If I can’t impress you with my quality I will overwhelm you with my quantity.Emile Zola
I have been reflecting a lot of writing recently. I am possibly one of the most prolific education writers out there. There are certainly much better education writers than me, Biesta’s work is pure poetry for example, but in the last 4 years I have written close to 100 articles for TES, about as many blog posts as well pieces for other organisations. By Christmas I will have also written 5 books. When I am not writing I’m preparing and giving talks, going into schools or more recently presenting via webinars. I can’t not write. I get an idea and it is like an itch I can’t scratch. The only relief is to see the words spilling out onto the page. But beyond that, why publish, why not just keep a journal and keep my wittering all to myself? It can’t be the money – I’d make more per hour with a part time job in the local pub. It clearly isn’t a just need to write but a desire to be read – and it is a need shared by many teachers who write blogs, books and tweet. We clamour to be heard.
I think what is driving me, and many of those other teachers tweeting and talking away, is that for most of our careers teachers haven’t felt like they are being heard. People come along from outside the classroom and try to dictate our pedagogy, our curriculum and our assessment even when it runs against the grain of our own experience. The difference is that now we have a platform. Twitter gives anyone the chance to be heard, TES has increasingly given regular columns to full time teachers and publishers like Crown House, John Catt and Routledge mean it is never easier to get a book published, although it is just as hard to get it either written or read.
Although I am grateful to be able to do what I do there is one thing that will wake me up in a cold sweat at 3am. The thought that I could so easily become part of the problem. This was brought into sharp focus last week after an exchange with Stuart Lock on Twitter following the publication of a TES piece on Fertile Questions.
Stuart is of course quite right. Insisting that teachers did this, or even saying it would be a good idea for all teachers to do this, would be a return to frightful genericism. But that isn’t what my article suggested. I was simply writing about something that I found useful for my classes in my subject. At no point did I write that anyone else should do this. But inevitably the headline, designed as all headlines must to get people to read on, puts it in much stronger terms. Even without the headline writer’s dark arts I live in fear of the things I have written being used as non-negotiables in schools. How easy would it be for a member of SLT to read an article like this, find themselves nodding along and think “there we go, that’s the next INSET day sorted”. It is a terrifying thought.
I have seen it happen in schools with articles before; and journal pieces and blog posts and even tweets. Something sounds like a good idea and the next thing you know teachers are putting icons on powerpoints and calling it Dual Coding or creating knowledge organisers that do little to organise knowledge and will live forever on some un-visited part of a school website.
Is there a solution? We could all shut up. Perhaps if all of us teachers who wrote and published and tweeted just stopped it would help. But what would fill the silence? I can guarantee you that those voices from outside the classroom, clamoring for relevance and power would happily shout into any gap we left them. Instead, I would suggest that the solution lies in two places.
Firstly, when we are writing we need to be absolutely clear that we are talking about our own reflections and experiences and that we don’t think that what we say should be taken up by everyone everywhere – unless of course we absolutely do and can still sleep at night having done so. Those caveats in my work need to be more clear at times.
Secondly, the responsibility then needs to rest with school leaders to read things in this light and to realise that they will never replace the experience and understanding brought by their own teachers. A book or article might be interesting but it needs reflecting on carefully before being implemented in someone else’s classroom. We need to ask what problem it is trying to solve and whether we actually have that problem. We need to think carefully about our own subject structures and nature and whether this new idea fits in with this. We need to consider the argument being made and whether it stands up to scrutiny in light of what else we know. This reflection on sources should be part of any CPD Curriculum. Reflection helps to turn theory into experience and then that experience into knowledge.
I do have a fear that in 10 years time someone will ask, where did the fads of the 2020s come from and in answer someone will point to something I said. I can see how it could happen. It would be very easy to become part of the problem. But as there will always be people trying to get heard, I would prefer those voices came from fellow teachers than elsewhere. Just do me a favour and add “I reckon that…” in front of anything you see me or anyone else write.
My next book, in which I reckon some things about how generative learning strategies could be used to design activities for the classroom, is available for pre-order now.