Do the drugs work?

I was struck the other day by the reporting in the press of an academic paper on antidepressants and their impact [1]. According to these reports antidepressants were now officially verified as very effective and should be taken by more people. But was this really what the study was saying? This is the story.

In the paper Cipriani et al (2018) argued, on the basis of a systematic review of the evidence, that: ‘All antidepressants were more efficacious, though some more efficacious than others, than placebo in treating adults with major depressive disorders’.  There were important qualifications. The review was looking at short-term effects; it was not being claimed that anti-depressants worked better than other treatments; gains came with side effects; the gains were at times modest. But nonetheless there was an impact. There was less about implications for practice in the paper so I went to the press release from the University in which the lead author was based to see if I had missed something. In the release the implications were summed up as:

‘Antidepressants can be an effective tool to treat major depression, but this does not necessarily mean that antidepressants should always be the first line of treatment. Medication should always be considered alongside other options, such as psychological therapies, where these are available. Patients should be aware of the potential benefits from antidepressants and always speak to the doctors about the most suitable treatment for them individually.’ [2]

The reporting in the press was however quite different from this press release and can best be described as victory narrative about the power of science to solve whatever ails us, in this case major depression. This narrative was carried across the UK press and, I think, was taken up internationally as well. To turn to the UK, the left leaning Guardian proclaimed in an opinion piece: ‘It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work’. The author of the piece summed up the research by saying ‘we should get on with taking and prescribing them’ [3]. The Times led with ‘More people should get pills to beat depression. Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told’ [4]. The Independent went further ‘Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds’. And the same article went as far as to claim ‘Research from Oxford University, which was published in The Lancet, found that more than one million extra people would benefit from being prescribed drugs and criticised “ideological” reasons doctors use to avoid doing so.’[5]. This left the Mail, which can usually be relied upon to offer the most far-fetched take on evidence based practice, looking quite mainstream. It suggested that ‘Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. [6]

I have nothing of value to say about the treatment of depression [7] but I am familiar with systematic studies, particularly in education. Their obvious value is that they tell you something really useful about the sweep of evidence (here that antidepressants tend to work better than placebos) and their scope makes their findings intuitively convincing (Cipriani et al aggregated over 500 studies and included over 100,000 patients). Systemic reviews are not however reliable guides as to what to do in individual cases as they are focused on the general picture. Further, systematic review might establish a measure of correlation but doesn’t tend to engage deeply in saying why doing X might work better than doing Y. Systematic reviews are only as good as the studies they aggregate. Here some argue that the whole field of medical research is distorted by pharmaceutical funding which makes any reported research unreliable. However this was not the stance of Cipriani et al and their research was independently funded. Instead a more widespread criticism of systematic review is that the case studies they access are often stilted to showing impact quite simply as the ones that show no impact are a lot less interesting to write, let alone publish. At least this is how it often looks in education.

Whatever we think about systematic review, the press went way beyond what was presented in the Cipriani et al paper and, in doing so, exaggerated the strengths of systematic review. We can put forward different reasons why this happened. Some [8] would see this as the influence of vested commercial interests but more likely in this case is that a big and wild claim was more likely to catch readers’ attention than a small and balanced one. I also think that reporting of anything that comes out of academic research is distorted by a desire to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems when clearly there are not. So in one sense over-inflation of academic findings should be expected but what most disappointed me was the uniformity of the response. A head of steam was built up around the unqualified efficacy of antidepressants which was not the story in the original research.

Before moving on from this story, I became interested in the way that the press reports had been discussed in the online comments sections. The comments turned out to be civil and insightful, at least more so than I had predicted. There were blanket statements condemning pharmaceutical companies and accusations that the authors were part of a conspiracy to have us take drugs for private profit. However there was no shortage of people giving balanced and insightful accounts of their own experiences of antidepressants. In fact these experiences tended to be positive though writers were at pains to say this was their personal experience and they could not generalise for others. It was a case of the comments doing a better job than the reporting and I wonder whether this was because the politics of the issue did not follow predictable lines and this allowed a greater degree of openness.

References

[1] Cipriani A, Furukawa TA, Salanti G, et al. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis The Lancet. Published online February 21 2018

[2] University of Oxford Antidepressants more effective in treating depression than placebo,

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-02-22-antidepressants-more-effective-treating-depression-placebo

[3] Rice-Oxley, M. (2018) It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work. Guardian [online] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/21/its-official-antidepressants-are-not-snake-oil-or-a-conspiracy-they-work

The paper’s regular health correspondent (Sarah Bosely) concluded along the same lines that ‘The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective’. Guardian [online] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/21/the-drugs-do-work-antidepressants-are-effective-study-shows

What I found misleading here, and in other press reporting, was that commentary about the Cipriani et al paper was mixed up with a comments by other experts on the widely acknowledged lack of support for people with depression. The implication was that to be critical of the study was to condemn people to untreated depression.

[4] Smyth, C. (2018) More people should get pills to beat depression, Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told. Sunday Times [online]

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/more-people-should-get-pills-to-beat-depression-sv5vhczss

[5] Khan, S. (2018) Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds. Independent [online] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/antidepressants-prescribe-mental-health-problems-oxford-university-lancet-a8222371.html

[6] Pickles, K. (2018) Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. Mail [online]
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5419967/Millions-taking-antidepressants.html#ixzz58mtfeilm

[[7] If you have a special interest then go to the NHS Choices Review of Evidence aimed at practitioners and the general public. They conclude from reading Cipriani et al that:

People are more likely to see their symptoms improve if they take an antidepressant than if they take a placebo. The researchers said the effects of the drugs were “mostly modest” and noted that antidepressants are just one of several evidence-based treatments for depression.

They also comment that Cognitive behavioural therapy, rather than antidepressants, remained the first-choice treatment for people with mild symptoms. This however was  not a concern of the study itself.

NHS Choices (2018) Big new study confirms antidepressants work better than placebo [online] https://www.nhs.uk/news/medication/big-new-study-confirms-antidepressants-work-better-placebo/

[8] A full on critique of the research and its reporting was offered in particular by Dr Joanna Moncrieff who appeared on television and wrote to the papers offering her objections. To get a flavour go to the blog Mad in America below where she is interviewed by James Moore. [online]

https://www.madinamerica.com/2018/03/dr-joanna-moncrieff-challenging-new-hype-antidepressants/

 

It does not make the job very appealing

Although my work focuses on education and technology, rather than party politics, the book I enjoyed reading the most last year was Harriet Harman’s biography [1], or more accurately her reflection on a career as a leading Labour politician in UK. The book is largely about being a woman in a man’s world. Harman was the first candidate to fight and win a by-election while pregnant and joined a House of Commons which was 97 per cent male. She went on to bring up three children while working all hours in Westminster and in her constituency.

Harman’s book is unusual in political memoirs as having a focus on women and the challenge of changing attitudes, not just by taking on the Conservative governments but also entrenched sexism in the Labour party. Although she achieved much in advancing women’s rights on a national stage, when just to be a committed constituency MP would have been an achievement in itself, what shines through is her vulnerability. In particular she was very firm in her feminist principles but acknowledged that she felt it much more difficult to stand up for herself than to stand up for others. She had to be persuaded to fight her constituency by-election in the first place and was worried in case her campaigns for more family friendly working hours in parliament might be seen as about her. Not surprisingly she needed encouragement to stand for leadership positions. The photo chosen for the book cover conveys this vulnerability well. It shows the young Labour candidate looking rather out of her depth, and this provides a sharp contrast to the conventional steely gaze on the dust jackets of most political biographies.

The book has been reviewed sympathetically. Interestingly these reviews have nearly always been written by women. McNicol [2] in particular provides a good description of the book and begins by saying that Harriet Harman ‘doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing’. In fact it does not make the job of an MP in general appealing and Harman was only ever able to go on and achieve what she did as she was part of a network of women who were determined to change the system. The surprise for me was that I had seen Harman as a rather inconsequential political figure, worthy but not very effective but I realized that I was reading this wrong. She was consistent and determined. She found the everyday sexism she encountered demoralising and at times it got through to her. She could have walked away. I had underestimated her leadership. She was offering a kind of servant leadership, though this is not a term she used herself. As a politician she put her ego backstage and tried to articulate the wishes of her network of women colleagues, it is a collective leadership though of course does not rule out standing up for your beliefs or making difficult decisions.

I was particularly interested in the early part of the book. She described her difficulties in fitting in at school (she went to a school which was academically very successful but was ‘carrying a smug sense of superiority’ quite out of tune with the changing times). She benefitted from the expansion of higher education in the 1960’s and went to York University where again she asked herself what she was doing there. In the reviews much is rightly made of a story she tells of a lecturer who, told her if she slept with him he’d make sure she got a 2.1. She turned him down and got a 2.1 anyway.

After university she found herself beginning legal training, encountering more sexism, and none of it making much sense. She started volunteering in her spare time in a legal rights centre in Brent, London. This was part of a network of centres offering legal advice and support for those who could not afford to pay for it. She found herself becoming involved with tenants associations, trade unions and radical lawyers. She felt at home and became committed to women’s rights and by extension to support for the Labour party. This led to working for the national Council for Civil Liberties, becoming deeply engaged with feminist politics.

Harman’s story of Labour in Parliament follows an arc that is well known to those following UK politics over the last 20 or 30 years. There was a right wing Prime Minister, Thatcher, opposed by a sectarian militancy that almost wrecked the Labour party. Next came the movement to make Labour more mainstream and electable. This was followed by three terms of successful labour government which only fell apart due to external events – the world financial crisis 2008 / 9. We now have had three conservative (led) governments and the unpicking of what Labour had achieved with the danger of left sectarianism re-emerging. There is a lot in this version of events but did Labour leaders like Harman end up losing the plot at least as far as their supporters were concerned? There are two events that stand out. The first was the Iraq war. Harman explains she supported the war on the grounds of there being weapons of mass destruction. She was wrong and the decision taken had tragic consequences for everybody concerned. Labour supporters and women became particularly critical of the decision, at least in its aftermath [3].

The second incident was local and purely symbolic. It was the decision she took as stand- in leader of the Labour party after the lost election of 2015 to have the party abstain on the conservative government’s welfare bill that included cuts to social security. To abstain on what was the first reading of a bill was not unusual and to vote against would have made no practical difference. However to Labour supporters it signalled that the party had lost focus in fighting the cause of the people they represented. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership contender that voted against the Bill and went on to win the Party leadership. It is difficult to comprehend why Harman had got this so wrong.

Harman’s book makes a timely contribution to the debate on gender and sexism, but I would recommend the book as much for its tone as for its content. She does that rare thing of showing modesty and humility at the same time as conviction and persistence. I would particularly recommend it to anyone not enjoying higher education or over committed to getting a ‘good degree’ as well. Looking at her account of volunteering in the Law Centre, she shows life will fall into place, you don’t need a first class degree to see it, just be alert enough to notice.

[1] Harman, H. (2017) A woman’s work London, Allen Lane.

[2] McNicol, J. (2017) The Angry Men, London Review of Books, 39, 24, 13-16

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n24/jean-mcnicol/the-angry-men

[3] Dahlgreen, W. (2015) Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?, You Gov   https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/06/03/remembering-iraq/

[4] Wintour, P. (2015) Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill, The Guardian, 12 July 2015

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/12/harman-labour-not-vote-against-welfare-bill-limit-child-tax-credits

 

 

In praise of Kazuo Ishiguro

Last week the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the writer Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro was born in Japan but grew up, and continued to live, in England, and took UK nationality. The news of his award was covered widely in the papers and on television and Ishuguro himself appeared well regarded by his peers and popular with the British reading public. However Ishiguro did not stay in the news for very long – though, to be fair, longer than Richard Henderson who shared in the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Ishiguro was newsworthy, the award was well received but it was all a long way from dancing in the street. This muted response seemed to say quite a lot about British attitudes to literature.

Other countries do it differently. I remember years ago in Costa Rica when García Márquez, a Columbian and ‘leftist’, got the Nobel literature prize. It was headlined on the front pages of all the papers and seen as an honour for the American continent – even though the press was conservative and Columbia was a long way from Costa Rica. I don’t know how they celebrated in, say, Iceland when Halldór Laxness got the prize or in Germany when Gunter Grass won it, but we were told that if it had been Haruki Murakami this time his Japanese fans would have hit the roof, though they found plenty to cheer about in the choice of Ishiguro, with his Japanese heritage.

I wondered how Ishiguro’s prize went down in other European countries, with British insularity being such a live issue. What struck me was the interest and seriousness with which the award was discussed, albeit in the more liberal arts centred press. In Italy, La Republica [1] had several online articles and a long discussion of Ishiguro contribution to literature. In Spain, El Pais also offered a literary breakdown of Ishiguro’s work [2] and in France, Le Monde dealt with it in less depth but helpfully reminded readers that France had the most recipients for the literature prize. Most strikingly Deutsche Welle, a German portal aimed at an international audience, led their news of the day with a twenty minute discussion of Ishiguro [3].

I don’t have much to offer about Ishuguro as a writer. Most commentators describe his writing as intelligent and accessible and an ex-editor describes it as a ‘weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose’ (weird is a good thing in this context) [4]. I can recognise this description in the books I have read.

I am more interested in how literature talks / or does not talk to social research. A friend of mine believed that there was no point in reading social research (at least that part that dealt with how we live) when fiction was much more interesting and covered most or all of what could be said. Ishuguro provides a good example of this.

Ishuguro’s two most well-known books are the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – both made into films. Both covered, amongst other things, the capacity we have for self-deception. In the first, a butler (Mr Stevens) reflects back on his life in service to a ‘great family’ and we can see that in the telling this is a story of denial: denial about the pro-Nazi sympathies of his employer; denial that there was anything emotionally absent in his relationship with his father; denial that there was an opportunity for love or at least companionship with the housekeeper [5]. Through Ishuguro’s subtle telling we can see the deception and by the end the Mr Stevens comes tantalisingly close to seeing it himself. It is a gentle account and we are sucked into sympathy and understanding – Mr Stevens has hung on to what he calls his dignity by turning his back on other ways of living. In sociological terms he entirely inhabits the role of butler; he has closed down any inner voice telling him that there was any other way of seeing the world.

In the second, Never Let Me Go, we are also given an unreliable narrator, this is Kathy. The story is about the experimental cloning of children for donations of body parts. What I really liked about the novel was that it countered expectations: you imagined that this was going to be about the ethics of cloning or a kind of horror fantasy. Instead, it was recognisably about the everyday. The setting was very different from Remains of the Day but Ishuguro had the same concern to show how we rein in our ambition and accept the life that is mapped out for us [6]. Again he does this with subtlety and considerable compassion.

Of course the Nobel prize has generated a fair amount of controversy both for the choice of particular awardees; for a general male white bias; and for being funded by Alfred Nobel, who made his money in arms manufacturing. However, at least in literature, the Nobel prize is the highest accolade for writers and in the main, I don’t think we made enough of Ishuguro’s achievements.

References
[1] Know How Nobel Letteratura – La vittoria di Ishiguro at
https://video.repubblica.it/spettacoli-e-cultura/know-how-nobel-letteratura-la-vittoria-di-ishiguro/286418/287036
[2] PREMIO NOBEL DE LITERATURA 2017
https://elpais.com/cultura/2017/10/06/babelia/1507307119_168668.html
[3] Literaturnobelpreis an Kazuo Ishiguro: Stiller Meister der Seelenerforschung
http://www.dw.com/de/literaturnobelpreis-an-kazuo-ishiguro-stiller-meister-der-seelenerforschung/a-40819390
[4] My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/my-friend-kazuo-ishiguro-artist-without-ego-nobel-prize-robert-mccrum
[5] This is a well known clip of Mr Stevens retreating in the face of his housekeeper’s teasing. I think it is a bit more melodramatic than what Ishuguro intended:

[6] The children are brought up in a kind of 1950’s private school, here a sympathetic teacher tries to tell the children the grisly future that awaits them.

Graffiti and comment forums: An essentially social act gone wrong?

When I find myself disappointed by the tone of online comment forums my mind goes back to toilet graffiti.

I am no expert, but there was, I think, a spike in interest in researching toilet (or what Americans might call ‘restroom’) graffiti in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not difficult to see why. Graffiti research sounds quirky and it is instantly relatable to the general public.

I missed out on the golden age of toilet graffiti reporting, but the other day I went back to look at some of these past studies. The paper that interested me most was one by Bruner and Kelso (1980) on bathroom graffiti in a university in the USA. The university is not identified but the study seems to have taken place in Chicago with some of the students described as coming from ‘rural downstate Illinois’.

Bruner and Kelso (1980) discussed two well established ways of approaching the study of graffiti – or let us call it ‘on wall’ (rather than online) text.

The first was a kind of thematic content analysis. Here you choose a ‘corpus’ of text. Labels are then selected / constructed which to help to capture the meanings of these these texts. In graffiti studies these labels may include terms such as racial insults, sexual insults, racial/sexual insults, general insults, sexual humour, general humour, political, drugs, religion, morals and so on. Researchers can then apply these labels to texts, or parts of text, and draw conclusions based on the frequency with which labels are applied and associations between the content of discussion and, say, gender difference.

The second approach to research graffiti and one which Bruner and Kelso saw as mainstream, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the age, was a psychoanalytical one. This approach analysed texts in term of ‘unconscious impulses, infantile sexuality and primitive thoughts’.

Bruner and Kelso rejected both these two approaches and went with what they described as a ‘semiotic’ approach. As they put it:

restroom graffiti are communication, a silent conversation among anonymous partners. Although written in the privacy of a toilet stall, the writing of graffiti is an essentially social act that cannot be understood in terms of the expressive functions performed for an isolated individual. To write graffiti is to communicate; one never finds graffiti where they cannot be seen by others. A new person coming to a toilet stall who chooses to write a graffito must take account of what has previously been written, even in the minimal sense of choosing an appropriate location on the wall, and a message is left for those who will subsequently come to that stall. The graffiti writings build up on the walls until an anonymous janitor comes in the night to wipe it all away, and the cycle of the silent discourse begins again the following day.

They wanted to understand the purpose of graffiti and they did this by looking at power. Not surprisingly this led them first to focus on male and female communication. They felt that female graffiti was more interactive and interpersonal (they cite a supportive on-wall discussion prompted by a female student pondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend). In contrast much male graffiti tended to be ‘individualistic, graphic and derogatory’. In fact the examples they cite are quite vile. In particular they argued that some men were using use the opportunity to communicate in a public space to assert their dominance and seek to put others in their place – in this case, ‘others’ were ‘Jews, blacks, homosexuals and women’. This had to be understood in a context of the promotion of affirmative action programmes at the time and in many ways the men were not so much putting these others in their place but questioning whether they had a legitimate place at all.

The paper interested me on different levels. First, and this is a side point, it struck me that I see very little graffiti today. The paper talks about graffiti disappearing at the end of the day – it used to hang around for much longer but now seems to disappear in many private / public spaces, such as Universities, right away. The second, and main point for me, was the obvious link with research into online texts. When we research any online activity we tend to think we are doing something completely new. However anonymous public forums are not new and we can learn from the past. In this case Bruner and Kelso help me to understand power and voice online. Let me expand.

I have spent a great deal of my research time looking at online texts, counting categories and drawing conclusions. Much of this has been looking at the rather particular context of forums for members of taught programmes and, for the most part, the kinds of discussions I have looked at are often tentative, interpersonal and thoughtful. At their best forums can stimulate ideas but they can also help you see where the writer is coming from in terms of past experience and present expectations.

Forums can often disappoint of course. For example there are considerable constraints on engagement, but in my experience students are never derogatory and, for that matter, when I have looked into it, I have not seen a great gender divide in styles of communication in mixed groups [1]. I remain positive about the role of forums for education but very aware of the constraints.

I have been much less interested in open forums, though of course I do come across some from time to time. However, recently with a research student colleague, I became interested in comparing closed education-focused discussion with open comment forums. One story I followed concerned the BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg. (For overseas readers BBC is our public broadcaster and BBC political correspondents are expected to offer a balanced analysis of events, without being servile to the main parties or unduly bland.). Discussion of her work was triggered by an article claiming that she was ‘the most divisive woman on TV’ [2]

Kuenssberg was also discussed in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper with an international online reach. Most of the comment forum debates in the Guardian web site are reasonably well mannered but anything associated with Jeremy Corbyn (Kuenssberg is not seen as sympathetic to Corbyn, at least by Corbyn supporters) brings out more vitriolic comments far removed from the general tone of the paper’s reporting. Some of the comments made about Laura Kuenssberg for example included:

  • Well Laura Kuenssberg’s been saying “fuck Labour” for long enough. Just less swearily.
  • Laura Kuenssberg is a disgrace to journalism.
  • And yet the BBC still refuses to acknowledge her bias.

I wanted to compare the responses in the right wing press but got sidetracked into looking at a web site for ‘Conservative woman’ [3]. Opinion on BBC and on Laura Kuenssberg was extreme and derogatory as well:

  • Cancel your licence fee payment today.
  • You do not have to pay for the paedobeeb’s poisonous and pervasive propaganda.
  • Never give them any information at all.
  • I don’t watch BBC news or current affairs my wife can’t stand Laura K, and it doesn’t sound like a good old British name anyway.
  • In years to come, dictionaries will have the following entry: Smug – see Laura Kuenssberg

So why should this be happening? Why should public spaces, even ones occupied by special interest groups, put their case in such a derogatory manner. Why should people who are taking the trouble of making an argument have no interest in trying to win opponents around to their point of view by the force of their argument? Here my thoughts went back to Bruner and Kelso. As they suggest we can understand anonymous postings in terms of transgression at some psychoanalytic level and / or we can count the labels and say how many times this or that happened. For that matter we can understand texts as shaped by technology itself (for example the way that technology seems to trigger an instant response). But, as Bruno and Kelso explain, we can see texts as ways of exercising power – the power not so much to organise opinion in favour of something but the power to deny legitimacy to anyone you disagree with. It is about making sure others know their place and that is at root all I can say about the way some people write online or for that matter the way they write on walls.

[1] For a counter example see

Eve, J., & Brabazon, T. (2008). Learning to leisure? failure, flame, blame, shame, homophobia and other everyday practices in online education. The Journal of Literacy and Technology, 9(1), 36-61.

[2] The claim about divisiveness was made in the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, and discussed in several publications, see for example Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bbc-laura-kuenssberg-telegraph_uk_59524553e4b02734df2d42b0

[3] http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk

I thought for a minute that this was a mainstream Conservative party web site but in fact it is a fringe group.

[In my original post I did not provide a reference for Bruno and Kelso. It is:

Bruner, E. And Kelso, J. (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: a semiotic perspective, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 3, 239-252

 

 

Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/38301293

and a follow up story at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36192300

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36721892

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/12/coventry-city-decline-despair-league-one

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/feb/18/blackburn-manchester-united-venkys-fa-cup

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/oct/03/football-fans-protest-club-owners-blackburn-coventry-charlton

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/26/charlton-athletic-and-the-fight-for-the-clubs-future-video

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/24/its-like-a-circus-here-leyton-orient-fans-furious-with-owner-after-relegation-video

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at

http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJWBC.2017.082717

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. 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’.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/22/donald-trump/fact-checking-trumps-claim-thousands-new-jersey-ch/

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4360597.stm

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War http://orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1

 

Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/skypes-real-time-translator-end-language-learning

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G87pHe6mP0I

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rek3jjbYRLo

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/events/distinguishedlecture/andrewblake

[3] DW Lernen is at http://www.dw.com/en/learn-german/s-2469

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CS0011542XX-0100V0

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

http://www.channel4learning.com/sites/extra/

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

Summer Reading

This being the summer period in UK, there is much in the review sections of the newspapers about what to take as holiday reading. My own suggestion is a short story by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar (1914 – 1984) was an Argentinian writer, who was born in Europe and spent a lot of time in France. In UK he was best known, if at all, for a short story (Las Babas del Diablo) that was a rather loose inspiration for the film ‘Blow up’. [1]. Like his other work Las Babas showed Cortázar’s interest in technology and, interestingly, he explored the idea of what we would today call hypertext in Rayuela (‘HopScotch’) thus providing a never ending narrative. Cortázar was part of the wave of Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez being the most celebrated, that became influential for their mixing of myth with real life events (so called magical realism) and their political leftism. My holiday read is the short story Cortázar’s Autopista del Sur [2].

The story is simply told. It is summer and we are on the motorway going back to Paris. Predictably the sheer volume of traffic means there is a giant traffic jam, the cars slow and eventually grind to a halt. Drivers and occupants are exasperated and try to understand what has happened:

And so all afternoon they heard about the crash of a Floride and a 2CV near Corbeil – three dead and one child injured; the double collision of a Fiat 1500 and a Renault station wagon, which in turn smashed into an Austin full of English tourists; the overturning of an Orly airport bus teeming with passengers from the Copenhagen flight. The engineer was sure that almost everything was false, although something awful must have happened near Corbeil or even near Paris itself to have paralyzed traffic to such an extent.

They fruitlessly look at their watches make renewed calculations but nothing is moving. Time passes, a lot of time, slowly they lose track of their destinations and accept that they are going nowhere. They adjust to the new situation. They start to help each other, they share food and drink:

When the little girl complained of thirst again, the engineer decided to talk to the couple in the Ariane, convinced that there were many provisions in that car. To his surprise, the farmers were very friendly; they realised, that in a situation like this it was necessary to help one another and they thought if someone took charge of the group (the woman made a circular gesture with her hand encompassing the dozen cars surrounding them) they would have enough to get them to Paris. The idea of appointing himself organiser bothered him, and he chose to call the men from the Taunus for a meeting with the couple in the Ariane. A while later the rest of the group was consulted one by one.

They organise themselves into parties to search for more supplies, they play games, they share jokes, they feel love, they deal with death. But just as they are settled into this new life together the traffic starts to move again. They forget the time they spent together and they resume their individual journeys:

And on the car’s antenna the red cross flag waved madly and you moved at fifty-five miles an hour towards the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.

I would re-read the story for several reasons. First, although in my description this story sounds a rather heavy handed parable, it is in fact a playful piece of writing. It mixes fantasy and realism and has an intriguing take on time reflecting the state of the drivers’ moods. For example the story gallops through the period in which the community is working together (seasons pass come and go within a short number of paragraphs) but dwells on the experience of sitting in a car waiting for something to happen.

Cortázar is also very good on cars. The characters are identified by their cars  – though as this is the 1960’s you will need to do a bit of Internet research if you wanted to know what some of the models looked like. He is very good on the experience of being stuck in traffic and the way being in a car affects our outlook on life. Cortázar was writing at a time in which oppressive aspects of technology were being emphasised, at least by ‘progressive’ voices. However I am not sure Cortázar is writing an anti-technology story or even one that is anti-car; as seen earlier he did appear to be genuinely interested in technology. However the context is well chosen. After all, the car, at least the advertising of cars, conjures up images of adventure and a breaking free from physical and social constraint. Yet we find, at least in major cities, and especially in holiday periods, driving mostly offers the sensation of being stuck. The solution to overcoming this problem of immobility is often seen as more technology, for example ‘Smart’ monitoring of traffic movements, interactive Sat Navs, entertainment systems to keep children occupied or mobile devices so that you can turn your car into an office. I think from Cortázar we can learn there is something in this promotion of technology that simply does not add up.

Cortázar’s story is surprisingly topical. Not just because this is the holiday season and many of us will spend a lot of time sitting in slow moving traffic but, in England a major news story concerned lorry drivers who were stuck for days with the closure of the Channel Tunnel [3]. There is an altogether more permanent and desperate kind of being stuck, the experience of migrants to Europe with, in our papers at least, attention focused on Calais. [4]

It would be silly to imagine that left in a state of nature we would discover an unselfconscious social solidarity as in Autopista del Sur, any more than a novel such as Lord of the Flies [5] proves the opposite. Rather Cortázar reminds us there is an alternative view of modernity and, for that matter, shows that we can imagine being social beings if we want to. If nothing else, it should forewarn us that sitting in a car fretting about lost time is not the way to spend your holiday.

[1] The film explored the befuddlement of a fashion photographer who thinks he has, by chance, captured a murder on film, but cannot tell for sure in spite of repeated ‘blow ups’ of the photo in his studio. Wikipedia offers a synopsis at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowup

[2] Autopista del Sur was first published in 1966 in a collection ‘Todos los Fuegos el Fuego’ and in (American) English ‘All fires the fire, and other stories’, translated by S J Levine. I was taken through Autopista by a patient Spanish teacher first time around and would struggle with the language today. However I would try to re-read it some of it in Spanish to get the rhythm, something which gets lost in translation. Indeed the surreal elements of the story poses a problem for translators (see for example Callaghan, M. (2102) Cross-sections, The Bruce Hall Academic Journal Julio Cortázar’s ‘La Autopista del Sur’: a Critical Comparison of Suzanne Jill Levine’s English Translation with the Original 97 at http://eview.anu.edu.au/cross-sections/vol8/pdf/ch08.pdf ), certainly the translation of Autopista del Sur as ‘The Southern Thruway’ is odd. The translated version is downloadable over the Internet without much difficulty (try cutting and pasting the quotes into a search engine from the text in this post).

[3] for example ‘Lorries queuing on M20 Kent in Operation Stack’ on the BBC web site http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33647761

[4] For example ‘Fortress Calais: fleeting fixtures and precarious lives in the migrant camp’ on the Guardian web site at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/27/migrant-camp-fortress-calais-jungle

[5] Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s book about schoolboys who find themselves washed up on an uninhabited island, and their descent into bullying and worse. The film by director Peter Brook (1963) is a classic. It was a very popular book for UK schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

In praise of Dewey

One way to look at Dewey [1] is as a radical liberal and a social reformer who identified the importance of a common humanity to personal and social growth [2]. He was an academic and the prototype of the public intellectual, contributing to political debate, active in teacher unions, supporting the settlement movement and setting up his own experimental schools. His commitment to democracy led him to be on the right side of many of the arguments that dominated his life and times and still matter today. He saw mass immigration into the USA as an opportunity for generating a national democratic culture, he was patriotic but not a militarist, he was an early supporter of women’s rights. He was prescient when it came to philosophy – a pragmatist and ‘fallibilist’ [i.e. he understood that we might be wrong] in a way that was unusual in his time – and wanted us to search for consensus based on reason. He was romantic about community and what it offered for social life but was forward looking, urban based and not interested in rural idylls. He was politically radical while remaining, unusual among radicals of the time, anti Marxist and anti Stalinist. He was not afraid to talk ‘truth unto power’ in USA or on a global stage. He chaired the ‘Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials’ that exposed the absurdity of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s but was not impressed by Trotskyism. He was, in spite of everything, wilfully optimistic about life and our ability to make sense of it. It should not matter in the consideration of his ideas, but it seems he was a playful, though distracted parent, and he endured the death of two of his children bravely.

Dewey has drifted in and out of favour over time but he is still a key point of reference for educators. His work has always managed to wind up conservative commentators on education on the largely mistaken grounds that he was a ‘progressive’ educationalist [3]. Having recently had an election here in the UK, when evenly mildly expressed social reform took a bashing, expect to see another attack next year on Dewey to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of his landmark book ‘Democracy and Education’. So what did he believe that upset the conservative Right? In a nutshell he saw that learning was triggered by problem solving and wanted to put inquiry at the heart of learning. He was forward thinking too in the way he thought about language and saw communication as core to learning. For example in ‘Democracy and Education’ [4] he writes:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. (Dewey 1916 [1947]:12)

This sets Dewey up as a very radical thinker about education, but perhaps this was because his opposition to didactic teaching took centre stage, given that didaticism was the dominant mode of teaching in his day. Less time has been given to his critique of so called progressive teaching because this was, and has always been, something of a sideshow. Nonetheless it is worth clarifying that in ‘Democracy and Education’ he was not advocating that children should take over their schools but was asking how can we help children generate habits for later democratic participation in society. Similarly, his idea of ‘learning by doing’ sounds very experimental and unfocused but this was not what he was saying. Rather he felt that while learning was triggered by problems you should not flay around wildly trying to solve a problem, instead you needed to think reflectively and socially on what to do. A problem-solving curriculum was a structured one with important roles for teachers and teaching. It is just that the structure and the preparation for teaching was different to what didactic instructors imagined. His key point was that the teaching of concepts needed to be rooted in experience, not learnt by drill. Here [5] he differentiated between ‘genuine ideas’ and surface assimilation:

Suppose it is a question of having the pupil grasp the idea of the sphericity of the earth. This is different from teaching him its sphericity as a fact. He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or a globe, and be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired any idea of the earth’s sphericity; at most, he has had a certain image of a sphere and has finally managed to image the earth after the analogy of his ball image. To grasp sphericity as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain perplexities or confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for the phenomena in question. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea (Dewey, 1910: 109.)

To sum up, Dewey was concerned with education as an end in itself and he offered a child centred approach that was not over romanticised or sentimental. In politics he was a democrat (small d) worried about the ways that our democratic instincts were skewed by special interests and inequalities. In philosophy he saw that we were responsible for interpreting the world but saw this as reason for optimism rather than existential pessimism. So what is there not to like? He was, and will remain, forever criticised from the socialist left for lacking an economic analysis of capitalism – this would, following Marx, place Dewey as a ‘utopian’ though a practical one who, in his own way, believed that the point was not to understand the world but to change it. For sociologists Dewey was too ready to see the world through the lens of what bound us together rather than through structures of class and other social formations that pulled us apart. And more generally social scientists do not get his action-oriented inquiry in the way that educators do. His views on education are never going to appeal to conservative thinkers, even ones who have taken the time to read him. However a more widely expressed criticism is that he was unnecessarily vague as to what he was advocating and in fact he might be a lot more, or for that matter a lot less, radical than we think. He offered little too, in the way of detail, in terms of pedagogic strategies. Another recurring but often unacknowledged difficulty with Dewey was that he was really only writing about children and education. Indeed you want to imagine that his university classes, like his experimental schools, were full of activity, practical experimentation and lively debate, but they were not and for me that is the most disappointing thing about him.

[1] Dewey (1859 – 1952) is widely celebrated as a philosopher, social psychology social but is often assumed to have given his name to the Dewey system of library referencing. However that was Thomas Dewey. More importantly Donald Duck had a nephew Dewey (plus two others Huey and Louie) but the name probably was again taken from Thomas rather than John.
[2] This view of Dewey as a radical liberal is articulated in Ryan, A. (1995). John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
[3] Professor Robert Pring wrote:
Indeed, when I came to Oxford I was seated at dinner next to Lord Keith Joseph who had been Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He accused me of being responsible for all the problems in our schools – because I had introduced teachers to John Dewey. And subsequently there was systematic attack on Dewey even from philosophers as well as journalists and politicians. Professor O’Hear, for example proposed that ‘[i]t is highly plausible to see the egalitarianism which stems from the writings of John Dewey as the approximate cause of our educational decline’. In Pring, R. (2007) John Dewey, London: Bloomsbury Press.
[4] Dewey, J. (1916 / 1947). Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.
[5] Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. London: D. C. Heath & Company available online at http://archive.org/details/howwethink000838mbp.

Interdisciplinarity and Education

Our research students are putting on an interdisciplinary conference on education [1]. This is something I very much welcome, but I don’t imagine it to be straightforward to get agreement on how or why education research should be an interdisciplinary undertaking.

In my own case I came to education research around mid career through teaching and researching my teaching as this was the usual route at the time. I did not give much thought to education as a field of study and assumed it was inter disciplinary [2] in the sense that you dipped into whatever research gave you some insight into the questions / problems you were facing. For example, I became interested in online discussion and took some inspiration from the idea of communicative language learning (which had been much touted in language teaching [3]) and aligned this with a concept of social constructivism which I thought had something to do with Vygotsky – though to be honest I did not interrogate original sources too closely relying in particular on scholars such as Neil Mercer [4] and others who offered a constructivist approach to classroom talk.

I believed that I was carrying out educational research– a kind of action oriented inquiry into practice [4] – rather than discipline research into the sociology / psychology or philosophy of education. This I think was the widespread view of my colleagues in teacher education at the time and reflected a view that we should not take theories generated in ‘social science’ on trust; whatever anyone proposed about teaching needed to be tested in practice and must contribute to desirable outcomes – and we were going to interrogate what desirable outcomes were, thank you very much. I was, by inclination, suspicious of research into education that had not been carried out by practitioners or with teachers. I was for example familiar with some of the sociology literature, for example Corrigan and Willis both wrote insightful books to show how underachievement and the marginalisation of lads is ‘constructed’ [5]. When it came to learning to teach such books offered very little that I could use and to be honest the sociological insight got in my way. I can look back now more kindly on the sociology of education. I can see that these books should have been used to inform policy makers of the consequences of the institutions they had set up and I could see that the historic aim of social research is to say ‘how things are’ – what we choose to do about it is another matter. Some books on the sociology of education are of limited value in the classroom but may be that is not why they were written.

Of course not all is rosy with this action oriented educational research. One particular weakness is that we can be cavalier about the literature we quote. For example myself and colleagues call in Vygotsky to justify approaches to learning based on participation in a community of practice as well as more instructional ones, and in particular interactive theories of instruction. Surely the same theory cannot cross over into two very different settings? I suspect, too, that because educational research is not rooted in a field we are more susceptible to fashions, for example a head of steam builds up now and then around a single idea such as community of practice, which is adopted by nearly everyone, and then dropped when we move onto the next big thing. There is also a view held by some that what really matters is trial and error in the classroom, and we should ignore ‘theory’, I simply don’t hold to that at all.

So what has educational practice got to learn from discipline research? Well here are some examples. In spite of what I said earlier the sociology of education research has made a difference in that it has shown us that cultures are ‘real’ and they really do ‘operate on’ us as learners. Once we had a story that intelligence was all about what lay in the head of the person, intelligence was an innate capacity to be clever or not, sociology of education has told us that this is not the case and good schools and good teachers work on the culture of learning in the classroom as much as learning at the level of the indiuvdual; we all unselfconsciously talk about the culture of learning in ways we would not have done without the input of sociology. In contrast psychology got us off to a bad start by over focusing on the individual and generated all too often a simplistic behaviourist approach to learning. However it has been social psychology (the work of Vygostky, Lewin and more recently I have found the input of Valsiner useful) that has the best explanations of how learning is both an individual achievement and that of a group and or culture. It also needs to be said that psychology’s focus on ‘what is in the head of the learner’ has been hugely important in the understanding of special needs, for example our understanding of autism. Finally I would also make a plea that as educational researchers we need to be more historically aware. In the field of technology we are for ever talking about paradigm shifts and new learning theories – but the problems of learning and knowing are age old and we all too easily forget that.

My younger self should have taken discipline research more seriously but I think those working in social science disciplines should ‘get their hands dirty’ with action oriented classroom research from time to time if they are writing about education. It will stop them saying things about teaching and learning which are simply silly, it will alert them to what teachers find important, and the experience will pull them back from proposing solutions that practitioners know would not work.

I am very much looking forward to attending the conference and to hearing more from our students.

[1] Go to http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/research/pgconference

[2] Definitions vary, but broadly we can think about:

Crossdisciplinary as involving a team from different disciplines working together but hanging on their own discipline standpoints.

Interdisciplinary as involving a deeper level of exchange between disciplines and perhaps using the fruits of collaboration to shift the boundaries of one’s own disciplines.

Transdisciplinary as involving a more full on willingness to engage with problems rather than disciplines and to create new conceptions of knowledge.

These terms are mostly discussed in the context of research teams but these are of course standpoints that an individual researcher can take.

[3] A key text here was Widdowson, H. (1978) Teaching language as communication, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

[5] See of example Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

[6] See:

Corrigan, P. (1979) Schooling the Bash Street Kids, London: Macmillan.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to labour. How working class children get working class jobs, New York: Colombia University.