Some thoughts about binaries as experienced through eduTwitter

I’m not sure if the tendency is inherent to human psychology to think of the world into binaries, I haven’t done any research in the matter. I remember my philosophy teacher in high school mentioning something about it – the idea that we evolved to organise the world into things that are safe, and things that are dangerous, things that we identify with, things that are different…

If there is any truth to it, I have certainly been able to observe it in my edutwitter experience, where so many exchange revolve around the either implicit or explicit acceptance of binaries: explicit teaching v project based, content v skill, what works v what doesn’t work, evidence-based v instinctive. While my position is that binaries do more harm than good, I want to quote Didau*, who, in regards to binaries, said the following: “The way to square competing theories and ideas is not to find the middle ground but to force binary oppositions into creative tension.”

So, yes, a creative tension. I agree with Didau here, that tension has the potential to create. Unfortunately Twitter conversations have seldom delivered much creativity, instead they have turned more into weaponized exchanges.

The perverse bias of uncritically dismantling another’s argument by pushing our own perspective is that we believe that is qualifies as ‘robust discussion’. Not only do we lose any creative potential, but we also become blind to other considerations. How has a single perspective ever helped anything improve? It’s not like the people we disagree with are flat-earthers.

In his book ‘the learning rainforest’ (2019, chapter 2), Tom Sherrington goes to some length exploring the ins and outs of the progressive v traditional debate. His engagements with the educational world has lead him to the general argument that “however we define the opposing poles of traditional and progressive pedagogy, they both have a vital role in a child’s education.” He goes on to explain that although he once believed the prog – trad to be a false dichotomy, he more recently accepted that, again in his own words “even if they overlap, the two camps are real and distinct enough.”, suggesting that the distinction was useful.

This resonates with me more than Didau’s statement, but there’s a couple of things to clafiry. I would suggest that the camps are real because people are engaging in an argument. But their distinction comes not from essentially different pedagogies these teachers use in class. As people begin to align with others, they become entrenched in not an actual pedagogy, but what I would call an edupolitical party: the progressive and the traditionals. An ideology.

The danger in retiring behind ideological walls is that conversations stop. Thinking stops. And teachers’ voice drown.

I don’t pretend that differences in opinion don’t exist. A constructive discussion should make anyone think about their position. And this is even in the case we are convinced that science is on our side. Let’s not forget that we are talking about a very large number of people, all engaged in a very complex processes of teaching and learning, and the best science we have so far can only give us some idea of what best to expect given the application of particular strategies. We haven’t got the sliver bullet yet.

What I’d like to propose, then is not to dichotomise ourselves into progs and trads but to explore the actual categories that concern us and critically ask ourselves – are they really binaries and opposites? If research tells us that one approach is a better channel for learning, what sort of learning are we talking about? What is it about the other method that makes a positive contribution to learning? What are the limitations of my strategy, not in relation with the other strategy, but in and for itself?  

Now, I am not one to gaze away when I see a stoush. I do find them entertaining, and just like watching a great tennis match, there’s going to be a winner and a loser. But education is my profession, so to me the entertainment can only go so far.

I put to you that aligning ourselves into one of two evermore ideologically-oriented camps is very much working against us. Through years of top-down educational policies that have turned our schools into businesses, we have become a field of work that lost its professional status, and as Alan Reid recently stated on the TER podcast, we have become merely technicians.

In recent years, the likes of Tom Bennett have emerged everywhere, leaders, organizing teachers into critical and vocal groups. These groups of teachers have begun to form, to take action, to inform each other, to share and to empower each other. That’s why I find it extremely frustrating that just as Napoleon had once been the leader of what could have been an early democratic France and then proclaimed himself emperor, we are seeing the polarizing shining stars that some edu-gurus are becoming. With great power comes great responsibility, apparently. Let’s hold those edu-guru accountable for their moral responsibility, which dosen’t include knowing “the truth about teaching”. Because once we believe we have that truth, any dialogue dies along with our voice.

If we do identify leaders among us, what is it that we want? A democratic approach where we all have a voice in a non-threatening environment, or an Emperor? It’s not too late to decide.

*Didau (2016) “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, p.158

Published by OlivierE

Prof de francais langue etrangere a Melbourne depuis 14 ans. Je fais une these sur la motivation dans l'apprentissage des langues secondaires d'ado australiens qui partent 5-6 semaines en France en programme d'echange. Passionne par l'education, je lis beaucoup de recherche en sciences cognitives pour y trouver des strategies pedagogiques. J'aimerais trouver d'autres resources qui pourraient offrir des strategies efficaces. Meme si la recherche m'interesse enormement, rien ne peut remplacer l'experience du prof. L'intuition est souvent presente comme ennemi de pedagogie efficace - c'est un discours qui promeut une vision du prof comme soumis aux 'experts' et a laquelle je m'oppose.

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