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Teaching in the post-truth world: examining some 'alternative facts’

Welcome to the latest volume of the Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, a means for disseminating research undertaken by teachers-in-preparation as they learn how to enquire into their professional contexts, and to employ research to respond to problems and challenges in their classroom work. Research is meant to help us develop knowledge and understanding about phenomena, and test out suggested solutions to problems to find out if they actually work in practice. 

An idealist might even think of research in terms of a search for truth, as a means of establishing the facts about the world. A cynic, however, might suggest this is now an outdated approach to life. There have been suggestions that we are moving to (or indeed now living in) a 'post-truth’ world. Indeed, on the morning this editorial was drafted, the radio news was reporting on how members of the newly inaugurated US president’s team had been offering ‘alternative facts’ to the world.

There are of course different ways of making sense of, and responding to, such notions. And that may itself seem to fit well with a post-truth world which can be characterised through sets of alternative facts.

 In the spirit of the age, I though I might offer, for your consideration, some ‘alternative facts’ (AF) of my own.

  • AF1. JoTTER is the most highly cited journal in education.
  • AF2. JoTTER is the most important research journal in education.
  • AF3. Publishing in JoTTER leads to stellar careers in teaching. 
  • AF4. The world’s best teachers read JoTTER regularly.
  • AF5. JoTTER is highly influential in shaping government education policy.

If I understand the post-truth mentality then what matters is not any sense of the objective truth of such statements as AF1-5, but rather how they are positioned in the world. If enough people feel they should tweet my claims, and enough people ‘like’ them on social media sites (an action of the mouse taken as a proxy for people actually liking them as an emotional response), it will become reality. Perhaps if I am part of a big enough network of people liking each other (virtually of course) and endorsing each other for their skills, my alternative facts will go viral. Facts are aspirational. It is going to be great.

Given that alternatives are to be welcomed, I will also offer an alternative descriptor for this state of affairs: delusional. It is clearly the case that the world, especially when considering the social and political realms, is complex. This is important for research in areas such as education. For example, consider a classroom where there are accusations of bullying. One could take a positivist stance, and consider that bullying can be objectively defined (by determining its characteristics, and so observable indicators to its presence) - and so consider that once suitable data to act as evidence were collected it should be possible to confidently conclude whether (or not) there has been any bullying. It should even be possible to derive a scale to quantify in some way (to ‘level’) ‘how much’ bullying there has been; and so to what extent bullying ‘is' a problem in that classroom. 

It is quite possible that in such a situation a child found (objectively, that is, in terms of an operationalised definition) to be a bully might feel they had been very harshly treated. Anyone who watches sports will recognise this: the video replays (often in slow motion and from different angles) provides clear ‘objective’ evidence that the defender tripped the forward in the penalty area, or that a foot was in touch before the ball was grounded, or that the ball brushed the batsman’s shirt but not his bat or gloves, or that there was a puff of chalk dust indicating contact with the line…but that may not prevent a player from being convinced they have been hard done by: they may feel that they ‘know’ something different was the case. The ball was (as one John McEnroe might phrase it) most definitely out!

So for a teacher dealing with bullying, it may not be enough - or even most helpful - to objectively establish the facts of the case: what objectively ('actually') happened. The perceptions of those involved are also important. A child who knows she is a bully, and bullies deliberatley, may need to be treated differently from a child who behaves in ways that fit the definition of bullying, and who is perceived as a bully by classmates, but does not see their own behaviour in this way, and does not intend to bully. In that sense there are different truths: the child who is justifiably considered a bully by the teacher may honestly deny being a bully based on their own understanding of events, their own subjective reality. 

For some purposes it makes sense to set up an objective definition of what counts as bullying and seek to collect definitive evidence of what ‘is the case'. For other purposes what is more important and valuable is to understand how different people conceptualise and experience situations, and not to expect or require that these different viewpoints will be consistent. What one person sees as good-natured rapport, another experiences as abuse. What one person considers is an appropriate child-centred learning environment, another see as classroom chaos. What one person sees as a necessary tool of accountability, looks to another as a means to suppress professionalism and creative expression. Context is also important, what one teacher considers as good behaviour in one class, may be seen -  by the same teacher - as disappointing in another.

In research, we have to think about the nature of the things we are exploring (this is sometimes thought of as ontology), and decide when it is appropriate to look for ‘the truth’, and when we should sensibly be exploring perceptions that will necessarily be subjective, and where different participants can be expected to offer valid accounts quite at odds with each other. So as researchers we acknowledge complexity and context, and sometimes admit relativity (it looks different from different viewpoints) and multiplicity (there may be different understandings each valid in their own terms). 

This means we have a nuanced notion of what we might mean by a term like ‘truth’. But this does not mean we give up any notion of truth, and accept that truth is whatever those in power choose to tell us, or that we should equate aspirations with situations. Research should help us speak truth to power, having first been careful to check our version of truth through a critical lens. It should not mean that we simply accept all alternative visions as of equal worth. So if we are told that: 

  • teaching is the kind of activity that is best learnt on the job rather than through a structured programme of education and scaffolded classroom experience;
  • a rigorous curriculum is one where the students can demonstrate extensive rote learning of facts;
  • it is most important for assessment to be accurate and objective (rather than being a valid test of the most important aims of learning);
  • school standards are improved by seeing schools as competing in a marketplace;
  • selection of students at age eleven will improve social mobility;

and so forth, then we hold these ideas to critical scrutiny and demand to interrogate the evidence. They are not alternative facts, but claims to be tested through the careful collection and analysis of relevant data. That is, research. If A1F1-5 cannot stand up to critical scrutiny, then they comprise fake news. 

We must also hold ourselves to similar stands of evidence. We do not claim that we taught the topic well; that we have a strong subject knowledge; that the class enjoyed our lessons; that we are a supportive tutor, and the like, without checking we can justify such claims: not as aspirations, intentions, or promises - but rather in terms of evidence that would convince reasonable, well-informed ‘critical friends’. It is that kind of attitude which allows us to be professionals, which allows us to improve, and which will benefit those we work with and for. Learning about the nature of educational research, and how to collect and analyse data as part of our practice, contributes to this. 

So AF1-5 are not facts, and presenting them above does not make them so. JoTTER is an in-house journal to disseminate, and act as a showcase, for small-scale practitioner research undertaken by novice educational researchers beginning their teaching careers. It is important not by virtue of being a top-ranked journal (it clearly is not), but because it represents a commitment to equipping new teachers with the means to sort ‘truth’ claims and to evaluate alternative facts. It does not promise 'the truth'. But it does offer accounts of some genuine attempts at enquiry that respect the truth. That is more than enough to recommend it to you.

Keith S Taber

Cambridge, 2017