Sunday, 26 January 2020

If you tolerate this then your NQTs will be next - tribalism in education

This week I buried my grandfather. A very special man. If I am honest, he is the person who has had the biggest impact on my thinking and ideas. He was and still is my role model. He was grand in so many ways. One key thing he taught me was the power of talk and discussing an idea.  

I have become a bit annoyed with Twitter at the moment and that is because there is a real problem with issues being polarised. A complex issue is being simply polarised into two extremes. Over the years we have seen things polarised in terms in knowledge, skills, progressive and trad. Rather than have an exploration of an idea, we have things reduced to right and wrong categories. 

The latest casualty of this has been ‘isolation booths’. Instead of having a discussion about it and testing ideas out we get instant polarisation of the topic. We have phrases like ‘ban’ and ‘blanket ban’ banded about with glee in tweets, talks and conversations. Words like this offer no variations or room to think. You are either with us or against us. Ban it or support it! 

So when people have drawn the ‘clear lines’ in the sand, they start wheeling evidence. That polarisation is then supported by evidence from the extreme ends of the issue. The time when a student had to memorise the complete works of Charles Dickens by a misguided teacher. The time when a student was criminally locked in a room for a whole day. These bits of evidence are catnip to newspapers and politicians. They love them because they take the issue to its extreme angle and in some sort of backwards thinking it is assumed that these extreme examples are common practice. The examples cited are never the norm. Yet, the norm is never explored, because of the tabloid-bait examples are emotive and more compelling for an argument. Plus, if there is more than one example of the problem, it then is a pattern and, therefore, it is rife in our schools. Where are the national studies? 

Then, you add emotion to your polarised argument. You make someone seem like a victim or the villain. In the knowledge debate, the knowledge people were viewed as Gradgrind figures and the children were losing all sense of fun and creativity of their life. Polarisation of an idea needs victims, villains, winners and losers. Each one a bundle of emotions. The knowledge debate had teachers vilified and seen as tyrants and students seen as prisoners in a dreary system. There weren’t various shades of grey but clear views of black and white on the issue. There wasn’t a thought about all the different types of teacher. No it was ‘Knowledge Villain’ or ‘Creativity Freedom Fighter’.  

Once the polarised argument has its victim and its villain, it is now time to form your tribe. You are either with us or you are a vile human being. Yes, you are so bad you don’t deserve to breathe oxygen or teach. It does get this vile. They’ll then get a bit personal and like a cult. I wouldn’t want you to teach my child. I asked my cat and they said they wouldn’t want to be fed by you. It helps if you use the tribe title as an insult. Oh, shut up you trad! 

The problem with this tribal element is that a lot of us don’t fit at either ends of the argument. We tend to be the funny middle. We might agree with one bit of argument, but then we are against another bit. We can’t sit in either group. When issues are polarised, most of us are isolated and left out. We are neglected. There’s an assumption you are for or against an idea in education, which leaves a lot of us in a difficult place. 

An issue or an idea needs exploring, but it needs to be done intelligently and not emotionally. We aren’t doing serious concepts in education justice if we polarise things from the beginning. We need to talk, discuss, argue, convince and explain. At the moment, there is an assumption by many that something is clearly wrong from the start so there isn’t a healthy exploration of ideas. It puts us in a difficult situation where to explore an idea is to seem to be attacking the polarised idea. It is hard to deal with things because any questions or discussion is seen as attacking. 

I think education Twitter needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask itself questions. A complex issue doesn’t have a simple solution. It is complex for a reason. A complex solution is needed, yet I am not hearing people talking, writing and blogging about complex solutions.  All I am seeing tribes and posturing on one side or another. No one side it right. 

Let’s not make Twitter polarised and read like the tabloids. It should be our education symposium. A place to bounce and mould ideas. Discuss the issue rather than emote the issue. Leave the emotions to Facebook or the tabloids. Emotions get in the way of dealing with the issue. 

Thanks for reading,



  1. Nicely ppt, Xris. Seems like everywhere else, edu Twitter is just angry all the time.

  2. ‘Knowledge Villain’ or ‘Creativity Freedom Fighter’

    Love it :D

  3. Great post, Chris. You've explored just how I feel and what I think!

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