Widening the divide: a response to Steve Watson

I wanted to write a rebuttal to Steve Watson’s article New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England which has recently been published in the British Educational Research Journal.

Initially this post was about three times as long as it is now but I decided to re-write it as three fundamental problems with Watson’s paper, his research and his ethical conduct as a researcher.

I hope that Steve will respond to this blog post either in the comment section or through my contact page even if he has, so far, refused to respond to any critique presented through the medium where most teachers encountered his article, Twitter.

It is overly simplistic

I had never heard of Steve Watson when I came across his article on the train back from Kent yesterday and I began to read it with high hopes. I think EduTwitter is a subject ripe for research as, despite its small size compared to the national body of teachers, it has had a big impact on government education policy, Ofsted and individual schools and MATs. I thought the parallel being drawn between the Trad insurgency of 2011 onwards and populist ideas was interesting.

Sadly it was when I got to this paragraph that my heart sank.

I argue that confrontations between Trads and Progs on social media are enactments of the populist rupture. This can be characterised as on [sic] online culture war, involving a confrontation of those with socially liberal views and those with socially conservative views

Watson, 2020

As I will discuss in the next section this is not only a huge oversimplification but fundamentally inaccurate. There is no solid basis given to justify the leap from describing Trad teachers as populists who disliked the educational establishment of the 90s and 00s – and then making the claim that Trad teachers are wholly, or mostly, formed of socially conservative adherents of New Right ideology.

Leaving aside politics, how about Watson’s treatment of the key divides between Trad and Prog? They are comically clichéd and serve to illustrate what I will discuss in the final section: Watson’s position as a Prog agitator on EduTwitter and his closeness to one side of the divide he is trying to research.

A Twitter thread in 2012 featured an argument about the nature of children’s motivation in the classroom. The question revolves around teacher authority and the nature of learning, but after a few exchanges, the debate turns into a dispute. On the one side Progs argue that teachers should motivate children through engaging and inspiring them; and on the other side, Trads argue that children should be pressed into learning a series of facts.

Watson, 2020

See how Watson characterises Prog views as wanting to engage and inspire children and Trads as pressing them into learning facts. Even the most embedded partisan in the Trad / Prog debate would surely see this Miss Honey vs Thomas Gradgrind view of the positions to be over-simplistic and unfair. How does this kind of commentary pass for peer-reviewed academic research?

It is inaccurate

The fundamental conceit of Watson’s argument is that there is a deep-seated correlation between Trad teachers and the populism of the New Right. The quantitative data gathered by Teacher Tapp shows a very different picture with no correlation between Trad / Prog alliegence and political affiliation. Meanwhile any effective research into the world of EduTwitter would have picked up on the many nuances and sub-divisions of the Trad side of it. Most notably is the existence of the #leftytrad identifier which is explained in this excellent post by Adam Boxer and the justifications for a left-wing Trad pedagogy, for example my own post The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education.

Teacher Tapp, 2018

More worryingly is the use of a conspiratorial blog post by a well-known anonymous troll as a reference for a large part of Watson’s article. Up until this point the troll ‘Vince Ulam’ is best known for his unfounded conspiracy theory on the founding of researchED (regurgitated here by Watson) and for his support of the homophobic campaign against the No Outsiders programme at Parkfield school. It is a great shame that Watson’s research didn’t extend to checking the ‘facts’ of Ulam’s conspiracy with any of the people involved who would have explained that the conspiracy is patently false.

Ulam argues that researchED is an ‘astroturfed’ movement; that it is an artificial grassroots movement established as an ‘outrider’ for Gove’s education reforms (Ulam, 2017) He claims that the supposedly casual Twitter conversation between Freedman, Bennett and Goldacre was a distraction from the fact that 4 days before …. [it goes on repeating Ulam’s claims verbatim]

Watson, 2020

It is purposefully polarising

At the very least the inclusion of this blog brings into question Watson’s research methodology and the efficacy of peer review but I believe it is indicative of a larger problem. Watson is too close to the subject at hand to offer any objective or unbiased insights into the world of EduTwitter. We should not expect that someone who has previously equated the Michaela School with Nazi education, and been embroiled in the fallout of that tweet, would be able to create any kind of academic distance between themselves and the subjects of their ‘research’.

Although Watson recounts stories of these encounters in the paper, for example, “I have been referred to as a ‘gatekeeper’ by a Trad blogger when, as an academic, I was defending progressive education on Twitter” – he does not mention this lack of distance in the ethics section of his paper and nor does he make any attempt to examine what effect this might have on his research.

The result of Watson’s position as both researcher and active Prog agitator is troubling. It is not akin to the teacher-researcher whose ethical position is shored up by the fact they want the best outcomes for their students. Instead he is the agitator-researcher, seeking to pursue his personal vendettas and privately-held opinions through the medium of a research paper.

Instead of attempting to bridge the divide between Trad and Prog, and between teacher and researcher, it only embeds that divide in the very heart of this paper. Watson’s gleeful expectation of his Trad opponents’ ire and his refusal to engage with any critic of his article, shows that this article is not separate or above his previous Prog agitation, it is part of it. That is deeply sad because that is not what academic research should be for and it damages the reputation of Cambridge’s education faculty at a time when it needs building up.

3 Comments

  1. Is there not an avenue to get at least one point made to the British Educational Research Journal? Are Watson’s claims (quoted below) legally correct?

    “Ethical guidelines
    This research followed the guidelines of the British Educational Research Association (BERA, 2018). No institutional ethical approval for this research was required.

    Conflict of interest
    There was no conflict of interest in undertaking this research.”

    * Did he follow ethical guidelines? If he participated on Twitter as a prog does he not need institutional ethical approval to pretend academic neutrality?

    * Is not the claim of “no conflict of interest” ludicrous?

    Like

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