What #Postergate tells us about dignity and honesty – Why we're never more than one disagreement away from howling in the trees

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Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.

Jane Austen, Emma

Research supports tacit teacher knowledge that a great lesson starts with an initial review of prior knowledge. Recently I had the privilege of observing an excellent Year 7 Geography lesson in which the teacher opted to start the lesson by handing out A3 sheets and asking the students to fill in the different sections in groups, which were already pre-printed of the sheets.

The task took approximately 10 minutes (our lessons are one hour five minutes) and watching those 11 year old students recalling their knowledge about the topic as they discussed what they had learn in previous lessons would have left anyone without any doubt about what these children knew and about the effectiveness of this task as a starter activity.

On another occasion, I observed a Year 12 Psychology lesson, in which the students used a brochure – complete with relevant illustrations and diagrams – that each of them had created in advance (I believe it had been a homework task) about the salient aspects of the topic they had been covering. This was used very effectively to support classroom discussion, which was expertly guided by the teacher, who teased out explanations, counter explanations and generally caused students to think really hard. It became clear that this brochure was clearly being used by students as a revision aid outside of lessons as well.

On both occasions, the product was, to all intent and purposes, a poster. But not every one likes posters, and that’s fine.

A few days ago the Evening Standard preambled a piece about Tom Bennett thus:

Schoolchildren who spend lessons watching DVDs, designing posters and doing “group work” are not being taught properly, the Government’s behaviour czar has warned.

Tom Bennett, the Department for Education’s discipline expert, said some teachers fill lessons with pointless activities that keep children busy but do not constitute proper teaching.

The piece itself was typical tabloid clickbait, so it was more concerned with attention-grabbing headlines and counting page views than content, but it drew heavily from a more measured TES piece:

In my career I’ve done plenty of [DVDs], I’ve seen many more of them, and it took me years to see through the candy floss and the tinsel. Some things just aren’t teaching; they’re activities that, yes, generate heat and light, but offer no warmth or illumination.

Posters often fall into this category. “Do a poster,” says the teacher. And an hour trickles away and bubble writing happens, and someone back shadows the title, and four sentences are written while someone else cuts out pictures.

What constitutes proper teaching for Bennett is clear to all (clue: it isn’t posters or group work). But at least he has the decency of covering his modesty with the fig leaf of qualifiers such as some and often, leaving himself just enough wriggle room, in typical Bennett fashion, to claim he is being misinterpreted if anyone takes issue with any of his pronouncements.

But none of this bothers me. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and, to be honest, Bennett’s is more informed than most – though as biased by his own experience, beliefs and values as everyone else’s. From an anthropological perspective, Bennett might not be far from the monkey howling loudly from the tree tops to assert his dominance, with a chorus of subservient monkeys howling in allegiance. Meanwhile, in a nearby tree, another troupe of monkeys begins to howl in opposition.

The indignation

What does bother me – and here I risk straddling the saddle of my own high horse – is how we tend to react to this. On the one hand, I understand some of the reaction: Bennett doesn’t just represent his own opinions anymore. He is perceived as a government representative – the government´s behaviour expert – so his opinion is seen as having far greater reach and more implications than if he were just a random blogger, as he once was. As am I. This can cause alarm, worry and indignation among those who regularly orchestrate successful learning using the activities he often condemns so flamboyantly.

On the other hand, although many folks managed to express their disagreement gracefully and thoughtfully, sadly not all of the reaction he received was friendly criticism, as I hope this is. Much of it was vile, personal and, frankly, disgusting. From teachers. To other teachers. There is something deeply wrong with us if this how we confront those with different opinions, however wrong we deem them to be.

The indignation about the indignation

But then there was the equal and opposite reaction. There were the revenge personal attacks. There were those who saw criticism of Bennett’s views as evidence of the progressive illuminati that have so damaged education in this country. There were the calls to common sense and honesty. “It seems it is impossible to discuss bad practice without causing offence” someone tweeted.

A bad workman always blames his tools.

Anon.

But let’s be honest. If Bennett had any real interest in discussing bad practice and activities that generate no “warmth or illumination”, he would have also tackled the often woeful attempts at direct instruction, with explanations so unclear they explain nothing nor lead anywhere; or the hours spent on pointless worksheets that help no-one and whose only purpose is to fill lesson time. But he didn’t. Instead Bennett sought to associate certain activities with poor practice deliberately, clearly forgetting that everything can be done badly.

As a measure of the hypocrisy of which we are all guilty, take the Year 7 posters and the Year 12 brochures from the opening paragraphs and don’t call them posters or brochures, call them knowledge organisers instead. Honesty and dignity, it appears, are the first victims in this war of attrition between folks who, frankly, should know better. It never ceases to amaze me that, despite the veneer of art, science, education and civilisation, it often seems we’re never more than one disagreement away from howling in the trees.

So, instead of tackling the issues, we seek to howl louder. We bare our teeth.  We resort to name-calling and ridicule. We find labels for each other. The metonymic substitution of the complexity of a person with a single characteristic is the kind of linguistic shift that historically precedes genocidal mania – one is not a person but a jew, a muslim or a foreigner; one is not a teacher, but a progressive or a neo-trad. This is the divisive language of hatred, and it’s not for me, thanks.

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  1. I feel the original point of view was misconstrued by a tabloid. Nevertheless, the opinion is conveyed as ‘prescriptive’ and this is what bothered many, from NQTs to Teacher Trainees, because the opinion came from one informed as an authority. It’s a shame, because it does a disservice to the profession. Call it what you want, but every teaching or learning activity is context based. Thus, to decry the medium of ‘poster’ or ‘DVD’ as ‘lazy teaching’ is a little condescending to those seeing fit to adapting those communications to their purpose. Primary, secondary or Further – all have acutely varied detail that a general dismissive comment would be disingenous to each sector and local context, clearly. But that’s not what what was being communicated by the Czar, was it? He decried ‘lazy teaching’ – which was surely a lazy comment, we might assume – or at least reported by lazy journalists, we might hope to imagine, as a reaction by an experienced educator. Insulting responses, yes – and some constructive debate ensued – but he should learn better than pass lazy comment to the media.

    1. Thank you, Howard.I think you’re on to something when you say that Bennett’s comments ought to have been more carefully constructed. It’s a shame that the very good points he makes about time-wasting in lessons have been obscured almost completely by the ensuing hoo-ha.

  2. A thoughtful and interesting post, thank you Jose. If I wasn’t feeling a tad under the weather I’d like to do a poster to indicate what I’ve learned from reading this. 🙂

Your feedback and comments are very welcome