Why we shouldn't try to simplify education

Education can't be reduced to a simple argument about the right way or wrong way of doing things, says Jude Moir
3rd November 2020, 4:02pm

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Why we shouldn't try to simplify education

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/why-we-shouldnt-try-simplify-education
Education Can't Be Reduced To A Simple Right Way Or Wrong Way Of Doing Things, Says Jude Moir

Polarisation is, and has to some extent always been, apparent in every walk of life. It is evident in the intense struggles at each end of the political spectrum, passionate rivalry between football fans or even in the condiment controversy that splits east and west in Scotland.

One area that this absolutism or tribalism is increasingly evident is in education. The education profession is filled with binary "choices" to be made, each side of the debate certain that they are right and any opposing view is wrong. Should the class sit in rows facing the front or in groups to facilitate group work? Should children learn cursive handwriting or not? When I teach reading, should I use pure phonics or a whole-language approach? Am I a trad or a prog? Direct Instruction or inquiry? Restorative or punitive? Salt and sauce or salt and vinegar? OK, maybe not the last one, but the pressure to pick a side is overwhelming.

Some of these choices may seem trivial, not worthy of debate, but others fuel so much rage, vitriol and hate that they can result in intensely angry exchanges that I believe are damaging, counterproductive and display a dangerous sort of reductionism unhelpful to the teaching profession.


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For clarity, I am not saying that teachers should not be passionate in their conviction of a certain approach or technique. As the old adage goes, If you don't stand for something, you risk falling for anything. I am not denouncing the passionate commitment to improve outcomes for learners, implicit in every one of these passionately polarised opinions in education. However, to quote another maxim, for every complex solution there is a solution that is neat, simple and…wrong. If we bind ourselves to only one version of success then we risk reducing the beautiful complexity of our profession to a simple set of choices, which are likely to be teacher-centred and procedural.

The trad vs prog debate in education

Teaching is a profession that requires critical reflection to meet the demands of the task in hand. A professional understands their unique situation and combination of multiple variables through the skilful combination of thought and action, ready to draw on a range of pedagogical approaches and techniques to develop the child or young person. Freud labelled education as an impossible profession, and this is why; education is messy. Education is unpredictable. Education is a sophisticated form of creativity that cannot be diluted or reduced to a simple argument about the right way or wrong way of doing things. To do so risks de-professionalising and disempowering educators. It creates a narrative where teaching is something that is easy to learn and easy to master.

With the never-ending march towards accountability and performance, there is pressure on teachers to find what "works", and to find it fast, thus proving their worth. Often, the main proxy for success here is increased attainment, and this may result in the search for a short cut or quick fix.

However, there is no such thing in education. It is vital that we resist the reductionist claims that dominate educational discourse at the moment and hold true to what makes us informed educators: our rich and varied knowledge and expertise, built up through engagement and experience in the classroom, through engagement with theory and research, by our commitment to professional learning and collaboration and creation of knowledge with others.

If education were easy, we would not still be talking about it - I am grateful every day that it is anything but.

Jude Moir is a primary deputy headteacher in Edinburgh

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