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Post-truth teachers

Pete Boyd, University of Cumbria

Teaching is values-based and complex. While theory and research within the field of education is contested, we require high-quality teachers who exercise professional judgement in deciding what and how to teach as they work to establish research-informed practice. The educational research literacy of such teachers depends on an interplay, a power struggle, between public knowledge and the practical wisdom gained through practice (Boyd, 2022).

In 2016 the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘post-truth’. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. An important development has been post-truth politics, from which has emerged new flexible terminology such as ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. As Lee McIntyre explains: ‘post-truth can be seen as a form of ideological supremacy, where there is an attempt to influence someone to believe something whether there is good evidence for it or not’ (McIntyre, 2018, p. 13). The oxygen for post-truth has many sources: from news updates via social media and the decline of investigative journalism, to ‘science denial’ such as research funded by the tobacco and oil industries. To what extent might ‘post-truth’ be influencing the professional learning, beliefs and practices of teachers? Three recent publications illustrate some of the issues.

‘To what extent might “post-truth” be influencing the professional learning, beliefs and practices of teachers?’

First, in 2018 a new professional guidance book, by an experienced schoolteacher and teacher blogger, Greg Ashman, was published by the educational publisher Sage (Ashman, 2018). The book is entitled The Truth about Teaching: An Evidence-Informed Guide for New Teachers. The title and tone of this text implies that we pretty much know the answers, informed by educational research, about what and how teachers should teach. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, the author exaggerates the robustness and reliability of selected and often dated research, and he contributes to the false dichotomy between the strategies and effectiveness of direct instruction and inquiry-based teaching.

Second, the school inspection agency in England, Ofsted, recently published a research review about teaching mathematics. A critical review of this official publication argues that it draws unwarranted causal claims from studies, oversimplifies or overgeneralises the results of research, bases practice implications on poor-quality studies, and omits substantial bodies of relevant research (Gilmore et al., 2021). Who are teachers to believe?

Third, recent government agency inspection reports in England have claimed that some teacher education programmes are ‘underpinned by outdated or discredited theories of education’ (UCET, 2021, p. 3). In England, the core curriculum framework for initial teacher education provides detailed centralised government agency guidance on how teachers decide what and how to teach (DfE, 2019), and recent Ofsted inspections appear to be monitoring its implementation. Has teacher education policy in England moved from a myth of ‘evidence’ to an ‘evidence era’ where ‘actions are justified through a language shrouded in talk of research and best practice’ (Helgetun & Menter, 2020, p. 2).

These three examples prompt some urgent questions. Is the government school inspection agency in England producing ‘post-truth’ research reviews? Are well-established education publishers willing to publish ‘post-truth’ professional guidance books? Are many teacher educators too afraid of the cut and thrust and time-consuming nature of social media interactions to engage in online critical review of post-truth publications? Does ‘post-truth’ help to explain the artificial dichotomies arising within education, including debates on curriculum knowledge, learning to read, direct instruction and the value of different forms of research? Is this because, in a post-truth world, an attention-grabbing headline is likely to have more traction than a nuanced argument? In England at least, are we stuck in a rumble in the jungle of ‘The Blob’ versus ‘ClubEd’? Where ClubEd is a small group of commentators and advisers who seem compliant with government-driven ideology and are regularly appointed to consultation and policy-writing panels. In short: Is educational research becoming crudely politicised?


References

Ashman, G. (2018) The truth about teaching. Sage.

Boyd, P. (2022). Teachers’ research literacy as research-informed professional judgment. In P. Boyd, A. Szplit, & Z. Zbrog (Eds.) Developing teachers’ research literacy: International perspectives (pp. 17–43). Libron.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019) Initial Teacher Training core content framework. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974307/ITT_core_content_framework_.pdf

Gilmore, C., Trundley, R., Bahnmueller, J., & Xenidou-Dervou, I. (2021). How research findings can be used to inform educational practice and what can go wrong: The Ofsted Mathematics Research Review 2021. Mathematics Teaching, 278. https://www.atm.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/Journals/MT278/12.pdf

Helgetun, J. B., & Menter, I. (2020). From an age of measurement to an evidence era? Policy-making in teacher education in England. Journal of Education Policy, 37(1), 88–105. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2020.1748722

McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-truth. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Universities Council for the Education of Teachers [UCET]. (2021). Ofsted inspections of ITE: A briefing paper for members. https://www.ucet.ac.uk/13451/ofsted-inspections-of-ite-a-briefing-paper-for-ucet-members

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