Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog post is intended to tell you what to think or how to teach.
Warning: This blog post contains elements of self-indulgence.
I’ve been trying to work out why I blog. It’s not really about marketing, except in a very subtle sense. There are no adverts for my books on this blog, and I rarely mention them. This is a deliberate decision. It’s the same with the training that I do in schools. Apart from a section on my author website, I do no direct marketing at all of my INSET provision for schools. No flyers, no magazine adverts, nothing. The work that I get in schools comes solely through word of mouth or from people who have read my books and like what I have to say. This means I don’t have to give my training a specific ‘slant’ to get work. I don’t have to say things that would make my conscience shudder, like: ‘This INSET will help you get ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted.’ Similarly, I don’t blog to try and get you to agree with me, or to change your mind, to tell you what you should think or how you should teach. I blog because this is a space where I can experiment, and more particularly where I can try and figure out what I think about things. Sometimes the underlying emotion is fury or irritation or curiosity or wanting to share, but mostly I am trying to resolve a kind of cognitive dissonance that happens in my mind. I simply cannot hold two competing ideas in my brain at the same time. The urge to try and resolve them is overwhelming. So I blog them out.
Ofsted is a great example of how this cognitive dissonance can arise in schools. Teachers want to teach in the way that they believe is best for their children, but the need to pass inspections leads to all kinds of gymnastic contortions and bizarre game playing. I help to run a preschool, but I don’t do it to please Ofsted, I do it mainly to try and give a great experience to the children we serve. I’m very, very lucky in that this part of my work is completely voluntary. I don’t have to try and please Ofsted because my livelihood will not be at stake if I don’t (although I am conscious that I have a duty to staff – I’m not stupid about it). I have the luxury of being able to keep a single thought in my head: what is best for our children? At the moment I’m struggling to try and square the very admirable suggestion that Ofsted should have ‘no preferred teaching style’ (aka ‘method’), with the worry I have about the government mandating a specific method (in this case for the teaching of reading). I’m not employed by the government to teach, nor do I write materials for reading instruction, and so I’m free to explore the clashes that happen in my mind when the subject comes up. Right now I cannot square the notion that words must be sliced and diced until all the sounds have been chopped out, with the way that words work for me as a reader and writer. I will continue to explore this dissonance until I figure out what I think. Not what someone else thinks, or tells me to think, but what I think myself.
There was a lengthy discussion on Twitter earlier this week about why women are less well represented than men in Teach Meets and educational books. My contribution to the debate was to suggest that perhaps this happens because women typically care deeply about what other people think about their ideas. My confidence as a writer comes from a curious duality. While I care deeply that my writing and my ideas are useful or interesting or inspiring for people, I also don’t care at all about what people say about them. While it is absolutely lovely to read a great review of one of my books, I don’t write those books in order to receive great reviews. I write to explain what I think, and to share my ideas about the methods that have worked for me. Just at the moment, I feel a bit like education is about to eat itself. One day I read something about why X is crucial; the next day I read something that says X ain’t all that. The constant focus on finding evidence that will apply to everyone, everything and everywhere risks making us lose sight of the values that underpin all that we do and say. Just because a method is the most efficient way to achieve X, Y or Z, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right thing to do.
Recently I received a review copy of Ian Gilbert’s new book: ‘Independent Thinking’. I’m always a bit nervous about accepting review copies of other people’s books: I don’t want to feel obliged to say something positive because I like or respect the author. That cognitive dissonance again! (If I don’t have anything positive to say, I resolve it by saying nothing at all.) This is a very unusual book. Unlike most educational books it doesn’t try to tell you what to think, or to do, or how we should be running our system. It is not a blueprint, or a formula, or a set of instructions. It’s very random and eclectic. (Some reviewers have described it as ‘dip in and out’: it is, but that description doesn’t really do it justice.) Even the size and shape of the book is unexpected and surprising. This is not a book that gives you answers, but a book that raises questions. Last night I shared some of the ‘thunks’ that Ian gives in the book with my children. The answers they gave made me laugh, surprised me, and unsettled me. Their answers made me realise that (just as with you, dear reader) I cannot tell them what to think. They have their own minds to make up, thank you very much. And that is fine by me. Because it is only by keeping our minds open to uncertainty, and possibility, and complexity, and difference, that we can ever hope to move forwards in our thinking.
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.” Flannery O’Connor
* see Ian’s book