In December 2018, BERA published my blog, ‘In pursuit of a secure base? Education commentary in times of socio-political uncertainty’. The core point of that article was to consider a topic originally raised by Kraemer and Roberts (1996): that when mass societal insecurity occurs, whole populations become collectively anxious, and seek refuge in oversimplification of complex issues, including those relating to education. Much of the consequent social media reaction to the blog entirely missed this core point, presuming that it had been principally constructed as an attack on a few prominent edubloggers whose polemic criticisms such as ‘load of old pony’ and ‘letting kids get away with it’ had been quoted. This led me to consider the whole context of blogging more deeply, particularly in the recognition that it has become increasingly influential since the advent of social media.
I first met the concept of blogging in 2013, on a postgraduate certificate in online and distance learning, in which it was used for shared reflective practice. I subsequently developed a similar shared blogging process for my own students (Jarvis, 2019). Furthermore, frustrated by the fact that children’s issues were so frequently ignored by the mainstream media, I became a regular Huffington Post blogger, discussing somewhat obscure academic concepts in the context of everyday illustrations in an attempt to bring some important overarching issues to the attention of a wider, non-specialist audience. As a psychologist as well as a teacher, I viewed this as an attempt to ‘give psychology away’ in the spirit of George Miller, via a medium that was not even imagined when he made his famous 1969 address. Subsequently, following my late entry to Twitter in mid-2017, I created my own blogging site, the Psychological Historian, which I use as a ‘sand tray’ for developing ideas to share with other edutweeters, eliciting comments that help me to further develop my thinking.
All of these ventures seem (to me, anyway) quite positive ways to utilise an instant self-publishing platform, developing collective thinking on topics of mutual interest, while not intruding on the slower and more steady process of in-depth research and subsequent writing that seeks academic publication via the traditional, meticulous peer-review process. In many ways, these ‘fast and slow’ processes are complimentary: blogging provides a platform on which one can ‘think out loud’ and receive instant informal feedback from others with similar interests, while academic research and publishing provides a forum for sharing substantial, in-depth reports on research that have been further crafted and validated through formal peer review.
‘The increasingly blurred lines between blogging and academic publishing have begun to concern me.’
However, the increasingly blurred lines between blogging and academic publishing have begun to concern me. Blogs based purely on the personal experiences and opinions of one person may be presented by some writers (and consumed by some readers) on the same basis as more in-depth, academic peer reviewed publications. This poses a growing risk, that writing in these very different genres may erroneously be accorded the same value in policymaking. As Manca and Whitworth (2018) argue, there is a conspicuous absence of ‘more explicit reflection on how social media alter the structures of knowledge development and information exchange of education’.
In their article, ‘Distinguishing polemic from commentary in science’, Grimes and Bishop (2018) propose a very useful checklist for considering the validity of claims made in a text, which includes the following.
- Does evidence come from peer-reviewed sources?
- Are all relevant studies considered?
- Are results of specific studies misrepresented?
- Are causal claims based on experiment, correlation or analogy?
- What are the academic credentials and track record of the authors?
- Is there conflict of interest?
This would seem to me a very good place to start when considering the academic authority of commentary in all genres, to avoid the possibility that the more specialist voice of academic researchers will be increasingly perceived, within some echelons of the public imagination, as the product of ‘number crunching technocrat[s] divorced from the realities that real people just know, in their bones’ (Oliver, 2019).
Blogging is certainly an excellent tool for both personal and collective reflection. However, all must be fully aware that the meticulous research and peer review processes that are undertaken within academic publishing means that self-published polemic can never be constructed as its equal in a policy advisory role, unless we wish to return to pre-enlightenment levels of debate.
Grimes, D. R. & Bishop, D. V. M. (2017). Distinguishing Polemic From Commentary in Science: Some Guidelines Illustrated With the Case of Sage and Burgio. Child Development, 89(1), pp. 141–147. Retrieved from https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13013
Jarvis, P. (2019, February 23). How to learn from your teaching mistakes: This method scaffolds reflection so that you can better learn from errors. Times Educational Supplement. Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/news/how-learn-your-teaching-mistakes
Kraemer, S. & Roberts, J. (Eds) (1996). The Politics of Attachment: Towards a Secure Society. London: Free Association Books.
Manca, A. & Whitworth, A. (2018). Social Media and Workplace Practices in Higher Education Institutions: A Review. Journal of Social Media in Society, 7(1), 151–183. https://www.thejsms.org/index.php/TSMRI/article/view/248
Oliver, D. (2019). Vaccination sceptics are immune to debate. BMJ, 365, l2244. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l2244