What the Echo Chamber is and isn’t

Much of this is already covered by the “About” page but, given the strange bursts of debate that happen on Twitter about this, I thought I’d spell out what the Echo Chamber is for and how it works.

The name The Echo Chamber was chosen deliberately. It was a response to two things:

  1. Education debate in the media which only covered a narrow range of views and, in particular, presented teachers as only having a narrow range of views.
  2. The danger that those of us who stood outside of those views, no matter how prominent in the blogosphere, were only heard by each other.

I had talked in my blog on The Education Spectrum last year about how education debate which could take place in at least two dimensions, was often reduced to a single left-right spectrum shown on the red line in the diagram below:

The idea of the Echo Chamber was to help give a voice to teachers with the views teachers are not supposed to have, particularly, but not exclusively, those in the upper right quadrant of the diagram. This has two implications which are often not grasped.

  1. It is not a completely neutral forum in that there is a bias against repeating those parts of the debate that I consider to be already well-represented in the media.
  2. It is not a propaganda site either. The important thing is not simply to air particular views, but to debate and discuss them too which means there is a place for opposing views.

This has led to some confusion. Sometimes people demand that particular material be on here for the sake of balance. However, because the Echo Chamber is attempting to balance the wider debate, balance on the Echo Chamber would defeat that object. Sometimes people complain that if the site isn’t balanced then it is somehow dishonest to pretend to be allowing any debate at all, the assumption being you can only have balance or propaganda and nothing in-between. However, it is my belief that debate on some of these issues is, on its own, to the advantage of those with the strongest arguments. I do not feel the need to rely on propaganda. Whether people with opposing views want to join in, or not, then that’s up to them, and if somebody moans when I link to them then I won’t link to them again, but I am not going to curtail debate on here in order to satisfy those who cannot conceive of the idea of somebody both promoting particular opinions, and wanting them debated and criticised.

The bias towards wanting certain opinions to be expressed does affect the selection of material at the margins. The greatest effect is probably in the selection of material from other countries, in that there would be too much material to reblog every education blog in the world, so I tend to follow and reblog only those education blogs from other countries which I particularly appreciate. With regard to UK education blogs, I do try to read them all and consider them all as potentially rebloggable. The selection here in this respect is far less ideologically biased. More details can be found on the About page, but, in practice, what gets reblogged depends on the following considerations.

Firstly, quality of writing matters. I’m not exactly Orwell myself, but a lot of education blogs are appallingly written. The use of jargon and cliché is a major constraint. There’s enough terrible education writing out there as it is without adding to it. I will reject those blogposts which never miss the opportunity to use a stock phrase. If you repeatedly use the word “mindset” to mean “attitude”, describe everything as part of your “vision” or use nouns as verbs I’ll probably skip it. Accuracy also matters. One of the most common reasons for which I choose not to reblog a post is because it features a misattributed quotation. If you quote Plato, Churchill, Gandhi or Einstein, you’d better have a proper source and not be cutting and pasting off of the internet.

Secondly, there is quality of argument. This can be a difficult one to get across because a lot of people only judge arguments by whether they agree with their conclusions. and have little concept of what makes a good or bad argument. There are plenty of fallacies out there, equivocation is a particularly common one, but there are a couple of bad arguments that are repeatedly misused.

The most ubiquitous bad argument is the ad hominem. This is often misunderstood to mean either insults or personal criticism. I might tend to avoid the former out of politeness but the latter is perfectly acceptable in certain cases and is often the best response when faced with an argument from authority. However, an ad hominem argument can be perfectly polite or even positive about somebody (“X believes that because they are very kind”). The problem is with any argument that says or implies that an opinion is wrong because of some feature of who believes it rather than the merits of the opinion itself. I don’t care what hidden agenda you think somebody has. I don’t care whether somebody is the right sort of expert if they have strong arguments. I don’t care what ideological label you have put on somebody. I want to discuss if an opinion is right or wrong, not discuss the personality or motivations of those who believe in it. Some bloggers write almost nothing but ad hominem arguments and convince themselves that they are doing some kind of hugely intellectual analysis of what is really going on under the surface. Prove somebody wrong and then I might care for your analysis of why they hold that wrong position. Assume they are wrong and you are just wasting space.

The next most misused argument is the straw man. This is where you misrepresent somebody else’s position. Common versions of this that I see from educational progressives include arguing that traditionalists believe exams are the purpose of education, that critics of groupwork advocate the lecture, or that advocates of the teaching of knowledge are calling for the rote learning of facts. Claims of straw men are sometimes over used, people often object to any description of their position that they personally wouldn’t use even if it is factually correct and what’s at issue is purely a matter of interpretation. However, attacks on positions that people clearly don’t hold will not be viewed sympathetically.

The third consideration, and again this is one that is often not appreciated, is whether a post seeks to open up or close down debate. This is probably the hardest consideration to judge but not all contributions to a debate add to it, sometimes they might lead people to know less than they did when they started, or make them unconcerned about understanding a debate in more depth.

The following sorts of posts do not contribute to debate:

  •  The refusal to listen to any evidence. I am the first to accept that much evidence, particularly research evidence in education, is lousy. However a blanket condemnation of evidence often makes debate impossible. There must be something out there that can demonstrate something to somebody. In particular “it’s all a matter of opinion” is not an argument for accepting your opinion. Perhaps there is no one right answer to a question, that does not mean yours isn’t the one wrong answer that we can all safely reject.
  • Arguments based on hidden assumptions. If you argue that we should teach by, say, using Didau’s Learning Socks® then it is not enough to simply argue that they make children happy, promote classroom discussion and encourage critical thinking. Not everyone agrees that education is meant to make children happy, that classroom discussion is always a good thing or that critical thinking exists. If you are writing only for people who accept certain premises then you are probably not worth reblogging to the people who don’t accept them.
  • The Year Zero. Any post on an issue that presents an idea or argument as brand new, even though debate has been raging for years can only be harmful to the understanding of the debate.
  • Obfuscation. This (along with the bad arguments mentioned above) is what puts most phonics denialist material beyond the pale. Some arguments appear intended only to confuse the issue. They contain non sequiturs; they redefine words in strange ways; they confuse opinions and facts; they quote partisans as neutral experts; they claim that evidence is disputed without identifying anything resembling a valid criticism. The best test as to whether writing is intended to obfuscate is to see whether you can summarise the main points in your own words without making it look ridiculous.
  • Rejection of rational argument. There are some who argue that we shouldn’t bother trying to put together a rational argument. In particular, people often simply write about what side they are on, rather than why their side is right. If you think people should oppose something just because Michael Gove suggested it, rather than because it is wrong, then you are unlikely to add anything to debate about it. Few things wind me up more than hearing something I agree with described as “an attack on teachers”.

Finally, a note on “The Echo Chamber team”. I wanted to give a thank you to those who have agreed to reblog their posts themselves or otherwise help with the Echo Chamber which is why there is a list of bloggers named above the blogroll as the team. However, the team has been assembled piecemeal over time, and for different reasons. There is no consistency to who has been selected. Being a friend who I can contact on Facebook is one reason to choose someone; blogging on WordPress is another. Some are there for reasons which no longer really apply. Most posts are still reblogged by me and while others do reblog at times it can be a bit tricky to avoid duplication so people tend to stick to reblogging their own posts and some don’t even do that. Any attempt to identify some kind of clear editorial policy in the selection of the team is a waste of time. I chose them and I can’t always remember why, beyond the fact that they are good bloggers and (at least the ones I’ve met, as some are strangers) good people.

P.S. If you are going to take me to task for any posts I have reblogged or written that seem to be in violation of my own rules then, please, look carefully at those rules and look up anything you are unclear about. I will not appreciate being told that using the term “phonics denialist” is an ad hominem argument or a straw man.

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About teachingbattleground

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3 Responses to What the Echo Chamber is and isn’t

  1. bt0558 says:

    An interesting and illuminating post which I hope will bring a good number of responses. As I think you have exemplified here, the blogosphere opens up all sorts of opportunities to air facts, ideas and opinions which in the past would only have been attempted by a few, mainly journalists and academics perhaps.

    I think you have laid out the way you see yourself and the Echochamber very clearly and I am sure a lot of people will appreciate that.

    I have always been interested in (and still am) the similarities with/differences between the perception one has of oneself and the perceptions held by others. I feel that to go through some of the statements you have made and suggest that you have in fact done exactly what you seem to frown upon would be a complete waste of time, and I am sure that many people reading the post and comments will appreciate the reasons without me laying them out. This is not mean’t as an ad hominem attack, it is simply a response to the content of your post.

    As a professional educator I like to watch (not follow) a few blogs. I do this because once a post is let loose, a variety of responses come from a variety of people and as I believe that teaching/learning is as much an art as a science, differing views and interpretations are essential.

    I am regularly exposed to new (and some not so new ideas) and often go away and research in depth some of the issues raised and some of the ideas presented. Sometimes I form a similar opinion and sometimes I find it difficult to see why the presenter has formed the view they have from the research presented.

    For me balance is illustrated by a mix of situations in which a blogger is able to convince people based on their evidence and those where the blogger has been swayed by evidence put forward by others.

    I think the following quote from the internet sums it up quite well…

    “If it convinces you, come back to me when you find a recent OFSTED report complaining that teachers did not spend enough time explaining content, that students spent too long working independently, or that learning was harmed by reliance on students discovering things for themselves rather than being told about them by their teachers.”

    Sometimes I would ask a blogger whether there have been many examples of when they have been swayed by the views/comments/arguments of others, and when they can do this I will change my view of their self perception that they are “always right”.

    For me, I would like to see you present the evidence for some of the assertions you make in a balanced fashion, as academics tend to try to do. It would be nice for me if you tended to express your interpretations of the evidence for and against as just that, your interpretations.

    I would like to see you define terms like “attitude” and “mindset” a little more clearly at times as many of the responses seem to me to arise because terms are not clearly defined. Once terms are clear differences in interpretation/opinion/position do (I agree with you) become much clearer and explicit.

    So I often look at your blog among others, as it leads to a wide range of responses, opinions and further reading. It is a bit like the CPD acorn from which CPD mighty oaks grow. This blogpost, true to form will set me off in several different ways.

    It is a great blog, but maybe I don’t perceive it as you do. Who knows?

  2. marymyatt says:

    A lot of work goes in to maintaining the EC. Really appreciate the wide range of material it pulls together.

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