Binary debates are damaging; let's find middle ground

Debates about how to teach and manage behaviour have become too polarised, argue these two PRU leaders, and that is having a detrimental effect
12th November 2020, 3:00pm


Binary debates are damaging; let's find middle ground

So many different aspects of education and child development have become increasingly polarised over time. What was once productive, constructive discussion has deteriorated into a series of highly contestable battlegrounds over claims for what is "right". Differing points of view, supported by evidence of varying quality and domain specificity, have in some cases deviated so far from each other as to be almost unrecognisable as existing in the same field.

A good example is the ongoing prog vs trad debate. People are so keen to pin their colours to the mast, whether they support using zero-tolerance behaviour management systems or implementing trauma-informed principles. 

Schools with silent corridors. School uniforms. Identifying which research to use. Rhetoric around exclusions. All of these topics have been discussed in binary terms, heavily laden with extreme, polarising language. 

Prog vs trad

Consider the prog-trad discussion: you can be one or the other, but not both. There is simply no option for middle ground. Or, take using trauma-informed principles: is it really a black-and-white choice between zero tolerance or no consequences?

Of course not. And no one working in education should ever believe otherwise, but there are a significant number of people, especially on edutwitter, who present their views in exactly such a manner. This easy option not only offers a poor frame of reference, it can ultimately impact the outcomes of pupils.

It makes perfect sense that we want to find the simplest way to understand and support our pupils. In a world where our workload is ever increasing (especially in the time of Covid), ensuring the efficaciousness of our actions is an absolute must. Some may even possess a more ideological rationale for their epistemic convictions, basing their decision making on nothing more than personal values and past experiences, with little in the way of reflection.

However, this approach brings an inevitable reduction in our ability to most accurately meet the needs of all pupils. Many have discussed over the years that the real-life work that occurs in the classroom bears little resemblance to the academic articles and research - classroom practice is messy, context is key. 

Avoiding false dichotomies

Staff may be well versed in the most appropriate psychological or sociological theories, but it is their experience and knowledge of the community in which they work, their class and pupils that holds the key to achieving the best possible outcomes. 

Children develop in complex and dynamic systems, and to offer the most useful support, we need to undergo an appropriately detailed thought process - one that is based on a continuum instead of binary opposites.

False dichotomies limit the language with which a specific issue, problem or solution can be discussed and fundamentally narrows the lens that can be used to perceive a pupil, an event or a problem. 

Finding middle ground

What if you were a staunch advocate for trad-style teaching and there is a topic that would really benefit from a tool from the prog toolbox? Or if we have a zero-tolerance view of behaviour, how do we react when extenuating circumstances present themselves - if not zero, then how much tolerance do we allow? These are both simplistic examples, but there is a serious point here: not every decision can be black and white for the benefit of all. 

Some highly regarded research relating to learning and cognitive science illustrates only moderate positive associations with interventions and pupil outcomes. Working in a PRU, we ensure that we utilise a wide range of behaviour regulation processes and skills that are highly individualised and related to the specific needs of our pupils.

Much has been said about the negative ramifications of labelling pupils, and the same applies to staff. Chances are that by choosing an extreme in any domain, we confine ourselves to one specific way of thinking - it inhibits reflection, limits the possible actions available and ultimately has the potential to adversely impact the progress our pupils could make. At the moment, it also divides us when we need to present a untied front more than ever. Teaching is under attack from all angles, and we can't afford to divide ourselves at the same time.

We need to eschew any notion of false dichotomy and avoid the easy option; the pupils deserve better than that.

Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher and Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire

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