Do I lack the courage of my convictions?

//Do I lack the courage of my convictions?

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.
Friedrich Nietzsche

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 do what Ofsted want 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.

2016-02-21T22:36:18+00:00July 20th, 2014|Featured|

34 Comments

  1. kpulleyn July 20, 2014 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    One of the joys of being part of the community of teachers is the opportunity to debate. I’ve had my ideas challenged too and my students have benefited.

    • David Didau July 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm - Reply

      I would hope that this is the case for all of us. Thanks for all your support Kerry

  2. Sing (@_singsun) July 20, 2014 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Bravo. Takes a bucket load of courage to admit that you have been mistaken.

    • David Didau July 20, 2014 at 10:35 pm - Reply

      Well, I’m making something of a career out of it, so maybe not that much 😉

  3. Horatio Speaks July 20, 2014 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you for being so transparent in your assertions, David. In a profession that supposedly values questioning above pretty much everything, it seems that for many of us there are some things that mustn’t be questioned. If we become a profession of skeptics, where people who want to imps policies or changes first have to prove why, I suspect we will cut a lot of waste in money, and even more in time. Keep the flame burning 🙂

    • David Didau July 20, 2014 at 10:37 pm - Reply

      A worthy aim. I aspire to be like Carl Sagan’s model of scientists:

      “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” (Or education?)

  4. Andrew Sabisky July 20, 2014 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    yes, generally arguing with people is a complete waste of time, because one side will never agree and the other have agreed already. Ideology finds matching arguments and evidence to justify pre-existing views, or, when necessary, simply ignores arguments and evidence to the contrary (often accompanied by status-signalling noises of disgust at the moral turpitude of their opponent in the debate).

    It’s all too rare in today’s age to find someone receptive to new ideas and willing to change their minds, so thank you, David, for being that man. It’s a blessed relief and you’re an example to the rest of us.

  5. cabarfeidh July 20, 2014 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    Naebidy’s perfect mon! But you, dear boy are an inspiration, a friendly guide to some very complex matters and what you do have is a happy knack of being able to do is make people think seriously, weigh evidence and then agree with you 😎 (In most cases). I too went banzai for SOLO having laughed (how I laughed) at those poor souls who thought VAK/Learning styles was the way ahead for the education system. But after a while I too began to question the whole premise, assisted by your thoughts and those of others about the way SOLO might help some but can’t really help all nor does it show progress in a way that I find easy to utilise to ensure my next lesson enables further consolidation of the learning. Pick n Mix; that’s the boy! We should continue to examine, use, adapt then adopt the different ways of doing things in our practice. What works for one class will not for another as we know to our cost. Always a pleasure reading your posts.

  6. jonnywalkerteaching July 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm - Reply

    Even a bit of flim-flamming can be forgiven among new teachers – when training contains so little of theory, whether BS or good theory, any teacher is likely to take a fairly meandering path towards finding out their stance. My guilty confession is that the virulent Gove-bashing that teachers have mostly been enjoying led me to the slow realisation, against my previously held views, that… actually, good god, on this specific point….oh my god, he’s right. I like his new curriculum for primary and I think the knowledge-base it enshrines will lead to better outcomes for pupils. I like the shifts in primary mathematics such as the Shanghainese approaches, which better promote mastery. You need to have the conviction to quash your own convictions sometimes.
    P.S. – This entire post may be a consequence of flim-flamming or a dilute strain of Stockholm Syndrone about Gove leaving office and is thus liable to retraction.

    • cabarfeidh July 21, 2014 at 7:56 am - Reply

      “You need to have the conviction to quash your own convictions sometimes.” Exactly so JW!

    • David Didau July 21, 2014 at 9:30 am - Reply

      It’s a funny old business isn’t it? The further down the rabbit hole you go the more questions you have: what if Gove wasn’t an evil, power-crazed ideologue out to crush childhood? What if he believed he was doing the very best for young people? And worse, what if he was right?

      Thanks for commenting

  7. ijstock July 21, 2014 at 8:23 am - Reply

    Excellent post as usual. Your experience of training etc. closely matches mine. As others have said, the problem with being prepared to change one’s mind is that it only works in debate if both sides subscribe to it. Unfortunately, my experience of the education establishment is that if anyone disagrees it can only be because *they* are wrong. No matter how open-minded one tries to be, it doesn’t work when t’other side is completely uncompromising.

    I’m seeing this even now – despite the growing argument that at least some traditional approaches are valid (if not better), those in my school who make the decisions seem intent on ignoring things that don’t match their personal constructivist outlooks. Hardly surprising – except that they take the stance with those who disagree, that such people are stubborn/cussed/resistant to ‘change’… For example, Ofsted’s December statement about teacher talk etc, was downplayed to the point that it is effectively being ignored. Levels are being retained. Traditional approaches are still being scornfully dismissed as ‘rote learning’.

    The effect can be insidious and difficult to change. I’ve always wanted to teach traditionally, but I’ve had to spend my career in self-denial in this respect – and I think I’ve spent so long conditioning myself to do what was demanded that I no longer fully have the confidence to do it the way I’ve always wanted.

    • David Didau July 21, 2014 at 9:32 am - Reply

      I feel your pain. I also get accused of being dogmatic, so you really can’t win! It’s like arguing about religion with zealots: utterly pointless.

  8. grahart July 21, 2014 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Yes absolutely. Ofsted was wrong, who knew? Teaching is such a uniquely personal thing it’s impossible to legislate the specifics except ‘does it work’? Keep going with this.

    • David Didau July 21, 2014 at 9:33 am - Reply

      Ofsted are making enormous strides in being less wrong. The new version of the Inspection Handbook due out in September will put the cat amongst the pigeons: I’ve had a hand in writing it 🙂

  9. marvinsuggs July 21, 2014 at 9:27 am - Reply

    4 years into teaching (mature student) and I can chime in with a similar experience. Training taught me that the onus was always on the teacher ‘entertaining’ the students. If behaviour was bad there wasn’t enough group work (whiteboards, traffic lights, objectives etc) essentially your lesson was at fault. I started consuming Kagan, toolkits, Claxton – you name it, all to make myself better. Eventually, experience has bourne out that children have to be responsible for their behaviour, repetition is a good thing, sometimes things are hard, it can’t all be fun. Twitter has revealed people like yourself David, the Willinghams, Wiliams, right across the spectrum. I am nowhere near as good as I will be but I do think I am on the right road. Thanks.

    • David Didau July 21, 2014 at 9:34 am - Reply

      I’m very grateful to have played a minor role in your journey. Fight the good fight.

  10. Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) July 21, 2014 at 10:13 am - Reply

    This is a very welcome contribution to current debates which are becoming increasingly polarised and can be characterised as either dogmatic (the ‘there is a single truth to be reached’ school) or relativist (the ‘anything goes’ or ‘everyone is right’ school.)

    Two things I’ve read recently on Bakhtin come to mind, specifically his attempt to reconcile these two philosophical dead ends through a dialogic approach. Morson and Emerson (1989: p 3-4) write:

    “Both of these alternatives, the “dogmatic” and the “relativist,” collapse two distinct voices into one, and thus make true dialogue impossible. Bakhtin finds the relativist view to be particularly pointless, because it makes it impossible ever to encounter an other, inasmuch as the other simply becomes a version of oneself. The “dogmatic” attempt to unlock the author’s meaning usually impoverishes the text, but at least it may serve as a starting point for creative understanding at a later time.”

    Bakhtin saw that any essentializing position was ultimately limiting, and saw the polyphonic fiction of Dostoevsky as a site of true creativity in terms of generating new pathways to meaning. Bakhtin (1984: p.41-42) writes of Dostoevsky:

    “His ability [to see everything in co-existence and interaction] sharpened to the utmost his perception in the cross-section of a given moment and allowed him to see the many and the diverse where others only saw the single and the same. Where others saw a single thought, he could find and probe two thoughts, a bifurcation. Where others saw one quality, he uncovered the presence of another, opposite quality. All that seemed to be simple has become complex and heterogeneous in his world.”

  11. Dylan Wiliam July 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Harvard’s Project Zero recommended a nice routine for students. “I used to think, but now I think” (details here: http://bit.ly/1yPHue1). Practicing what they preached, Harvard scholars published a book with a similar title to show how leading scholars of education had changed their minds: http://hepg.org/hep-home/books/i-used-to-think-and-now-i-think.

    And, of course, when John Maynard Keynes was accused of changing his mind, he said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

  12. Gary Walsh (@GaryWalshCS) July 21, 2014 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    What a great post. Love the comment about using dialogue to find a balance between dogma and relativism, will need to read up on that.

    Being prepared to change your mind, asking tricky questions, challenging assumptions without being dismissive, suggesting alternative viewpoints: all of these can take more courage than sticking blindly to the script and going with the grain.

    Social Media provides a perfect opportunity to do that & I love the fact that educators and those working with children and young people use it so positively and productively.

  13. Rachel July 21, 2014 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    A refreshing read. I’ve pondered for most of this year over the extent in which I’m ‘entertaining’ over….well…teaching.

    As with most teachers, whom, like me, reflect with vigour over what I might dare call a ‘craft’, I decide at the end of each academic year that I got it completely wrong and look forward to that chance to reset and start anew in September.

    One thing I have decided though as that my teaching changes from class to class, from student to student. It has to. Surely, if there’s a million different kids in the world, there’s a million different teaching styles

  14. swinters153 July 23, 2014 at 12:08 am - Reply

    The ability to reflect on our practice and evaluate success in terms of the impact we make on student learning means we have to be adaptive and responsive. Quite often our existing beliefs are challenged and revised as result.

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  19. Ian Lynch August 30, 2014 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    I suppose the degree to which you have courage in your own convictions is manifest in how you stand up for them in the face of criticism. You are prepared to air yours very publicly and that takes a fair bit of courage. It’s especially difficult if you tend to hold a minority view about something and as Nietzsche says it could be dangerous. The problem with teaching method is that a lot is about balance in context so it is easy to pick on something and distort it to ridicule. What really matters is outcome in relation to intentions. How do we know the intended outcomes with one approach are better than another? Difficult when there are a lot of variables. I think there are three key elements that mitigate the danger of conviction.

    1. Questioning your own views of things
    2. Being aware of self-delusion
    3. Trying to keep learning about all things pedagogical

    You seem to do this particularly well and with general good humour so courage in your own convictions is tempered with capacity to modify your views. That does not need to be a U turn, it might simply be a refinement of insight. After all, special relativity is a refinement of Newton’s Laws rather than a U turn.

    For me you have things about right on this.

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