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.


The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education

The fundamental question I have found myself asking as an early-career teacher is this: is my pedagogy compatible with my politics? At first I was really worried the answer was no when the advocates for “trad” pedagogy seem to be die-hard Conservatives and defenders of Roger Scruton. I have since come to believe that the answer is yes and way the left has ceded an effective, radical and popular educational culture to the right has been a huge mistake. Here I try to tackle some of the key questions I get asked, and I ask myself, when I reveal my status as a left-wing ‘trad’ and present a case for why the left need to embrace, not reject, ‘trad’ pedagogy.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that I don’t find the term ‘trad’ or ‘traditional’ to be a helpful descriptor of the ideas it’s attached to. As far as I can tell ‘trad’ teaching has two strands: a strong link between pedagogy and cognitive science and a knowledge-rich curriculum. Calling this ‘traditional’ does it a huge disservice as it immediately brings to mind Thomas Gradgrind, drill-and-kill and the cane. Sadly I have yet to find another term in broad usage to neatly describe what is meant by ‘trad’ so I find myself reluctantly using it as a self-descriptor when I fundamentally reject the reasoning for the term, ah the life of a #leftytrad.


Isn’t dialogic teaching inherently authoritarian and anti-progressive?

No and I think this view has done a huge amount of damage to the education of working class students in this country. One of the benefits of teaching that is backed by cognitive science is that it works.

Why should we deny children in state schools access to effective teaching in the name of progress? To my mind it is difficult to think of any rigorous topic which can be more effectively taught through discovery learning than through good teacher instruction, modelling and practice. That is not to say that schools ought to resemble the Victorian classroom filled with wax models in a regional museum with students copying out chemical equations onto slate. In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham argues that though sometimes we need to teach things by rote like the symbols on the periodic table or phonetic sounds, the vast majority of our teaching should be building and adding to internal schema so that new knowledge has meaning and interest for students.

Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest comes up with the idea of Mode A and Mode B teaching which I have really taken to heart in my own practice. Mode A teaching is about building the knowledge structure, modelling work, guiding practice and teacher explanation, this should be the bulk of what happens in the classroom (80+%). Mode B on the other hand includes more ‘progressive’ teaching methods such as group work, projects and creative responses but this ~20% of teaching is (a) not the primary method of delivering knowledge and (b) interwoven with Mode A teaching. This further links in to Martin Robinson’s ideas in Trivium 21c about grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and Peter Hyman’s head, hand, and heart learning. I don’t have space here to fully discuss the importance of having Mode A and B teaching but it should show that accepting ‘trad’ ideas about cognitive science and effective teacher-led lessons does not mean a total disposal of ‘prog’ ideas about creativity and discovery.


Isn’t a knowledge-rich curriculum inherently right-wing and reactionary?

This is certainly a fair question and one I have been struggling with for many years before I even became a teacher. Whilst the left has been hugely successful at shifting the social conversation in this country, one of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, has been to cede so much intellectual and cultural ground to the right whilst failing to provide metanarratives of history and culture which can compete. In my own subject of RE I feel like there has been too much emphasis from well-meaning teachers in providing students with the skills to be reflective and critical without giving them material and knowledge on which to practice.

The Bible seems to be the preserve of the right with Gove doling out copies of the KJV, yet, as a Christian Socialist, I want my students to engage with the radical Christ and the truly revolutionary messages contained in, for example, the book of Acts. Through this text, through this knowledge, they can then bring in their own questions and references but without it they leave school able to ‘think critically’ but under the belief that is prevalent in society that Christianity, and Christ, are naturally regressive, right-wing and conservative. Giving students a real knowledge of the Gospels gives them the ability to make their own decisions and, in my opinion, to make the right decision that that prevalent view is nonsense.

Similarly the idea that knowledge-rich necessarily means regurgitating an existing canon or traditional set of ideas and texts is not true. Look at Adam Robertson’s great work in developing resources for teaching a radical history of the British Empire and the accompanying arguments that Labour should support this knowledge-rich but radical history teaching in their education policy. I am not necessarily advocating an explicitly biased, ideological approach in the classroom (not that there is such a thing as an unbiased, unideological approach in the classroom). Rather, I think that through curriculum choice, through access to great works, through making young people clever, we do a much better job of preparing them for political, historical, cultural, scientific and ethical discussions and decision making than we do through a skills-based education.

There is a whole further conversation to be had about the absolute imperative left-wing teachers have to provide their students with cultural literacy (and/or cultural capital) but I have a separate post about that in the works.


Shouldn’t we reject harsh, authoritarian behaviour management in favour of allowing young people to thrive?

I’m going to steal a phrase from conservatives here and talk about the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. I felt very strongly that when I was at school I could get away with a lot because I was in foster care and was seen as having a ‘hard time’. Teachers adjusted their expectations around homework and behaviour and even effort in class to try and take account of my difficult circumstances. I loathed it and I especially loathe it now when I think about the hugely damaging effect it has had on my development and opportunities. I was, and still am, prone to laziness and lacking in work ethic and with no appreciation of delayed gratification, I didn’t succeed at university until I was in my 20s and I have ended up five or six years behind in my career compared to my contemporaries as a result.

Rather than giving me the boundaries and high expectations I desperately craved as a teenager I found I was able to push and push and nearly always get my own way. I seriously worry that this the route that so many SEND, pupil premium, looked-after children and, generally working class students are still on today.

Of course I do not advocate a return to the cane or the installation of a Chokey in our department base. Instead I think Doug Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, has hit the nail on the head with his idea of a warm-strict approach. He argues that we are socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites but actually effective teachers must be both. Young people do not thrive when they are bored. A classroom where there is no order and no challenge is an incredibly boring place for students to be, they can’t focus, they can’t work, they can’t achieve anything. A classroom where order is enforced with warmth and where challenge is matched by excellent teaching is a fundamentally radical environment because giving working class kids the chance to succeed is a fundamentally radical activity.


Isn’t ‘trad’ teaching inextricably linked to Tory education policy, academisation and right-wing commentators?

I think, if I was being honest, I would have to say “sadly, yes”. On Edutwitter sometimes I look at my feed and see Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young arguing on the “my side” of the debate and feel like I’m in the middle of the famed “are we the baddies?” sketch. Fortunately I know there are many teachers out there breaking this link between knowledge-rich teaching and right-wing ideology such as the self-proclaimed #leftytrad gang on Twitter including Mark Enser, Adam Robertson and Adam Boxer as well as the numerous teachers you meet in school or at union events who aren’t on Twitter and who love this pedagogy because it works and are quite happy to stay out of the proxy-political ‘debate’ altogether.

I do not find it at all helpful when people claiming to represent teachers (whether through the unions or the Labour Party) make generalisations about ‘trad’ teachers and schools which do nothing but cede the educational successes and growing popularity of these pedagogical methods to the right-wing talking heads and policy makers. It is time the unions realised that they are there to protect us as workers and stand up for education not pick fights with their own members about how they choose to teach and where they choose to work.

Overall I think it is time to challenge this political-pedagogical link between ‘trad’ teaching and conservatism and find voices who will drown out the Youngs, Goves and Birbalsinghs in promoting ideas that work and empower young people. It works both ways, traditional left-wing spaces like unions and Labour have to acknowledge that ‘trad’ teaching is here to stay and not antithetical to their aims, and left-wing ‘trad’ teachers have to be more vocal and challenge those who want to claim our methods for the right.

Resources: Retrieval Roulette for AQA A Religious Studies Christianity and Buddhism

Adam Boxer’s Retrieval Roulette idea has been doing the rounds on Twitter for a while now and I’ve been meaning to give it a go as I’ve been trying to incorporate more recall into my day-to-day teaching practice.

The idea is that Adam has created a spreadsheet into which you enter simple recall questions on your subject and this then generates a list of either 10, 8 or 6 questions which you can use to test students on. The beauty of Adam’s spreadsheet is that it provides a mix of the current topic and questions from previous topics (i.e. interleaving). I tend to do recall quizzes either on scrap paper or whiteboards so that they are not creating testing anxiety for students.

Here then is my version of retrieval roulette for AQA Religious Studies A Christianity Beliefs and Practices and all six of the themes focusing on Christianity. I have also provided a separate sheet with Buddhism Beliefs and Practices for any teachers taking that route.


Download: AQA RS A Christianity and Themes Retrieval Roulette

Download: AQA RS A Buddhism Retrieval Roulette

huge thank you to Adam for the nuts and bolts and the idea behind this. It is a massive timesaver once you’ve put the questions in. Please do take a look at his blog for more ideas and writing: A Chemical Orthodoxy