23/10/18

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“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion”

  Paul Coelho

 

I have increasingly been involved in the use of social media to discuss and share educational thinking and practice, primarily Twitter.  Recently I unwittingly became embroiled in a dispute over my questioning of an individual’s opinion and its validity. It was to descend into a level of harassment I had hitherto not experienced. I am no stranger to people sharing their opinion of me on social media, sometimes quite personally but it was not this that unsettled me. Rather it was the sanctity with which an individual’s opinion was held which would lead some to abandon all social norms of dialogue and debate in defence of said opinion, or rather the individual who pronounced it. This has caused me to reflect long and hard about the issues of social media, critical thinking and the obsession with opinions.

There have certainly been many opinions expressed about the silence in corridors rule imposed by some schools. There is a great deal of support for this and this has quickly become am either/or argument. There are definitely benefits for some students for instance those with autism who find the noise really uncomfortable and I have real sympathy for them. On the other hand there are those who find it somewhat disturbing and it does have tones of The Stepford Wives and/or The Midwich Cuckoos for me. While I love silence and infact spent my Easter holidays in Year 13 revising in a monastery I do feel that is where it belongs or as a meditative exercise. Schools should have a buzz of conversation not the eerie echo of footfalls. This though is my opinion and it has no greater value than any other Headteacher. I know that it would not sit right in my own school but that is a combination of experience and personal educational philosophy.

The banning of mobile phones has been a recent hot topic that has illustrated the limitations of unqualified opinions. The issue in reality is not mobile phones but their use and effect. I am of the view that Headteacher’s should be able to impose what rules they deem appropriate for their context. It is not the banning of mobile phones that bothers me, it’s the fervour with which this has been embraced and all alternatives condemned. At the end of the summer term at Townley we introduced a digital detox which meant students couldn’t use their phones at break or lunchtime and they had to be off or on silent during lessons and around school. This seemed a sensible way to test the response and illustrate the benefits. It was really gratifying to witness students responding positively to this and engaging in discussions about it. As a result this has now become our policy. No ban needed, just a moderate restriction and the opportunity to learn self-discipline. Of course Townley girls are not necessarily representative and we have built this relationship over time so, as stated, each Headteacher must decide according to their own context.

The issue that has been expressed regarding mobile phones in schools is their ability to distract. However, they are not unique in this capacity and so far we have not resorted to bricking up windows or placing students in individual study booths. I would argue that mobile phones have no ability to distract since distraction comes from the user not the subject. That is why some are easily distracted by very little and others remain focused. A greater determinate of distraction is the level of interest one has in what you are doing. Self-discipline and a sense of purpose in what one is doing are of far greater educational value than the imposition of classroom blinkers.

The real issue with mobile phones is not the technology but the godlike status social media imparts upon those who really don’t warrant it. The ferocious defence that is put up by their followers and sometimes themselves demonstrates that they themselves know this. Indeed it is follower-ship that often gives the sense of authority and impunity, elevating simple opinions to the status of truth. Our young people are vulnerable to this. They feel the effects of those that use their supporters to create power over others. In my experience very few bullies have been isolated, lone individuals. They have relied upon the unquestioning support of others to provide them with a status they have not earned.

Unfortunately though this is not restricted to school bullies but can be seen more generally in social media and specifically in education forums. Here writing about education and/or conducting research are viewed not only as a viable alternative to experience but also often as preferable. Actual experience is subject to context which itself can be dismissed. I have found this when someone leaps on the context of a girl’s grammar school to disregard any insights or nearly 30 years worth of experience.  Both writing and educational research are valuable and carry their own credible authority but not over and above actual practice. In fact too much research is accepted without adequate critical analysis of its methodology and purpose. Ultimately research only tells you what is and the subject of the research itself also limits that.

Social media has enabled all with an opinion to express it and others to be fooled into thinking all opinions are equally valid. I would not choose the doctor who will treat me based on the number of followers they had or how many agreed with their opinions on the value of leeches as a suitable treatment for heart disease. Nor would I be persuaded by the research study into the benefits of leech therapy funded by the leech farmers union.

A truly outstanding education equips our young people to experience the best of knowledge that is available now and from the past. It enables them to question that knowledge with a critical mind and to form their own theories, ideas and opinions based upon this foundation. Finally it prepares them to share these ideas and opinions and to be prepared to defend them with reason or to change them when confronted with something better.

This is the concept of education at Townley Grammar and it is why our students can press silent or off rather than us doing it for them, it is why you do not hear silence but discussion and why it is our example not our opinions that will change the world.

 

Desmond Deehan

 

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