as much a commonplace as to the partisans of the most absolute and unflinching rationalism. Yet in practice all schools alike are forced to admit the necessity of a measure of accommodation in the very interests of truth itself. Fanatic is a name of such ill repute, exactly because one who deserves to be called by it injures good causes by refusing timely and harmless concession; by irritating prejudices that a wiser way of urging his own opinion might have turned aside; by making no allowances, respecting no motives, and recognising none of those qualifying principles, which are nothing less than necessary to make his own principle true and fitting in a given society. The interesting question in connection with compromise obviously turns upon the placing of the boundary that divides wise suspense in forming opinions, wise reserve in expressing them, and wise tardiness in trying to realise them, from unavowed disingenuousness and self-illusion, from voluntary dissimulation, and from indolence and pusillanimity. These are the three departments or provinces of compromise. Our subject is a question of boundaries. And this question, being mainly one of time and circumstance, may be most satisfactorily discussed in relation to the time and the circumstances which we know best, or at least whose deficiencies and requirements are most pressingly visible to us.

And the “time and circumstance” I know best is education. Here are three principles on which I suggest we should not compromise:

  • Children’s behaviour in lessons should never get in the way of the teacher teaching or other pupils learning; our expectation should be that they are respectful, hard-working and cooperative.
  • Teachers should be supported by their school to enable them to teach to the best of their ability; extraneous demands should be stripped away to allow an expectation of professional excellence through reflection and development.
  • There ought never be an assumption that children from a particular social class be taught differently to others. Powerful knowledge is the right of every student.

One thing I’m more than happy to compromise on is how to teach. I have some view about what I think works best and I have some evidence I think supports these views. But I’d never attempt to compel anyone else into following my advice – I may well be wrong. And the likelihood that I’m wrong increases when applied to other personalities and contexts. Contrary to what you may think, I’m not quite that arrogant.

Anyway, let’s allow WB Yeats the last word:

You know what the Englishman’s idea of compromise is? He says, “Some people say there is a God. Some people say there is no God. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two statements.”

Related posts

On dichotomies

On behaviour

2014-05-05T16:06:39+00:00April 30th, 2014|Featured|


  1. On Compromise | The Echo Chamber April 30, 2014 at 12:26 am - Reply

    […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. Diane Leedham April 30, 2014 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Thank you for this post David which I enjoyed very much. In addition to your Indiana Jones style rope bridge illustrative analogy, readers may know this David McKee book, elements of which also seem apt for the sometimes difficult relationships you describe? It has a happy ending too! http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51tkzvgZ1NL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX342_SY445_CR,0,0,342,445_SH20_OU02_.jpg
    I did try to include a pic but the comment functionality wouldn’t play ball.

    I suspect yet another debate could ensue about the virtues and dangers of compromise … I have watched individuals I respect compromise their principles with the laudable aim of trying to influence other points of view from within existing structures .. .. only to find that perhaps they had not brought a long enough spoon to the banquet. The devil they were dining with ultimately corrupted their principles far more than the compromise had effected any of the desired changes. That’s actually my personal take on the origin of a lot of the travails brought on by the Strategies .. but let’s not return to that here!
    My first two weeks on Twitter have been – interesting! Much energetic debate and defence of passionately held positions; thought provoking insights into unfamiliar research; new perspectives on different professional points of view; an ever lengthening list of ‘must read’ books backed up on my Kindle : all of these immensely valuable in constructing a better understanding of where the profession is now in all its complexity and promise. I value the role of a contrarian in ensuring no fondly held belief is allowed to atrophy into complacency. If a view is worth holding then it’s worth re visiting and either re adjusting or reaffirming afresh.
    Of course, I don’t know you personally and as yet I can only have formulated a ‘snapshot’ of your views through reading . But by following your posts during the last two weeks, there seems to have been a journey towards this post and your three principles. I wonder if that is how it feels to you? It feels a very positive journey if so.
    I absolutely applaud and celebrate your final paragraphs and a return to identifying core values as a starting point before discussion and debate about the specific systems and structures they might be embedded in. You never know with teachers of course (!) but I should have thought the odds are good that there would be considerable agreement with the three principles you nail to the door, so to speak, in this blog post.
    I have debated hotly with you about lots of issues in the last few weeks but I’m very comfortable with your position here. I might tweak a bit …. I think individual choices about pedagogy do need to be taken in the context of a school team working together, albeit on the model @chocoTzar described in her post http://chocotzar.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/them-and-us not left entirely maverick. And I would wish to broaden your categories for aspiration and inclusion, including the acquisition of knowledge. This might be a more challenging area for consensus in practice than in principle. As an example, EAL Learners need key visuals, kinaesthetic prompts, collaborative experiences to both access knowledge and develop their English fluency in lessons, whatever might be going on in the #VAKoff campaign. http://community.tes.co.uk/tom_bennett/b/weblog/archive/2014/04/23/zombie-bollocks-world-war-vak-isn-39-t-over-yet.aspx#.U1g0Wk_ This is particularly true if a chosen pedagogy privileges extended instructive teacher talk without further resources and strategies to tether the language used to something concrete. It may be difficult for some colleagues’ pedagogical preferences to square this circle, but with one million EAL Learners in the UK it needs to be a live thread in the conversation.

    However, I entirely agree with you that these are exactly the sort of debates which best take place in school in the context of the school community and the strengths and skills of the professionals who work there, including actively promoted participation in research networks and grass roots CPD. It’s surely very productive to start debate with a suggested prompt list of what colleagues agree on, pare it back further if necessary and then develop the list of shared principles as far as possible before branching. At least then there is then clarity ‘in house’ about what the disagreements are, when they occur in the process and how they might be addressed, if that’s needful. Let’s hope too that the external systems and structures which currently police the profession are not being disingenous in their recent messages apparently freeing schools to find their own solutions to any such professional difference.
    As long as, at the end of the day, the kids get the best deal possible from the professional expertise available in terms of their well being and outcomes.
    Thanks again.

    • David Didau April 30, 2014 at 6:11 pm - Reply

      Diane, thank you for such a considered response.

      I hadn’t realised you were a ‘newbie’; you’ve rather exploded into my timeline fully formed and feisty as a sack of ferrets!

      I’m guilty of assuming that folk on Twitter are aware of my journey, from arch-progressive to new-traditionalist. The past 3 years have been a real and continuing education and I am changed as a result. For the better, I’d hope. If you’re interested there are several ‘biographical’ posts which chart some of this journey – do let me know if that sort of thing appeals.

      And to the nitty gritty. Where on earth do you get the idea EAL students need “key visuals, kinaesthetic prompts, collaborative experiences”? Can I recommend you add Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0325003661/ref=oh_details_o02_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1 to your list of must reads, as a counter point?


  3. teachingbattleground April 30, 2014 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    If you want to get things done, a certain amount of compromise is necessary. You can’t expect to get everything your own way. Where I think talk of compromise is unhelpful is in disagreements, particularly over factual matters. If two statements (like the two mentioned in your final statements) are simply negations of each other then there is no compromise possible. In such matters, those who call for compromise are simply indifferent to the truth.

    • David Didau April 30, 2014 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Well, quite.

      I don’t expect to get everything my own way. Just the things that matter.

  4. julieeclarke April 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    I don’t think compromise necessarily means unprincipled or uncaring – there are loads of situations where some compromise is necessary. That said, who could argue with the three principles you outline? I can’t believe there are schools where those things don’t prevail!

  5. Terry Pearson April 30, 2014 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    The quote from Yeats is a useful reminder for all of us that compromise is not possible when two competing points of view are entirely antithetical. In such circumstances it is futile to attempt to reach a compromise. The best that can be hoped for in a situation of this kind is that both parties develop a better understanding of the differing points of view.

    There are times nonetheless, particularly in education, when two opposing standpoints are not completely negating. At such a juncture, compromise becomes a possibility. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for on such an occasion is also that both parties seek to understand more about each other’s views and in doing so decide whether compromise would be the best way forward.

  6. Diane Leedham May 1, 2014 at 1:31 am - Reply

    Ferrets …hmm. Interesting analogy. Will have to think about that!

    Yes I know the work of Cummins and Gibbons pretty well thank you. The book you mention is particularly helpful to colleagues working with Advanced EAL learners and I agree that in this area there is considerable overlap with the Literacy needs of many L1 children, so a focus on ‘rich’ vocabulary and language structures in relation to form/genre can have great impact.

    However, please remember that a considerable number of children in our classes are new/relatively new to English. Imagine the example of a Y8 Polish girl trying to access knowledge about the Tudors after one term of English, adrift in a sea of teacher talk with only a dictionary to support her. Then imagine a girl from Somalia or Fiji in the same situation. Ensuring their entitlement to mainstream curriculum has implications on pedagogy. Perhaps your experience of EAL is primarily derived from a community of second/third generation British born EAL children, rather than new arrivals? As discussed above, their needs are also pressing, but different.

    I would be very interested to know what techniques you use in mainstream classrooms with children in the early stages of learning the English language which do not involve key visuals, kinaesthetic prompts and collaborative experiences. Please do share them. Your view is certainly a contrast to collective EAL professional guidance and practice. I would like to see much greater EAL engagement on twitter but for now you will have to visit our alternative online community to get in touch. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/eal-bilingual I will post a link to your blog.

    However, to get a full picture of the range of the experiences of EAL learners and to sample the expertise of practitioners much more experienced than myself, I strongly recommend you consult or join Naldic http://www.naldic.org.uk the professional association for the EAL education community. It is packed with guidance, resources and research, examples of which are published in its journal. We have an annual conference in October at which you would be warmly welcome. We are always up for debate too – you may wish to volunteer to deliver a workshop!

  7. Nick Hitchen May 1, 2014 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    ‘…extraneous demands should be stripped away…’ And there lies the challenge! One man’s ‘extraneous demand’ is another’s ‘essential quality assurance activity.’

    • David Didau May 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm - Reply

      I’d like to posit that pretty much anything that could ever be described as extraneous can never be concurrently essential.

  8. […] The right of thinking freely and acting independently, of using our minds without excessive awe of authority, and shaping our lives without unquestioning obedience to custom, is now a finally accepted principle in some sense or other with every school of thought that has the smallest chance of commanding the future. Under what circumstances does  […]

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  12. […] confidence even when you don’t feel it. Rightly or wrongly, we all have core values – principles on which we refuse to compromise – these are the stars by which we navigate.  In the end, the principle of humility might […]

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