Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.
An accusation that has been increasingly levelled at me is that, because I’ve publicly changed my mind about my views on education, I must be some sort of slippery, trend-chasing wannabe with no moral compass. Or to put it another way, that I lack the courage of my convictions.
I’ve always found it a lot more satisfying to disagree with someone who is prepared to change their mind. I’ve wondered why it is that when politicians change their mind on an issue the media cries “U-turn!” As if it’s a bad thing to change your mind when in receipt of new information. As Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Sometimes being prepared to listen and respond may be more courageous than blithely sticking to an entrenched position.
Maybe if you’ve made a disastrous decision that might have been avoided with sufficient thought and planning, this is more reasonable, but my problem is that I was presented with a set of beliefs when training to become a teacher that I was told were the Truth. I was expected to read Friere, Piaget and Young; here are some of the things I learned:
- Children are naturally good and that any misbehaviour on their part must be my fault. If lessons are enjoyable and engaging, children will behave. If they misbehave that it is because I have failed to plan well enough.
- Children should not have to struggle. Struggling is not enjoyable or engaging and is therefore evidence of bad planning
- Telling children ‘facts’ is a fascistic attempt to impose middle-class values and beliefs on them
- Children from disadvantaged backgrounds should not have an academic curriculum imposed on them.
Obviously my tutors expressed their beliefs in less contentious language, and bear in mind that these were well-intentioned people who were, presumably, interested in the welfare of children. But this was what I qualified believing. Maybe you believe these things are true? Well, maybe they are, but I wasn’t ever told that lots of people disagree with these tenets and that people actually believe things that are, in some cases, in diametric opposition.
But after teacher training, I was pretty much left to get on with it and I taught my classes in the way I saw fit. It became clear to me that not all children are naturally good and that if I left things to unfold naturally they would sometimes be quite spiteful to each other. I noticed that if I imposed order and compelled them to behave in the way that best chimed with my beliefs and values then the majority were quite a lot happier. But I bought into the other stuff wholesale.
So, when in 2008 an Ofsted inspector told me that I talked too much in a lesson I was vulnerable; I already believed that I was on dodgy ground imparting information in the first place. From then until 2011 I was convinced that what Ofsted mandated must be true. I mean, why else would they say it? I looked on as older colleagues’ spirits were crushed by the increasingly urgent demands that they stop doing what they were good at and start doing ‘what Ofsted want’. Take the case of Derek*. He was the sort of fabulous old buffer who could quote entire Shakespeare plays and took great delight in reeling off apposite doggerel to mark every event. His pupils loved him and got enviable results. Parents loved him, and, in many cases, had been taught by him. But he didn’t teach the way the new management team believed Ofsted required, and so was judged unsatisfactory. He took early retirement a broken man.
But it wasn’t until I joined Twitter that I discovered there were otherwise intelligent people who seemed to believe that Ofsted were wrong. In fact they challenged all the assumptions I’d dragged around since my PGCE. Slowly, reluctantly, I started to question some of my most cherished beliefs. And when you find that one stone tablet might have been wrongly inscribed, you start to wonder about others. As I’ve probed, I’ve encountered all sorts of fixed beliefs in stuff that doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.
My contention is this: if your particular favourite belief won’t bear up under close critical evaluation then maybe, just maybe, you believe something silly. And if you get cross about being challenged, this likelihood seems to increase dramatically. We should question everything and always be prepared to murder our darlings.
So, yes of course I’ve changed my mind. But I’ve only changed it once ; all the minor changes of mind have been uni-directional. I’m not flim-flaming back and forth about what I believe. In case you’re wondering, I’ve been fairly unambiguous about what I believe here. But I’ve also been fairly consistent in the view that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In this blog, I said:
If you’ve never been allowed to think, if you’ve always been told how to teach by some ‘expert’, then you may well feel a little lost if suddenly given the freedom to do whatever you want. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter all that much what you do. I don’t care if you teach standing up, sitting down, hopping on one leg, wearing flip-flops, with your top button undone or with a bag on your head. I’m not interested in how you seat your students*, whether you fetishise traffic lights and mini white boards, or produce mountains of differentiated resources for every lesson. I’m broadly keen on you marking your books, but I don’t care whether you use green or red pen, pencil, invisible ink or human blood. I’m quite keen on you having high expectations for every pupil you teach, but it’s up to you what this looks like. I’m a fan of hard work and suspicious of fun for fun’s sake, but that’s just me; you should do what you think best. As long as the impact is there.
I’ve also been upfront about the dangers of compromise. In this blog I suggested three principles on which we should never 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.
I’ve also offered this insight into how I think and what I believe. I have not changed my mind about any of these things.
But if in my efforts to expose the flaws and cognitive biases at work in my own mind I come to the conclusion that I’m mistaken in any of these views, I’ll be sure to let you know. I make no very great claims as to my courage, but this is something on which I am firmly convinced.
These then are my convictions. Feel free to judge the courage with which I hold them.
*Not his real name.