(Originally published here)

2015-06-25 14.45.36


by Patrick Alexander

Like most social scientists, my approach to methodology is in important ways entangled with personal narrative. My interest in age as a field of social analysis emerged from my early experiences as a secondary school teacher. As a twenty-three year-old trainee, I was barely older than the more senior teenage students in my charge. At the same time, I was easily recognizable to my senior colleagues as member of the same generation as their own children. Training to be a teacher involved my immersion in the uncertain performance of several different identities: professional adult, grown-up in a classroom full of kids, youthful teacher. It was jarring to me to experience simultaneously what seemed like mutually exclusive categories of age. Out on the playground, students (and, sometimes, teachers) engaged in their own complex and ever-shifting negotiation of the age-based rules of engagement in everything from friendship to bullying, dating to disgust, dominance to deference. This led me, several years later and newly formed as an anthropologist of education, to focus explicitly on age in its multiple imaginings as aspect of social life in schooling in the UK.

Approaching age as the primary focus of anthropological analysis presents methodological challenges. Expanding one’s methodological approach to capture multiple, overlapping reckonings of age is perhaps particularly tricky in schools, where order is predicated on the neat portioning of the life course into categories like age groups, year groups, grades, or stages of the life course linked to educational achievement. The difficulty lies in analysing age as an aspect of social experience, while also recognising that age is both an essentialised and an essentially dynamic aspect of social identity. This makes it something of a moving target for the beleaguered anthropologist in the field.

Ironically, researchers have tried all kinds of approaches aimed at mitigating the impact of age, and its concomitant asymmetrical power relations, as a barrier to robust data gathering. Many of these, I would argue, serve to further reify the discreteness of the age-based positionality that a researcher holds relative to younger (or older) informants. Attempts to adopt a “least adult” role in ethnographic research (put crudely, adults acting out childhood with children) may lead children to experience rather peculiar imaginings of childlike adulthood. The sociologist Ronald King (1978) famously hid in a Wendy House (or play house) in order to conduct non-participant observation with children in a classroom, uninterrupted by the presence of adults; and not surprisingly, this method also raised its own problems. Hammersely and Atkinson have pointed out the tension between knowledge, power and age in the role of the school ethnographer, arguing that, in the eyes of participants, chronologically younger researchers may fit more neatly with the role of ignorant but curious observer than do older, and therefore seemingly wiser, greying professors (2007:77). More recently, the “new” sociology of childhood has championed participatory methods as a way to foreground the voice of children and young people in school-based research. While there are significant gains to be made in better representing the self-efficacy of young people as actors in the research process, there are also issues here: it is debatable as to whether “child-centred” research (research that privileges and makes paramount the voices of children) can always be equated with what might be termed “childhood-centred” research (research that questions the terms by which the children and young people in child-centred research are defined). Research about children’s and young people’s lives in this sense must be seen as an important part of the process by which discourses of age are shaped and reproduced, rather than as a practice that exists alongside and apart from it.

In my own research, I have pursued, failed, and persevered with a range of methods for capturing the social complexity of age. Ultimately, I have found some success in a traditional approach to ethnography that embraces the messy, mercurial, dynamic nature of age as a “unit of analysis” and in so doing also attempts to capture the rich and complex ways in which age is given meaning in everyday life. Rather than limiting my analysis to the known taxonomies of age that shape life in school, my challenge was to capture the complex, concurrent, multiple notions of age that served to structure the lives of both teachers and students. As with my own experience as a teacher – of performing at once a version of grown-up, of growing up, and of being little more than a big kid with a beard – these imaginings of age were constructed relationally, idiosyncratically, and in dialogue with dominant discourses of how age “ought to be” experienced. Age, I found, was imagined in a moment-to-moment way that moved beyond existing taxonomies of age, but was also obliged to render itself sensible to them. The methodological hurdle was the capture this complexity. I have attempted to do so through applying the concept of age imaginaries– a “warts and al” approach to recognising how age shapes the ethnographic process as much as it shapes experiences of schooling for children, young people, adults – and everyone in between.

Why Picture Books Matter (Mat Tobin)

Why Picturebooks matter

to read the original and fully illustrated version of this blog entry, click here:


This blog was born out of two events: a Mocksted visit to my previous school and a rereading of Judith Graham’sPictures on the Page for my very first seminar at Oxford Brookes’ School of Education. What I share here are my own thoughts but I cannot deny that they have been steered by Graham’s. Published back in ’91 her words still ring true and her text should be considered as the first stepping stone into understanding the power of picturebooks. I’d like to share the Mocksted incident first as it might ring true for many teachers who have had to tackle with those who don’t ‘get’ picturebooks and may not be applicable to those who read this blog but have nothing to do with state education. If that’s you, then please feel free to start at Accessibility.

A straw upon the camel’s back.

We had decided, as an Academy, to have a Mocksted. Our Head had moved on and we wanted to see where the gaps were before we received the soon-to-happen phone call.  As part of the SMT, I’d already taken part in several Mocksteds and found them useful: asking experts who inspect on a regular basis to offer guidance makes a lot of sense.

The Inspectors were polite and offered clear advice but one comment was made that got my back up. I was sat at the conference table in the Head’s office with the Inspectors, Executive Head, Acting Head and Heads from other schools in the partnership and our own SMT when the Lead Inspector said:

“Reading throughout the school was generally good but poor in Year 6 where some pupils were reading books that were too short.”

Being the English Coordinator, and Assistant Head, I asked what he meant.

“I saw a boy in Year 6 reading a picturebook. He should be reading something thicker.”

The rest of my SMT could see me getting angry (I never get angry) and one of them had begun to firmly kick me under the table to stop me speaking but I felt duty-bound to correct him. His comment became a reason for me leaving the school and moving into Higher Education. It is my hope that I can stop other training teachers thinking the same way he did.

I explained that the child was probably reading Anthony Browne’sVoices in the Park since it was part of our Anthony Browne Week (our precursor to World Book Day involving each yeargroup from Nursery to Year 6) in which critical thinking and talk around the texts had been a central to the planning. By the way, Mary Roche’s Developing Children’s Critical Thinkingthrough Picturebooks is a wonderful text for anyone who wants to adopt a critical thinking approach to the teaching of reading through picturebooks.

The Inspector did not back down and said that the child would not become a better reader through reading picture books. I asked him if he had picked up the book and read it or if he had read anything by Anthony Browne or even Shaun Tan because no matter how ‘thin’ the book was, the ideas they explored were greater than many novels. The Executive Head subtly steered the discussion on and I was left seething.


I have spent my entire teaching career championing the importance of picture-books in education: from Pre-School all the way up to Year 6 and beyond. I have worked hard at dissolving the myth that picturebooks are only for younger children. It’s an understandable mistake to make; they don’t have many words and the pictures can appear simplistic. Here’s an example (click here ).


Taken from Browne’s The Tunnel, it shows an illustration of a young girl fleeing through a wood. A quick glance shows her caught in mid-run wearing a red coat and, fearfully, casting her gaze behind back – possibly to check that she is not being followed. There are no words. Not because it’s a book for early readers who are yet to handle decoding but because the picture is doing all the talking. The picture could be read as simply as that, it’s what almost every reader will be able to pick up from the scene but there are greater things afoot: things that novels cannot do but picturebooks can.

We learn early on in the book The Tunnel that Rose (the young girl) has a fascination for fairy tales. When she goes through the tunnel to save her older brother, Jack, she finds herself in a world in which many fairy tale tropes related to danger are projected. Even the least-skilled observer could spot the cottage in the background which might contain a witch but would they notice that the curtains are pulled aside leaving the shape of a witch’s hat in its space? Yes, Browne did this on purpose; it’s a nod to his version of Hansel and Gretel.


How about the clothed bear in the tree to the far left, or the boar’s head beneath it? In fact, the boar’s head and the wolf in the tree just behind Rose are both duplicates of Victorian artist, Walter Crane’s work.


There are other things hidden in the woods including a reference to Dali but I think the point I wanted to make has been made. What might appear simple and easy is, with the best picturebooks, very complex: the pictures are often doing far more than we might give them credit for. There are things going on within them that affect our reading and interpretation of the text in a way far deeper than the superficial level that many perceive picturebooks to be working at. These images of wolves, witch’s houses, boars and bears are Rose’s fears come to life. She is running through the forest of her mind. Whatever you think, it cannot be denied that the picture now asks for a deeper response that goes beyond what a novel could without losing its senses.

Pictures can bring greater comprehension to what is written and can often illustrate far more of what is going on than words can. Here they allow us an insight into Rose’s thoughts and feelings in a more immediate and metaphorical manner to the text: they become a powerfully accessible introduction to symbolism.
The same can be said of  images from Browne’s Voices in the Park. We don’t need to read a single word to know that the youngster in the image is looking back with a sense of longing. Yet there is a conflict of interest as the broad and firm arm of the adult with him steers him onwards. Her red hat is a dominant colour in the scene and a repeating image to be found at the top of the gate-columns as well as her neck-scarf and shadow. Is he off to a happy place? Perhaps, but look at the path ahead and you’ll see troubled waters (literally).


Like the previous image, the picture is saying a lot more than we first may have given it credit for. You missed the watery pathway, right? It’s okay, so did I and I’ve read this book dozens of times. That’s what’s wonderful about picturebooks: they encourage us to return over and over again in the hope that we find new meaning with each reading.

Are picture books written for children with weaker imaginations? No, of course not. Are they only for younger children? I hope I’ve convinced you differently. Yes, books with pictures can open minds and experiences to children with limited imagination. Pictures can also help readers tackle unfamiliar words by supporting them to use clues from the picture to identify unfamiliar words. Pictures are also easier symbols to read than letters and words – we start reading them years before we do the latter. They are simpler to decode because it is easier for us to see what they represent. But this is not their only function.

I’m often asked by students and parents to elaborate on what I mean when I say ‘it’s not a quality picturebook’ or even ‘it’s not a picturebook’. In answer, I always call on Maurice Sendak who said: ‘I wanted at all costs to avoid the serious pitfall of illustrating with pictures what the author has already illustrated with words’. A great picturebook is one in which the words and the pictures work together to tell the story but they never say the same thing. Here is an example from Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk. I use this because it was the very first picturebook shared with me as a student and it illustrated brilliantly how, when reading a picturebook, you don’t just enter one world, but two.


The text tells us that Rosie the hen is going for a walk, but the picture? Well, that tells a different story doesn’t it.

Reader Rewards

I have spent years battling teachers and parents who see reading schemes as the premier reading tool in school. Although I have seen real progress in early readers who read using fully decodable texts, I also see how little attention those readers pay to the accompanying image. That’s because they know that the story is told just as well through the words: there is no symbiotic, fruitful relationship. A deep and meaningful reader-response experience which is so abundant in quality picture books is absent from any scheme and that’s fine. That’s not their function. The reward of reading these schemes comes from mastering the art of decoding print off the page.

Great picturebooks ask the reader to think, question, delve into worlds and ideas that may often be beyond the realms of their experience and imagination. They encourage the reader to think and build meaning, to play and imagine, to reflect and enrich. They are the first steps into exploring our place in the world whilst discovering the lives of others. Why wait until you’re a fluent reader devouring novels to get to that point when picturebooks offer you a way in much, much earlier?

Brookes in the Bronx: Civilly Disobedient Youth, HK – NYC

From New York City to Hong Kong (both places close to my heart), the past few weeks have provided good cause for reflection on the relationship between issues of civic participation, disobedience, and the place of ‘youth’ and young people in imagining new political futures.

Here in NYC, as the first golden brown leaves shimmered down in Central Park, the arrival of the UN General Assembly in mid-September brought about mass demonstrations around the connected issues of global capitalism and climate change. On 22nd September approximately 300,00 people marched through the streets of the city under the banner of the ‘People’s Climate March’, bringing traffic to a standstill and sending Instagram accounts into overdrive. This was the largest public demonstration focusing on climate change in history, organised to coincide with UN talks on environment. The intention was to show popular outcry about the current state of the planet. When the Yankees finished playing in the Bronx, and the Giants finished up in New Jersey, New York’s transit systems were flooded with an odd mix of baseball fans, football bros and hippies, activists, families and climate change voyeurs of all descriptions. It took a long time to get home that day.

While the People’s Climate March attracted individuals of all different ages and backgrounds, it was in many ways shaped by discourses of youth and childhood. After all, climate change is particularly susceptible to what’s sometimes known (to me at least) as the Whitney Houston doctine of childhood: we believe the children are the future (not the present), and all our actions to preserve the environment now are for the benefit of future generations. This is a discourse of activism fundamentally grounded in the temporal framework of generations – and it is also almost always the ‘youth’ who are imagined to be at the balustrades of the eco-revolution. As such, when things progressed from the peaceful mass demonstrations of 22nd September to the occupation and arrests at Wall St the following day, it was the face of angry young men and women that littered the newspapers. Families may demonstrate at the sanctioned events, but it will be the young – those idealistic, reckless, idealised youth with nothing to lose and so much hope for the future – that will be dragged away by tired looking New York City cops for a night in the cells. A few news cycles later and it’s like it didn’t happen; but in the moment, the youth were rubbing up uncomfortably against the estbalishment – a rather familiar framing of how disobedience and resistance rise and fall out of view in civil society.Several thousand miles away, in my hometown of Hong Kong, secondary school students and university-age young adults were also on the verge of mass civil disobedience. The Occupy Central movement (Central is Hong Kong’s principal financial district and the seat of its legislative council) took cues from New York City’s Occupy Wall St legacy and transformed it into a movement focusing not on anti-capitalism per se, but on limited democratic reform of Hong Kong’s rather peculiar cocktail of hypercapitalism and reactionary pseudo-Communist politics. Young people in Hong Kong have for the past few weeks led an incredibly well-behaved, considerate, thoughtful charge towards a new kind of democratic engagement not seen in China for more than twenty years. the HKSAR government’s reaction couldn’t have been less ‘hip’ to the political times: tear gas, clubbings, alleged hiring of triad gangs as thugs and sexual assailants bent on breaking up the peaceful mobs all smack of a generation of politicians out of touch both with their popular political opponents and with the global media watching on. Seeing these scenes played out on the streets and thoroughfares of my own expatriate youth in Hong Kong made this kind of old-time political activity seem all the more surreal. The first wave of demonstrations ended last week with a fizzle; but already it seems that renewed reactionism from China will lead the youth to go wild – calmly, politely, peacefully – once more. It’s worth reflecting on how this very civil disobedience jars with a traditional framing of youthful resistance: the absence of bandanas and Molotov cocktails might actually lead to an enduring presence of politically engaged youth in Hong Kong.

In both these cases, imaginings of youth, and imaginings of future are at play, and it has been revealing for me to reflect on what specifically it is that defines this cohort of young people as ‘youth’ that are politically and civically engaged. What is interesting about the particular generational experience of school leavers and college students in Hong Kong, and their contemporaries in NYC, is that both have perhaps even less to lose than have recent previous generations. The global recession has made them suspicious of the promises to social mobility that are the backdrop to their participation in formal education; and where previous generations of young people may have been cynical or disengaged about their potential impact on political and economic systems (it’s easier to believe in individualism, after all), this generation is bouyed by the real, tangible impact that collective, technologically-engaged action has had in movements as disparate as the Arab Spring, Anonymous and the Occupy movement. They might actually make a difference – and they might even do it on their own terms. Don’t these sound like ‘youthful’ aspirations? Shouldn’t we be proud of these young people for flying the flag for real, progressive change in civil society? Aren’t they imagining the kind of civically-engaged, enlightened future that we might ideally like them to create in the lengthening shadow of late modern capitalist society?

The short answer to the above questions may well be yes; but it’s also interesting to consider that the qualities outlined above – the idealism, commitment, organisation and engagement borne of having little to lose in the current system of things – are not actually qualities solely imbued on the chronologically young. In fact, it might be that young people – school and university students – may be doing a good job of imagining and consuming the qualities of ‘youth’ that are actually open to people of all ages who may have also experienced a shrinking of their future horizons. In both New York and Hong Kong, those who have survived (or even thrived in) the recent recession may stay away from the demonstrations; but for those who are getting older without ‘growing up’ – without realising the dreams promised as the outcome of living ‘youth’ well, of attending university, of getting and keeping a well-paying job, of staying out of political trouble, of keeping one’s media-feed clean and adhering to the accepted avenues of acceptable rebellion/disobedience –  there is increasingly less to lose by not taking part. Perhaps the most profound impact that the civically disobedient youth of today can have on their elders is to make them feel ‘youth’ again – but this time, in a different, altogether more politically dangerous and exciting way.


Brookes in the Bronx: Reflecting on Youth, Race and Futurity

The unusually clement summer weather in New York City this summer has made it easier to get on with most things, it would seem. A soft breeze has blown across Manhattan from the Hudson since we arrived, and like a good Englishman I’ve been happy to talk (to anyone who would listen) about how lovely the weather is and how lucky we’ve been to avoid the usual Dog Days of Summer.

Where the weather has been mild, the tensions around issues of race and youth have been anything but. This has led me to reflect on the ways in which race and ethnicity are imagined in relation to gender and imagined futures – and on the potentially terminal consequences that dissonant, negative constructions of race and ethnicity can have on the lives of the young people involved.

In the context of the 24-hour news cycle, last summer’s verdict on the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch captain Michael Zimmerman seems like a distant memory (and more distant still for those of us across the pond who more readily associate Florida with Mickey and his friends). Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges connected with the fatal shooting of Martin, who was unarmed at the time of the incident. This led to demonstrations across the US, with Barack Obama calling for ‘soul-searching’ about how this reflected the broader state of race relations in American society – particularly for young people -and young men in particular- who are not considered white.

Similarly, the fatal shooting of black 29 year-old Mark Duggan by police in North London during the summer of 2011 led to wide-scale rioting and expressions of discontent on behalf of young people in disadvantaged areas of the city, many of whom were from black or ethnic minority backgrounds, and many of whom were articulating a combination of outcry at police brutality and outrage at the social marginalisation experienced in their everyday lives. Just as with the Martin case in Florida, the Duggan case led to acquittals and further demonstrations, but in the wash of other sad news about (mainly young) people dying around the world, it has been largely forgotten. It’s become more of a static case study for social commentary and sociological analysis (cue folk devils and moral panic) than evidence from our very recent history of an issue that remains at the centre of many young people’s lives.

Eric Garner died while being arrested by police in Staten Island.The pressing nature of these issues was nowhere more evident than in the US this summer. The news since July has been overshadowed by two cases of police using deadly force against black and minority men, young and slightly older. When I arrived in New York City on 5th August, the focus was on the case of Eric Garner, a 44 year-old Staten Island man who died when police put him in a choke hold during an arrest for selling ‘loosies’, or single cigarettes, on the street. Outcry over the death was widespread and led to massive demonstrations led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The focus remained not on decrying the police en masse (police shootings and deaths in police custody are down considerably in the NYC area this year), but on recognising racial prejudice and abuses of power  perpetrated by a minority of law enforcement that discriminate against black men in particular.

This relatively peaceful response to an act of violence was then followed by demonstrations of a different kind, beginning on August 9th when Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old black teenager, was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Rioting spread in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the fatal shooting, with protesters raising their hands and carrying banners saying ‘Don’t Shoot!’, reflecting the disputed final moments of Brown’s life. As in the case of the London riots, this public demonstration of anger and frustration in some cases fuelled popular phantasmagoria about the public threat of young minority men in public spaces. But it also drew media attention once again to the precarious position that some young men are placed in, when faced with the real threat of injury or death at the hands of law enforcement who may imagine them to be people that they are not.

Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.: Michael Brown's casket the day of his funeral Aug. 25.This is not the first run of summers where there have been cases of police brutality against young people, and I doubt it will be the last. Whatever the particular and varied details of these cases and the individuals involved, all point to the ongoing tension through which imaginings of race, ethnicity, social class, youth and gender are conflated with imaginings of social deviance, criminality and danger.

This is not a new argument in sociological or anthropological understandings of race and ethnicity; and nor is it a new experience for people from black or minority backgrounds. But thinking in terms of aspiration (as I am prone to do these days), this particular racialised ‘youth’ is imagined as aspiring to crime, violence, lawlessness, self-interest, even social disorder and chaos – a different set of values altogether, apparently, from those ideally represented by law enforcement. Of course, each of these qualities is also socially constructed, and it’s as easy to see how the actions of some police may also encapsulate each of the above rather anti-social aspirations, against which people might rightly protest. What is compelling is the extent to which black and minority youth are often associated a priori with present and/or future criminality – a temporally framed, negative imagining of race, ethnicity and ‘youth’ that suggests that it’s not a matter of if these young people will aspire to criminality, but when. This process is abruptly stopped in its tracks for each of these men before the presumed aspiration to future deviance can grow into action. The same may also be said of imaginings of working class white young men, even if the police response may often be rather different.

And this is also not just the experience of young men from minority backgrounds: just this week, the black Hollywood actress Daniele Watts of Django Unchained fame was handcuffed and held by LAPD for refusing to produce ID while being suspected of committing a leud act with her partner in their car on a public road. Leud acts aside, the issue in this detainment was that the officers involved apparently intimated that they thought they were dealing with a case of prostitution, because Watts is black and her partner is white. Without getting into the slightly convoluted details of this case (which you can read about here), once again the media circus focuses our attention on how imaginings of race and ethnicity are conflated with particular imaginings of deviance and criminality, many of which are also associated with ‘youth’, and with the inevitability of future deviance. Youth is, of course, a flexible concept, and in these stories it is stretched to include men aged 18-28 and women of indistinct age but ‘youthful’ appearance (trying to find out Watts’ actual age is a difficult and thankless task, readers). We should also note that many of the police and law enforcement involved in these cases would by the same token also be described as young – but they do not embody the kind of ‘youth’ apparently associated with individuals like Brown, or Martin, or Watts for that matter.

Each of these cases has caused me to reflect on the ways in which popular negative imaginings of black and minority youth may impact both how young people construct ideas about their futures, and how they go about attempting to achieve these futures. The young people that I have met so far in my current research aspire to be cardiologists, architects, sanitation workers, writers, and, more importantly, to be ‘good people’. It must be difficult to maintain the integrity of these kinds of positive aspirations for the future when the negative popular imagining of ‘youth’ – and urban black and minority youth in particular – is built in some part around an assumption that one’s future will inevitably lead to deviance and criminality. When this popular imagination exists in the minds of the police, and when certain police officers find themselves in positions where they can act irrevocably on these imaginings of inevitable future criminality – whether imminent or impending – the results can be fatal and future-killing.

As the nights draw slowly in at the end of this summer, and as the wind begins to bite in the fading sunshine, I feel like I’m only just starting to understand the complexity of how race, ethnicity, gender and youth collide in the various and often divergent, contested imaginings of the future that inhabit this city.

On ‘phonics denialists’

Friday’s TES published a letter from a group of educationalists to Michael Gove calling for the abolishment of the Year 1 ‘phonics check’. Signatories included the general secretary of the UK Literacy Association, the chairman of the National Association for Primary Education, the general secretary of NASUWT, and the chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. In response to the letter, one well-known educational commentator (@oldandrewuk) tweeted “See some phonics denialists got a letter in the TES”. I’m not going to spend any time questioning the use of the markedly pejorative term ‘denialists’, and the attribution of a questionable ethical agenda that is usually implied by it. I’ve done my homework here and see that Andrew Old has used this term in relation to phonics for some time, been called out for it, and made his responses.

But the substance of the charge (implied in this tweet but offered explicitly elsewhere) is that a large number of academics and other educationalists in positions of significant esteem in relation to the teaching of literacy persist in objecting to the application of phonics, or refusing to assent to certain propositions about phonics, despite the overwhelming evidence stacked against them. This is a claim that needs to be questioned.

An initial observation one could make is that the letter objects to the mandate around the phonics ‘check’ and the specifics of its design rather than the teaching of phonics per se. This is important and I will come back to it later. A further observation would be that where the literature cited in the letter (here I mean the philosopher Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics) has a broader scope than the phonics check, what is objected to is in fact the exclusive employment of the methods of synthetic phonics (SP) rather than, again, phonics per se. In fact, Davis argues for what he calls an ‘analytical phonics’ that draws on some of the techniques associated with SP, such as teaching letter-sound correspondences and the practice of blending, but also employs other elements that have been claimed to be a distraction from SP, such as looking at context or reading for meaning. But here I might be in danger of wandering into a well-laid minefield. Andrew Old has forcefully argued his criticisms of ‘mixed methods’ teaching approaches, both in relation to phonics and in education more broadly. So I’ll save that for the time being too.

When pressed, Old sets out his specific criticism of Davis’s argument as follows:

‘His argument is that teaching methods don’t exist, therefore the evidence they work doesn’t count, therefore it’s wrong to impose them. The issue is that the premise is absurd and the conclusion contradictory’ (you can find this in his twitter feed)

I don’t think this is suitably sensitive to the argument Davis sets out. Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers. It’s the same mistake that’s being made in Ben Goldacre and others’ advocacy of employing the randomised control trial to inform policy and practice in educational contexts.

A drug, or a fertiliser, has a chemical composition that can be isolated and reproduced. When a doctor prescribes a drug, there will be all kinds of professional complexities and variations at play: the doctor’s bedside manner, their knowledge of the patient’s medical history, their attentiveness to the patient’s description of their symptoms, etc. But as far as gathering evidence for a clinical trial into the success of a drug is concerned, what matters is the drug, and when the patient gets better (or doesn’t), this will be attributable to whether the drug has (or has not) done its intended work. Now I’m not really suggesting that a doctor’s bedside manner and the like don’t have any bearing on patient recovery, I’m just interested in the drug-method correspondence. The point is that in the educational context, the ‘drug’ (method) cannot be separated from the rest of the teaching and learning situation as it can in the medical context. In any educational situation, teachers constantly make practical judgements about the best way to respond to the diverse range of individuals in their classroom and act in accordance with these judgements. In responding to any given question, or utterance, or assessment of a pupil’s current understanding, the teacher will draw on available resources pertaining to a student’s particular background, their prior learning, their specific motivations and whatever else they know about the student concerned and other contingent elements of the classroom situation. This will necessarily call for different actions in relation to different students, or with different classes, or on different days. Davis’s point is that there is nothing about a teacher’s response from one situation to the next that could be isolated in the manner of the chemical composition of a drug and to which a particular educational result could be attributed in a similar way.

This is not a criticism of education research in itself or its potential to inform practice. Davis in fact calls in his book for more research into the different ways in which early years practitioners go about teaching reading. And although Davis doesn’t say a great deal about it, his argument doesn’t require that we give up on the possibility of offering explanations in educational contexts, or even of generalising certain causal mechanisms. But it does entail that we cannot separate out an educational ‘method’ from a particular case or group of cases and roll it out with the expectation of similar results across the board. The only way the concept of ‘proving’ or ‘testing’ an educational ‘method’ could be made meaningful would be if that method could be separated out from other situated judgements that the teacher makes on a continual basis, and it follows from this that the only way the method could then be said to ‘work’ in its wholesale employment would be if teachers were then expressly required to stop making other sorts of judgements within the particular domain with which the method was concerned.

It is, of course, quite difficult to get teachers to stop making situated judgements about the particular needs of pupils in particular contexts that they know well, because teachers are intelligent professionals who are motivated toward the wellbeing and learning of their pupils. That is why so many of the more terrible educational policies of the past have not been nearly as deleterious to pupil learning as they might have been. Davis refers to the way that experienced professionals who are well versed in the nuances of teaching reading have already ‘sanitised’ the (at least implicitly) exclusivist policy on SP, and emphasised phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching early literacy. This is what teachers do all the time, of course. They don’t let educational policy get in the way of doing best by their students, and find all sorts of ways of promoting best practice within a prescriptive system.

Andrew Old has strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches to teaching reading. His standpoint here is not abundantly clear. On the one hand, he has charged advocates of ‘mixed methods’ with not actually adding anything of value to what is offered in synthetic phonics. On the other hand, he has claimed that ‘There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”’. Comprehension strategies are, however, ruled out as a distraction. It would be easy to get bogged down here in a discussion of which techniques or practices properly fall within the remit of synthetic phonics and which do not. Such a discussion would only have value, of course, if you were trying to isolate and prescribe a universal and exclusive ‘method’ for the teaching of reading.

To understand Old’s vitriolic condemnation of those who advocate phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching reading, one needs to see this within the context of his discussion of ‘mixed methods’ in education more generally. He writes that, ‘There is no good reason to assume children have different learning styles which require different methods’. It is hardly surprising that Old defends a one size fits all approach to teaching if he sees so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative. Although it has proved sticky in school teaching and learning policies, the idea of learning styles has rather lost currency in the educational research community. Although Old does not at this point employ the obvious straw man, one might imagine that much-discredited educational myths such as those propagated about visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners (a favoured, and easy, target of those who would discredit educational ‘theory’) are waiting to be deployed and ‘exposed’ to strengthen Old’s claim that once a method has been identified, if it does not work then what is required is not a creative alternative approach, but simply a larger ‘dose’ of method.

As we have seen, Davis does not rest his critique of one-size fits all methodological approaches to teaching on any reification of supposed ‘learning styles’, but on the claim that the situatedness and inter-connectedness of teaching practice means that we cannot isolate methods that we can then impose in other quarters. This claim applies to anything you might call ‘mixed methods’ as much as to any single method; it makes no difference whether the method is to be applied to a whole year group, say, or to a smaller subset of that year group. The mixed methods approach, in fact, labours under the same broken analogy we have already discussed. Even if you claim that different strains of a disease will need different drugs, or different crops will need different fertilisers to achieve the same results, there is still a method being likened to a drug or fertiliser here.

The coalition’s requirements on phonics may or may not be intended to be exclusive of other approaches, but if we are feeling hospitable we could imagine that the policy potentially leaves space for teachers to employ the approaches associated with synthetic phonics as part of a suite of ways of teaching children to read. However, there is no doubt that the phonics check (which is the specific target of the open letter) is explicitly designed to be exclusive of other approaches. Words and pseudo-words are deliberately presented outside of any context of meaning that a student might draw on to guide their decision about pronunciation. As is pertinently observed in the letter, if one wanted to check a student’s progress in learning to read, the obvious way to do this would be to listen to them reading a short meaningful passage. The purpose of designing a check specifically for synthetic phonics is to test the application of the method itself rather than the outcome it is claimed to promote. Teachers who wish their pupils to be successful in this test will be forced to concentrate with those pupils on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check. The result of the check will be to validate the success of phonics as a method of promoting literacy by removing from teachers any independence or agency in selecting the best approach to promote literacy among their own students.

Andrew Old is one of a number of vocal professionals who are currently calling for ‘evidence-based practice’ in teaching. However, the argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students. The result is rather to set teachers against the academic research community (who do not, for the most part, claim that their research should be employed to identify the ‘best’ teaching method and impose it across contexts; this is a claim more often advanced by policy makers) and against their own autonomy as professionals capable of making nuanced situated judgements. If I intended to deliberately undermine the status of teaching as a profession, these are the very two relationships that I would need to weaken.

The Open Letter is here:

Dr Andrew Davis is a research fellow in philosophy of education at Durham University and a member of the executive committee of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (@philofedgb). His short book, ‘To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics’ is available open access here.

David Aldridge is Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education and Programme Lead for Professional Education at Oxford Brookes University.

EdD Colloquium

Oxford Brookes University – EdD Colloquium: ‘National and International Perspectives on Education’ on Saturday 28 June 2014, 9am to 5pm at Oxford Brookes University – School of Education,Harcourt Hill Campus, Oxford, UK, OX2 9AT

Keynote speaker

Marlene Morrison PhD Med BA (Hons) FETC Dip IPM, Emeritus Professor of Education

Marlene is a sociologist of education who specialises in educational leadership for diversity and social justice, and is a critical analyst of recent trends in educational administration and services, and various aspects of doctoral education.

Introductory Welcome from Dr Mary Wild, Head of the School of Education

Presentations from Doctoral Students

Themes Include

  • Technology in the Classroom     School-Based Community Development
  • The Nature of Graduateness     Making Meaning from School Closures
  • Decision Making and Research to Practice     Cultural Proficiency for Teachers

Please complete the online booking form to register your application

We are inviting the submission of abstracts for small group presentations and/or outlines for poster presentations, on any research subject connected to teaching in schools, further and higher education settings.  This is an important opportunity for Doctoral students to share their research proposals and initial work, to an international audience of fellow students, in a supportive environment.

For queries about your application, please contact Marinka Walker  For queries about your abstract or poster presentation outline, please contact Maggie Netherwood

Why I’m blogging my way through the EdD

First Year EdD student Lyndsay Jordan explores the importance of blogging as part of the doctoral learning process.

I became interested in blogs as a learning tool back in 2008 when I was working as an e-learning development officer at the University of Bath and embarking on a Masters in Education. I have no idea what actually sparked my interest, but my first blog post  – on a blog I’d set up purely to explore the impact of blogging on learning (hence the name ‘metablog’) – drew heavily on Vygotsky’s ideas about thought and language. []

I was encouraged and inspired when James Farmer – the founder of Edublogs and the author of one of the first academic articles on blogging (there weren’t many in those days) – commented on that first post. My unit tutor Jack Whitehead (the action research chap) also commented, asking me some questions about my educational influences which I found incredibly uncomfortable to answer. But I made a valiant effort for the sake of the experiment and it was probably worthwhile. I have left my response to Jack up there for the sake of integrity, although it still makes me feel sad to read it.

That first blog not only recorded my learning process; it was my learning. My own ideas, connections and meanings around blogging as a tool for learning were formed in the writing ofthe posts, and in undertaking the project in a holistic sense. Although it earned me my lowest unit grade on the MA, it was fundamental to my development as a learner and an e-learning professional, and was my springboard into academic publishing and presentation.

In 2009 I produced a short video on blogging with students and an accompanying paper , which led to a keynote invitation for the Future of Technology in Education conference . They had me back this year to talk more generally about online learning design in the post-MOOC era ( ) – but blogging for learning is still my core passion. I finally got the opportunity to get my own students blogging on a large scale in 2011 when I took over the leadership of the PG Cert Learning & Teaching at the University of the Arts London – an experience that I have explored, written and spoken about at length (as have my students). It was also the topic of my MA dissertation.

When I enrolled on the EdD I knew I would be relying on blogging as a tool for eliciting my thoughts, recording my learning, making and storing connections and directing the learning process. It allows me to consolidate my learning journey as I go; to keep my thoughts in carefully labelled packages that can still be brought out, played with and remixed while maintaining the integrity of what went on before. Van Manen (2007)  talks of the role of retention and protention in exploring and understanding the present. I feel that’s what my blog enables me to do – to enhance the present through explicitly situating it in a trajectory – more effectively than keeping handwritten notes or scribbles in the margin.

I just finished reading a short chapter by Theresa Lillis (full reference below) for the WrAP unit, which explored some of the tensions students experience between what and how they want to write, and what and how they are required to write; this may also be described in terms of a tension between who they are/want to be, and who they are expected to be (Ivanic (1995) describes this as authority; the ‘what’ and ‘how’ representing authorship and authorial presencerespectively). I definitely experienced this kind of conflict when working on my first formal EdD assignment, although not the same tensions that Lillis’ two students experienced. Up until that point I had been writing how I wanted to write (on my blog), and I felt that the feedback I received on my RRW1 assignment draft demanded a kind of sanitisation. It was suggested that I remove references to emotion, self-reflection, learning conversations with tutors and peers, and my own intentions and next steps. Clearly my writing ‘desire’ is to focus on myself and my own learning, whereas institutional regulation asks for something slightly different. I think the idea of addressivity (Bakhtin 1986) is helpful in understanding what’s going on here. My blog is essentially a diary that in theory I would be okay with anyone reading. It’s not written for other people, but the fact that it may be read by other people makes it what it is; its openness to others motivates me to present things clearly. Formal assignments, however, are written for the eyes of others. While in reality this is often only going to be the unit tutor, there is often a tacit acceptance that academic assignment should be addressed to an undefined third party.

The tension I felt while adjusting to assignment-writing is easing now – obviously because I can focus on my blog for now but also – I think – because I am moving towards a natural compromise between desire and regulation. It feels like my posts are becoming increasingly more purposeful in their structure, and I am feeling that synthesis is coming more easily.

Something people often say to me is that they can’t imagine how I find the time to blog as well as everything else. Even Ken Hyland said it (in a personal e-mail to me on January 31st):

“I really can’t imagine how you make space for that in addition to teaching and the EdD!  Speechless. I would like to blog but really am overwhelmed with writing deadlines, supervision, teaching and running a centre of 70 staff here in Hong Kong. An activity for retirement maybe…”

For me, the writing – the synthesis – is part of the reading. The idea of reading without writing scares the hell out of me; like the prospect of getting so drunk you can’t remember anything. Some people like doing that but I see it as a waste of time, money and brain cells. And that is why I am blogging my way through the EdD.

Lindsay’s EdD blog is at

Lillis, T. (1999). Authoring in Student Academic Writing: Regulation and Desire. In T. O’Brien (Ed.), Language and Literacies (pp. 73-87). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
N.B. other references mentioned are secondary to this one and cited within.

Toughening up young teachers: Is Teach First really the answer to perceived problems in initial teacher education?

Toughening up young teachers: Is Teach First really the answer to perceived problems in initial teacher education?

From January 9th BBC 3 began broadcasting a six part series on Thursday nights called ‘Tough Young Teachers’, which follows the experiences of six graduates as they train to teach in challenging schools under the Teach First programme. Reaction from the media has been predictable – in a recent Sunday Times article titled ‘School of Hard Knocks’, Sian Griffiths  championed the cause of these beginning teachers under the strapline ‘An army of high-flying, idealistic young graduates is winning a tough battle to raise standards in some of Britain’s most deprived schools’. Depictions of the schools in which these new recruits train are uniformly bleak, as are most of the pupils they encounter; in direct contrast to the schools in which the trainees were themselves educated (Charterhouse in the case of one of the main trainees featured in Griffith’s article, Charles Wallendahl).
The statistics about Teach First are interesting: following the charity’s launch 11 years ago some 5,000 teachers have trained under its auspices. Trainees receive six weeks’ leadership training followed by two years of ‘on the job’ experience, which will gain them a teaching qualification. The target for recruitment in 2014/15 is 2,000, of whom just over 50% will stay in teaching following qualification (based on trends revealed in previous data from Teach First).  The Chief Executive of Teach First is Brett Wigdortz, a management consultant who established a similar programme in the US under the banner ‘Teach for America’ – he is obviously someone who is driven by the ways in which children in disadvantaged circumstances can be better taught. Tellingly though, as Griffiths makes clear in her article, ‘Teach First is backed by leading companies including Accenture and Deloitte, and an undoubted lure is the chance of a job with one of the sponsors after the first two years of teaching’.
Clearly it would be nonsensical to dissuade high flying graduates from coming into the teaching profession. What is less clear is whether models of initial teacher education (ITE) which focus on the ‘training’, rather than ‘education’, of new teachers – often without the significant involvement of higher education – are the most appropriate in preparing them for life in the classroom. School-led models of training have ideological roots (as, of course, may university-based courses) that can have a damaging effect on the future growth of the teaching profession. Clyde Chitty (2009) is characteristically unambiguous when he asserts that ‘’education’ is all about transforming the mind so as to equip us for independent judgement and rational action; whereas ‘training’ should be directed towards practical skills for particular ends’. Acquiring a toolbox of skills as a teacher is not enough; and, as such, being a good teacher ‘cannot be achieved by a short stint of ‘on-the-job’ training’. The choice of routes into teaching is wide, but arguably they are not of equal quality (and, worryingly, possession of a teaching qualification is not an essential attribute of those who teach in free schools or academies). Partnerships between schools and universities have served generations of new teachers well in their preparation for the classroom – the experience of learning to teach requires appropriate support and is, in part, an intellectual endeavour. Surely a route into teaching that requires additional reserves of toughness from new recruits, while at the same time exhibiting a reductionist view of teaching as simply a ‘craft’ that has no need of either theory or research, is far from ideal?
Graham Butt
Chitty, C (2009) Initial Teacher Training or Education? ITT or ITE? Forum, Vol 51 (2) p.259-261

Annual Research Conference The Research Journey: Triumphs and Tribulations on the Road to Research

School of Education

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Call for Papers

Annual Research Conference

The Research Journey:

Triumphs and Tribulations on the Road to Research

Friday June 27h 2014

9 – 4 pm


Keynotes from: Professor John Furlong and Dr Alis Oancea (University of Oxford, Department of Education)


We invite presentations from those at different stages of ‘the research journey’. The intention is to be inclusive  – to invite contributions from researchers who might be just setting out on their research journey (and therefore still considering issues of ‘what’ and ‘how’), as well as those who are more experienced (and able to share final outcomes and recommendations from a rigorous study (say), or offer a well justified ‘thought’ piece).


We aim to accept a range of presentations, papers or posters for this conference. If you have any queries about whether or not your contribution would be appropriate please contact one of the conference committee.

The conference committee also welcomes symposia from research groups (that is, a collection of short papers taking juxtaposed views on a particular issue).

All paper presentations should be 20 minutes (with up to 10 minutes for Q & A).

A symposium should last up to 1 hour.

Please complete and submit the pro forma (below) if you intend to present.


It is expected that all papers will be collated into a collection and published through the SoE.


Deadline for submission: Friday June 6th (to be emailed to Christine Gahan

SoE Research Seminar and Weds Lunchtime seminar updates (May-June)

Research Seminars Update

The programme of Research Seminars for the School (organised by Patrick Alexander) has been successful, although attendance could always be healthier!  During April the programme has been scaled down, with a planned break over the university Easter holiday period, as it seems sensible to include a gap in the seminar schedule at this point. We are still getting to grips with the best dates for seminars to be organised and delivered during each semester. Confirmed speakers for the summer schedule include the following:

7/5/2014, 4-530pm (Glasgow Room): Angela Goddard (York St. John University), Chat and mouse: Language play as language learning in new communication contexts

3/6/2014, 5-630pm (Glasgow Room): Ron Barnet (Institute of Education), Understanding the University: Negations, Antagonisms and Hope

5/4/2014, 5-630pm (Glasgow Room): Tina Miller (Oxford Brookes), Gendering Caring? Transitions, Intentions and First-time Parenthood

The Wednesday lunchtime reading/presentation events continue to be embedded within the School’s activities (12-1pm in the Glasgow Room). Please come along if you are free!

7/5/2014, Richard Newton, “It does make you feel a bit hopeless” – Parents’ experiences of supporting their children’s school mathematical learning at home.

14/5/2014, Jane MacNiell, Using research to enhance teacher professional development: findings from a collaborative project for primary mathematics teachers

28/5/2014, (all welcome), (re) Reading Education Classics: a discussion of Vygotsky’s Mind & Society

Please email Patrick Alexander ( for more information or if you would like to present at a session).