A blog of a review of a book @heymisssmith and @learningspy

Reading the discussions sparked by Jane Manzone’s review http://schoolsweek.co.uk/reviews/what-if-everything-you-knew-about-education-was-wrong/  of David Didau’s book has provided a snapshot of one of the most important current debates in education. For that reason I thought that I would add my own unstructured views although I expect that in doing so I may offend both.  In commenting I must declare an interest/bias in that I find Manzone’s blog to be the best written and thought provoking of the feeds I follow. I also agree with the vast majority of her writing because it fits with my own understanding of teaching as a complex art, based on relationships, that defies attempts to apply short-term or simple remedies.  I follow David Didau and enjoy his writing but agree with less of it because his arguments sometimes fail to acknowledge the complexities that I perceive. 

Didau’s response to the review is understandable. Writing a book is a huge undertaking that requires an investment of time, skill and emotion. To read the review must have been very difficult. His response to the review was very measured and intelligent because he acknowledged his hurt while defending his views and standpoint. He also retweeted the review.  The response of some others was less measured. The school where a teacher reported being told by senior leaders that he/she was not permitted to “like” the review displayed an astonishing loss of judgement. 

Manzone bases her blog on her work in the classroom and the review is no different. What Didau does not acknowledge is that his blog and book add to a mood music that is being used against teachers. Those who decry the profession for their own ends are delighted to find work that shores up a narrative that says teachers are liberals who impose their trendy ideas on children even though they have no empirical research to back up their strategies. The problem with this analysis is that, as with the proposed solution, it is too simple to apply to a profession engaged in something as complex as learning.  There is also no research to back the claims up which is a nice irony. 

There are some who genuinely believe that education will be of a higher standard if left to a market. The problem for them is that the profession distorts a pure market by introducing motivation that conflicts with profit making. Therefore policies are introduced to undermine the profession to the point where we now have a recruitment crisis and the way is open for unqualified young people to teach from textbooks for a couple of gap years before doing something else. This scenario will keep wages low and remove the pension liability making it easier for private companies to make a profit on the back of a public subsidy. The people who believe this is a good idea are genuine (although they will also probably own shares in textbook publishing companies) and include Labour’s Andrew Adonis and Nick Gibb. However, in order for those who believe in education being improved by markets to be right, the previous consensus around public education must be wrong. This is where Didau’s book is important not least because of its title. 

Where I believe Manzone’s review is right is in pointing out that the depiction of the profession pursuing strategies with no basis is inaccurate. There are plenty of examples of schools implementing unproven ideas in response to claims made by commercial schemes or endorsements by OfSTED. Teachers go along with ideas but subvert them to their own pedagogical beliefs which are many and varied and based on a mixture of experience, in service training, personal research and available resources. Where Manzone is absolutely right is reflecting the fact that teachers know that they get things wrong. A key change in teachers in the last  60 years has been from the (for some) confidence built on unearned status conferred by the title “Sir/Miss” to an awareness that there are no simple strategies that meet all children’s needs and therefore there is no basis for a certainty of approach. Good teachers seek a balance on their day-to-day, lesson-by-lesson teaching.  A professional teacher today is someone who knows that they will never have the answer to the needs of all 30 children in their class but will go on searching based on their relationship with the children. Those who put their faith in textbooks and simple drilled pedagogy remove the learning relationship that is at the heart of education. 

To claim that all the experience, reflection, and subversion of the modern teacher  has led us to the wrong place (which despite the title Didau does not claim in such simplistic terms) is worthy of  discussion but only if it is acknowledged that there are many who applaud the claim (and the title of the book) in the hope that relationship, professional judgement and pedagogy can be replaced by profit, textbook and instruction.  

I would encourage everyone to read and reflect on the book and both blogs @learningspy and @heymisssmith Both Didau and Manzone are excellent writers whose work deserves serious consideration. 

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