In the last few weeks, I’ve encountered a fascinating range of modes of engagement with fellow professionals. I’ve been struck by the extent to which the mode of communication we employ affects the quality of discussion and the depth of understanding we achieve.
In a high quality exchange we learn what other people’s perspectives are but we also refine our own models and world views in the process; we identify common ground among the areas of disagreement and establish the territory of co-existence and consensus. We also allow for challenge and opposition whilst retaining a spirit of common intent and mutual respect.
In low quality exchanges, ideas are not given time to find their form before they’re fed into the threshing machine of public critique. Fuelled by adversarial rhetoric, subtle and complex ideas are battered into their most basic form, losing meaning along the way, cut adrift from their original context and reduced to crudely opposed positions. Often this reaches the point where legitimate concerns about the way we conduct the exchange can drown out consideration of the actual issues at hand.
Twitter exchanges can be like this. I’d say it’s rare to see a twitter debate that brings people closer together in their thinking. The healthier mutual-challenge conversations often seem to be between people who have a relationship of some kind beyond twitter so they conduct their exchange such that there’s a level of interpersonal accountability for what they’re saying. I’ve seen it said that ‘you only comment on the tone of a tweet when you’ve lost the argument’. I struggle with that. In fact I find it hard to have much time for what someone is saying unless the tone fits the parameters I find acceptable. Maybe I don’t have a thick enough hide. Words have meaning in how they are spoken and written, not just in their definitions. That’s language for you.
The twitter output from a conference is an interesting phenomenon. I had this discussion with other presenters at Wellington after I did my ‘Mechanics with Soul/Pedagogy Tree’ talk. If you look at what is tweeted during a talk you’ve given, it can be pretty sobering. 40 minutes of talk, where you’ve tried to construct an argument – to generate a coherent signal – can be morphed into a very noisy reproduction. You’re left with a peculiar mixture of friendly backslaps, selected quotes, the odd slide and even a photo of someone’s personal notes as the residual representation of what you might have actually said – or, crucially, what you were trying to say. Although plenty of people say nice things, it’s still annoying to feel misinterpreted. However, I’m beginning to realise that this is my own fault. It’s fair game if you put yourself forward to speak and I need to anticipate the reality that there will be noise. It’s down to me to make my signal stronger and clearer. I didn’t do as good a job as I’d have liked on Saturday; talking to people afterwards was better. I was much more coherent at Northern Rocks talking about a research-engaged culture because I was on more secure ground with the material.
I’m also reflecting on my culpability in adding to the noise itself. In some cases, it’s because of deficits in the clarity of my thinking. For sure, if your ideas aren’t fully formed, it’s going to generate a response. What exactly are you saying? Metaphors (which I’m probably too fond of) are problematic in this regard – they have limits. In using a tree metaphor, someone has suggested that my omission of any reference to air undermined the message. I do actually know that most mass in plants originates in the air, not the soil – but this was seen as evidence of a lack of coherence in the model. That’s being rather too literal but it’s still made me think harder about the value of the metaphor. It’s a fair challenge.
In other cases, the noise is generated through amplifying my thoughts incoherently. The performance of a speech can distort the content. Scripted speeches can be wooden (unless you are a Martin Robinson or MLK) but spontaneity comes at a price and the emphasis can be shifted in a way you don’t intend. On Saturday I used the example of a ‘Maths Hat’ activity my son had for homework to exemplify misjudgement about engagement. But I skimped on the detail of how I see engagement working in a context of structure and content. The Maths Hat isn’t good enough for my son – but is good enough for other kids? No, that’s not it at all. I can’t think of any student who’d learn maths with that particular activity. I was trying to suggest that activities stemming from a progressive disposition that might include playing maths games, doing puzzles and making patterns are things my son did growing up. They weren’t absent; we did them at home. They’re part of the context that gave him a platform to develop strong maths knowledge. But what about kids who don’t get that kind of experience? It’s legitimate to suggest that, within a strong maths curriculum, there’s room for some activities that put maths into a different context to generate engagement with numbers. Not Maths Hats per se – but exploratory tasks and games where numbers have meaning in relative scale and significance; where numbers can be played with, demystified and controlled, amongst the more traditional instruction + practice approaches. I didn’t say all of that; it was what I meant. Signal weak; noise strong. My error.
I also think that the noise comes from not knowing who I’m dealing with; arguing with strangers in the dark is generally a bad business – because context is key in knowing why someone says what they say. In theory I know why people retain anonymity but I tend not to want to debate with them. If I’m publicly accountable for what I say and they’re not, that doesn’t work for me. I want to see your face. It’s a human thing. Beyond twitter, critiquing the work of someone you know or have met requires a higher level of self-censorship than when you regard them as a distant stranger. If you have to look someone in the eye, the way you challenge their ideas is different; there are consequences. It requires better arguments; it requires moderation of tone.
When I wrote a blog review of Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, it was on the basis of stranger to stranger; my personal experience an evidence pea-shooter against the volume of her research. Even so, I thought I was being balanced. I started off saying I agree with a lot of it. This lay dormant for a while but I stoked up some ire when I found that an incorrect over-simplification of my views of the book was being circulated in advance of a debate. ‘Tom S says the myths don’t exist…’ etc. What I actually think is that, whilst some of the myths clearly do exist, they don’t account for low standards where I’ve encountered them in the system and, therefore, don’t serve as an effective characterisation of the system as I see it. I’d argue that the default mode at the core of secondary teaching as practised, is profoundly orientated towards direct knowledge transmission and always has been, despite what OfSTED or other influential progressive thinkers have said. (Certainly true in science.)
However, instead of having a direct exchange with Daisy, I blogged about my frustrations and that stirred up even more noise. Blog comments are much better than twitter because you have space to write a decent answer. But, after attempting to engage in a blog exchange in my last post, I’ve realised that, even here, after the first rounds of to and fro, you start to feel that the medium has reached a limit, especially if there doesn’t seem much hope of finding common ground. Or if the tone puts you off or a minimum threshold of interpersonal rapport in the exchange isn’t met.
At Wellington I finally had the chance to talk to Daisy. We had a chat for 10 minutes; not about the Myths but about assessment and developments in ARK schools. If I’d had this conversation before, I’d have understood her sense of mission much better. It might have influenced my view of the book to get where she’s coming from; even if I don’t agree with the full analysis. Happily, we agreed on various issues around assessment – there is plenty of common ground to inform future discussions. In particular I want to see how Daisy’s ideas manifest themselves in classrooms – and to compare notes. What I’ve learned is that if you critique someone’s work publicly, there’s a huge risk of being pushed into a specific camp by the legion of black-white polarisers that permeate our professional world. That’s unhealthy – for me, if not for them.
It seems to me that the best value of all derives from situations where people with common interests but different perspectives, meet face to face for a decent amount of time to explore ideas in detail. This has happened a few times recently:
- A Heads’ Roundtable workshop in Cambridge where we worked for several hours in small groups to thrash out some ideas to flesh out our manifesto proposals. Working with Laura McInerney and Jez Bennett from Shenley Brooke End school on the National Baccalaureate model was fantastic; I changed my mind on a couple of things and sharpened focus on others.
- An SSAT Vision 2040 meeting where a small group including Stephen Tierney, Alex Quigley and Kev Bartle helped to carve out an exciting set of ideas with a framework to hang them on. Over the next 12 months we’re working towards producing a forward-looking document about the possibilities for our system. Lots of ideas were pitched in; we challenged each other – changed tack a few times and generated something we felt had the potential to deliver.
- Car journeys with colleagues/friends Tim Worrall @musotim and Chris Waugh @edutronic_net: In an intense hour or two, you can learn a lot about what someone thinks, why they think it, the strength of their feeling and conviction, the areas of doubt and conflict within themselves… and so on. Ideas are complicated and evolving; it takes time to explain them and bring them to life for someone else to engage with. We don’t often give each other that kind of time.
- A personal highlight from the Wellington Festival was a great chat with Carl Hendrick (Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College) and Chris Waugh about the concept of ‘agency’ and how to mobilise more teachers to engage in educational discourse around research and pedagogy; how to reach out beyond the conference-twitter bubble. People with different contexts but a common sense of purpose – this is how ideas can start to form and, for sure, a bit of mutual respect goes a long way.
- That spirit was in evidence during the session with Dylan Wiliam and David Didau on Friday afternoon at #EducationFest. I enjoyed the format of their exchange. It wasn’t blue corner vs red corner; it was two people exploring their thoughts, responding to challenges posed by the other to reach some kind of deeper shared understanding of assessment and learning.
So, I’ve learned a few lessons:
- The bigger the audience, the more public the profile, the more care is needed to get the message straight. It’s best not to think aloud in front of people – unless you’re doing that explicitly and deliberately.
- Twitter debates are not for me – it’s a place to signpost alternative ideas but not to thrash things out.
- Blog exchanges are a better place to exchange comments but I reserve the right to opt out when the tone is wrong or when there’s insufficient common ground. To some extent the blog posts need to stand as they are. Similarly, comments can be published for scrutiny without requiring a response.
- Conference presentations need to be better prepared – sharper, clearer, with less room for misrepresentation; my metaphors need to be worked through with their limits explained.
- When I disagree with someone or review their work, I’ll imagine sitting in front of them, face to face, before I express (broadcast) my views. It may be better to ask more questions first before passing judgement. In the end you get what you give or, at least, you can’t expect more.
In short, more signal, less noise.
You should try Google+ Tom.
Also on point, you’d enjoy Resonate by Nancy Duarte:
Yeah, my hide isn’t thick enough either. And to be honest I don’t see the point in debate that just ends up in people bashing. Isn’t it great when people come together to work towards a common goal rather than fighting amongst and hurting each other? 🙂
Thanks for this, Tom – and I always find your signal pretty clear, I’d say!
Absolutely know what you mean about Twitter debates, though – I got drawn into an exchange recently, stemming from a Sheryl Sandberg quotation I’d posted, which ended up with ‘bullshit’ and ‘bollocks’ (needless to say, their words not mine)!
Tom, I understand completely your reluctance to engage in some forms of debate now available. I also understand your reluctance to engage with anonymous folk. I guess that as you become more well known, more people are interested in what you have to say, and are also more critical (in both senses of the word). I’m anonymous on twitter and not directly involved in education (so unlikely to actually meet you), so, for me it is doubly bad news that you are unlikely to engage with me via social media. But, I do understand. I have recently blogged about the importance of tone, and the different convention that applies to peer reviewed Science papers (http://chemistrypoet.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/tone-substance-truthiness/). My view is that an important part of the debate is seeking after truth (which is complicated in most spheres, but very complicated in the edu-sphere), and seeking to convince others of that truth (the Truthiness)….and tone is very important in seeking to change minds (even when dealing with truth).
Thanks for this comment. I agree and fully intend to engage with you as I have before…and you could always send me an email. 🙂
The use of twitter to record what is said at a keynote, workshop or similar is an art, a bit like live blogging. It is note taking, not for discourse. There may be times when you need to respond to someone clarifying a comment, but there is little point in trying to take notes and have discourse at the same time.
Some folk on twitter forget this at times and the back channel has gone from a helpful tool to supplement activities at conferences to a distraction where people air their existing opinions.
Twitter at some events is very different … TeachMeets are an example of this, but there are limitations.
There are limitations in most forms of communication and there are issues that my use of email (ranging from very formal to informal to memos to almost IM style chats) will differ from others’ … and understanding the limitations helps to understand possible points of confusion or miscommunication.
As someone who regular has discussions on forums, via email, conference calls or video conferencing, there is a lot to be said about meeting someone face to face and having a cuppa.
Great post, Tom. Lots and lots of wisdom here… And welcome leadership. 🙂
I thoroughly agree on tone. I find it perplexing that 140 characters means, for some, no requirement to deploy human decency & manners (and especially odd for teachers of children). I guess that this happens when ego and ‘winning’ become more important than the (arguably) more exciting pursuit of exploring common purpose and sharing learning.
Hi Tom, I came to your talk on Friday and I think you are worrying unnecessarily – I definitely got what you meant about the Maths hat and I really, really enjoyed what you had to say. It has had a subtle effect on my teaching all week this week and I had the idea of progressive hooks (not a very articulate title but you know what I mean, I’m sure!) in mind today when I aced a lesson observation. I didn’t tweet…I generally stay off the back channel these days.
Thank you for putting yourself out there, again, and being one of my favourites, again. I blogged you last year and again this year – http://sallythorne.com/2014/06/20/edfest-sherrington/ – I hope I represented your talk fairly.
Thanks Sally. I appreciate that very much. I was bothered by some interpretations of what I was saying – hence the post – but I’m glad it made sense to you. You’ve captured it nicely – thanks for doing that. 🙂
Interested in what you say about blog debates. That sense of writing with one eye on possible responses is surely what distinguishes blogging from other kinds of writing.
Between 1969 and now I guess I’ve written well in excess of 5,000 published articles (TES, Guardian etc etc).
Comments — which on the whole could only be made by letters to the editor — have been vanishingly rare. So never have I thought I was starting a debate. I was either telling people something I’d found out that they might or might not like to know, or I was airing a view which would either bring on a smile, a nod, or an angry snort before the turning of the page. Rather naively, when Twitter started up, I brought something of the same attitude, and was quite shocked, having answered (from my experience) a teacher’s query about classroom management, to find a certain Tweeter coming instantly back with a pretty assertive, ‘That’s the worst possible advice…’ etc etc. ‘Right,’ I thought. ‘I need to be careful here.’ Needless to say, I haven’t always been careful enough, although there are some regular tweeters who I will read but resolutely not engage with. Twitter, as you say, is not a debating chamber, and I’m not convinced that blogging is either, although the thoughtful tone of your own blogs does seem to generate more considered responses.
Sorry. Rambling again really.
Thanks Gerald. Rambling is good! Some feedback is good and it’s interesting to know when people disagree with you. What I struggle with is when people make 10 points that each require some kind of response – it’s too much. On a Guardian blog – I’ve done a handful – the ‘below the line’ comments are often interesting. But there are some nutters out there! T.
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