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Finding your voice and developing confidence to let it be heard

I took part in Twitter chat on Friday evening with colleagues from across Scotland and beyond. This was #scotedchat, and has become a regular engagement on a Thursday evening, when I have nothing else on. I really enjoy these opportunites to engage with other educators as we explore some common issues and themes. This week's chat was focused on how and why we use social media and blogging to develop our thinking and our practice, and to promote collaboration. As usual, it was an interesting and thought provoking chat as contributors spoke of, and shared, their own views and experiences of using Twitter, other social media, and Blogs to enhance their own professional development.

An issue I raised, and which other contributors expressed as a common feeling for themselves, was the reluctance of many teachers and school leaders to either think their views had validity, or to be prepared to put them out there on public forums like Twitter or express them through Blogs. This set me thinking about why this should be the case? We are talking about adult professionals with a range of experience, wisdom and insight. What is it that makes them reluctant to put their views out there, or feel they have little to add to the dialogue and debate around education and learning? 

Some will immediately cite the pressures of workload and their inability to get the work/life balance conundrum in sync. Whilst I accept there is some validity to this, and recognise that everyone's circumstances are individual, I do think we all have some professional responsibility to contribute to to the debate, as well as to develop our own thinking, understanding and practice. Therefore, we need to prioritise some of our precious time to meaningful collaboration and I think social media and blogging allows us to do this, and in a way that we can completely control ourselves. Our professional development needs to be controlled and directed by each of us and this is one way to achieve that, and deliver new understandings. No longer do we have to wait for others to provide such development opportunites, we can completely control this ourselves in terms of when, where and for how long we engage.

I do feel however, that there is another more important and cultural factor at play here. I don't think this is a particularly Scottish trait of self-doubt and lack of confidence, though that is often cited. No, I think it is a particularly educational trait linked to the traditional and historical hierarchical nature in which we work. In this structure, it was important that you know your place in the hierarchy. If you are in a school, then it is the headteacher, or principal, who is clearly at the top of the pyramid of importance. His or her views and opinions have primacy in the hierarchical culture of such an organisation, and teachers and others are discouraged from expressing personal views and opinions, especially if they conflict with the leader's. Obviously, such a structure and regime is far from healthy and I would like to think they are not so common nowadays. Anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest they may still be too common in many systems.

Of course many a headteacher or principal also finds them selves operating in an equally hierarchical culture themselves. They are controlled by local authorities, or Academy trusts, who also can be very hierarchical. The director or CEO decides on what the direction of travel should be for all schools, and often how they should get there. They may take no notice of local contexts and circumstances and demand that all follow the same path and do as they are told. Such cultures again discourage dissent and other views or opinions, and headteachers who express differing views are quickly silenced or ostracised, if they can't be encouraged or made to move on. Another very unhealthy situation for all concerned and the system in general, but they are still out there.

Of course, Directors and local authorities can be subject to the same pressures and cultures themselves. They are answerable to national governments, their quangos, and the inspection regimes they put in place. We see evidence across systems and countries of such dictates and pressures being in place. These too are often characterised by one person with power, deciding on what constitutes good education and learning, who then mandates for this to be delivered across a whole country. This week's  announcement of the requirement that all schools in England will have to become Academies by 2020 is a typical example. Characterised by no consultation and the imposition of one view, and by those who disagree being dismissed (the blob) or ridiculed, and often backed by very dubious 'research findings', picked to support the particular course of action. The real power lies in the fact that government's control the funding of local authorities, and the national quangos, so it becomes very easy to control dissent again at this level, with many choosing to keep quiet rather than risk further financial and political control.

Add to all of this the role of academics in our education system and we introduce another complicated layer of hierarchy. Universities and further education establishments, especially the older ones, seem to be rife with hierarchies in themselves, but there is also a traditional deference to them by those placed elsewhere in the system, and this can be an expectation by some of those from the higher education sector, who can be a bit dismissive of the views and opinions of others lower in the education system. This again stifles other views and opinions being expressed and the dismissing practitioner opinions at all levels as 'lacking rigour' or being 'uninformed'. If such academics are around, or likely to view, the views and opinions of practitioners in the system this can discourage them from expressing views or opinions for fear of being dismissed as not valid.

I realise this is a very simplified and bleak picture I have painted, and we have moved on somewhat, but even so I think all the above remains in the psyche of the system, if there is such a thing. Whether individuals are currently working in situations like I have described above, or not, I feel this has all contributed to a culture that discourages many from expressing views or even thinking their views and experiences have validity. This is extremely bad, if not toxic, to the system as a whole and needs to be challenged. Everyone who works, or has worked, in education needs the professional courage to contribute to the development of understandings, research and practice. Everyone can contribute and everyone's contribution, informed by their practice, experience and often research, has validity in the professional discourse. Such opinions and views need to be respected and encouraged, but contributors should accept that not everyone will agree with or share their views and experiences. Other opinions should be engaged with in a respectful and professional way so that more are encouraged to put their views in the public domain and contribute to the collective knowledge and experience. What has more validity than the experiences and thoughts of professionals working every day with learners and teachers! And who think deeply about those experiences?  Systems that stifle opinion and debate are dangerous for all, but especially for our learners.

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