As in every sphere, there are certain phrases or topics that act a dog whistle in education. When people use terms like ‘progressive,’ ‘knowledge-rich,’ ‘no excuses,’ ‘deep dive,’ or ‘fronted adverbial’ they are  tapping into a groundswell of – usually negative – opinion which stirs up like minded folk into predictable paroxysms of fury and outrage.

What happens is, I think, something like this: for some people ‘fronted adverbial’ stands for soulless, mind numbing tedium and clunky, inelegant writing. For others, the term conjures up the thought that children are – at long last – receiving some of the much needed meta language which makes creativity easier to think about and put into practice. The same term sends wildly differing signals depending on the listener’s lived experience and tribal affiliations. When I hear folk inveighing against fronted adverbials, my default setting is to recall my own, sadly lacking education and the fact that I was taught practically no grammar whilst at school. My tendency is to assume that the anti-fronted adverbial brigade are determined to cut children adrift from the tools they need to think critically and creatively about language. But, of course, I’m tilting at windmills. No one actually wants the thing I’ve set my face against. But, because neither me nor the poor person I launch a tirade against clearly spells out a position, assumptions are made, nose are put out of joint and bridges are burnt.

Much the same is likely to happen when we debate almost any educational hot topic.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most commonly contentious terms and what they might mean to different people:

Educational term What you think What they think
Progressive Someone who puts issues of social justice ahead of other educational concerns. Someone determined to blight the academic outcomes of disadvantaged children. Probably a Marxist.
Traditional Someone who puts the academic success of children before other educational concerns. Someone who is uninterested in social justice or children’s emotional well-being. Probably a fascist.
Knowledge-rich A curriculum designed to give the most disadvantaged children access to the greatest possible breath of knowledge. A curriculum which is irrelevant, boring and hidebound, and deliberately ignores issues of gender and race.
21st century skills A recognition that the narrow, academic knowledge taught in traditional curriculums is unlikely to benefit children in the fast-changing world of tomorrow. A woolly-headed belief that knowledge is pointless and that all children need to learn to be successful is a suite of generic skills.

 

No excuses An approach to behaviour that seeks to make children responsible for their choices and prioritises the safety and well-being of the majority. An approach to behaviour which seeks to exclude the most disadvantaged children from education and victimise children for psychological conditions beyond their control.
No more exclusions A righteous determination to protect the most vulnerable against the narrow-minded determination to make schools places only interested in narrow academic success. A despicable determination to place the needs of the most disruptive ahead of the majority and to make schools dangerous and inimical to learning.

 

We could continue in the same vein indefinitely. The point is, no one actually believes anything in the ‘What they think’ column. We all see our own beliefs as moderate, well-thought through and obviously right. I’ve tried hard to make the views in the “What I think’ column fairly reflect what I think people on the ‘other side’ really think. I may have got this wrong but I’ve done my best to apply the first of Rapoport’s Rules: “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

In Intuition Pumps, the philosopher Daniel Dennett siad this:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering, and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t genuine and profound disagreements within education. There are many approaches which, though well-intentioned, I am convinced do more harm than good. I’m certainly not saying we should all just get along and thread daisies in each other’s hair. Instead, I’m suggesting that if we take the most charitable possible view of what our opponents believe and argue against that, this only makes our arguments stronger and that much more likely to convince those listening in.

The next time one of these dog whistles is blown, instead of leaping rabidly into the fray and smiting evil doers with your sword of justice, take a breath. Try to imagine that everyone involved in education – even those people – (with the possible exception of Gavin Williamson) has the best interests of children at the heart of what they believe to be right. If we are able to think ourselves into something a little closer to other people’s actual beliefs we may find we have more common ground than we thought possible. We may find that the educational problems we’re trying to solve are not quite as intractable as we thought. We may find that a far wider cross-section of the community has something valuable and insightful to offer than we realised.

This takes time and practice. Anyone who’s followed my social media career over the years will remember my poor behaviour on numerous occasions. I’ve been every bit as guilty of blowing, and being alerted into zealous action by, educational dog whistles as anyone else. But close observers may also have noticed that these incidences have reduced considerably over recent years. I’m not claiming I’m now immune or that I’ve achieved some transcendental state to which you mere mortals should aspire, just that I’ve got a little bit better at breathing, having a bit of think and then deciding not to press send.