I don’t know what it’s like living in other countries, but here in England we are fortunate indeed. If I want to have a discussion on any subject at all, I can simply walk into the pub nearest to where I happen to be at the time, where I am virtually certain to discover a self-styled “expert” declaiming about the economy, or what’s wrong with kids today, or how to solve the financial crisis, or whether or not kids should be taught how to programme, or how the entire education system should be put right.
Indeed, I don’t even have to go to a pub. A couple of months ago I was sitting on a train, minding my own business, when the person opposite me told me, with no encouragement whatsoever, that the best way of getting rid of the Occupy London protestors would be to drop cyanide on them from the air. I nodded politely while edging backwards slightly, and restuck my head in my book.
What all these people have in common is that they engage in what an MA tutor of mine described as “pub talk”. They rant or pontificate with no real understanding of the issues, and certainly no experience of having had to deal with them. Unintended consequences? What are they? Everything is black and white, and simplistic solutions are the order of the day.
We all enjoy a rant, and I imagine that most people engage in pub talk now and again. I, for example, am an expert on how to deal with burglars, having once been the victim of one. But here is the question: how can you express your opinion in a blog post – even forcefully express it – while still retaining a quiet authority and credibility? And what are the implications for schools, teachers and students? Here are a few thoughts on the matter. In each case I start from the standpoint of an individual teacher, consultant or other professional, and then extrapolate from that to a school and then to students.
Make haste slowly
I think this is a case where it takes months, if not years, to become an overnight success. Unless you already have a standing in the community for which you are writing, such as having had articles published, belonging to one or more key societies, having a presence on Twitter and, I would suggest, Linked-in, ranting on a (new) blog is not likely to be taken very seriously.
To be honest, it may not be taken seriously anyway – but at least with an established reputation you stand more of a chance!
If you are blogging in an official capacity (for your school, for example), you need to bear in mind that even if the school was established in 1647, it will only have (perceived) authority in particular spheres. So, a blog about how students learn might be perceived as authoritative and credible, while a blog about using Skype may not – unless you explain in the blog post why anyone should sit up and listen.
Students have it hardest of all, I think. Most student articles look like they were written by, well, students. If you encourage your students to blog, even though blogging is an informal and a very forgiving medium, you ought to encourage them to establish their authority explicitly. In many cases this may come down to a simple statement to the effect that they are writing from experience. Sometimes, perhaps not even that, by adhering to the novelist’s dictum, “Show, don’t tell”. For instance, Martha Payne, writing on her blog about school dinners, didn’t have to tell anyone she was an expert in school dinners at her school, because photographing, writing about and evaluating them every day made it kind of obvious.
Tell us who you are
Whether or not you are well-established in your field, not everyone will know who you are, So your blog needs to tell them. There is your profile, for a start, and links or at least lists of your relevant activities.
Going back to the profile page, I think people need to think carefully about what they wish to convey about themselves. There is a fine line between presenting a balanced picture of someone who is an expert but who has a life outside work, and presenting irrelevant twaddle.
For example, whenever I am followed by someone on Twitter I consider whether or not to follow them. The first thing I do is look at their profile. If it reads “Father, husband, dreamer, mountaineer and teacher”, I am already put off. I would not be put off it it read “Teacher, love mountaineering”.
Schools usually have this side of things pretty well covered in the “Information” or “About our school” page on their website. Although, I think if there is to be a school blog, it might be an idea to add something to the effect that the school is forward-looking etc etc, or at least what the purpose of the blog is.
Student blogging raises issues about e-safety, of course. Student profiles should be anonymous if the blog is open to the whole world, or at least as anonymous as possible. For instance, I would suggest not using surnames or photos.
Be mindful of what you write
The next thing I look at when considering whether or not to follow someone on Twitter is their recent tweets. Obviously, these will probably be frivolous around special occasions such as Christmas and New Year, but in general I look for interesting and/or informative messages. I am not that interested in people who tweet “Sign up to my latest course”, “Am having poached eggs” or stuff like that.
If there is a link to their blog, I’ll click on it and see what sort of things they write about, and how. Which brings me back to blogging. If you’re writing a blog for professionals, keep it professional.
Schools don’t usually blog about irrelevant things, but I have to say that the self-promotion bit can become tedious. I have come across some school blogs whose posts consist solely of press releases extolling their virtues. You don’t need a blog for that, just a friendly local newspaper editor. After all, those sorts of posts are, really, aimed at parents, so they need hardly have worldwide coverage in most cases.
As far as students are concerned, this aspect of blogging can be tied in with both ICT and English, from the perspective of audience awareness. Is anybody really likely to be interested in their breakfast preferences? Is anyone, apart from their parents, likely to be interested in their latest achievement? Students need to think: why do people read this blog, or why would they want to?
Here’s an example of how this might go horribly wrong. I read a student review of a play once, and at least half of the article was about the seats and the person in front of him. I, along with everyone else I should imagine, started to read the review because I wanted to find out if it was worth seeing the play or not. This so-called “reviewer” had made the classic mistake of believing that potential readers were interested in him. They weren’t.
Another thing I would say is that a key difference between real experts and pub experts, to return to my earlier comments, is that the real ones know how to use the right terminology, and use it correctly. To give a silly (but true) example, one “education expert” at a party confidently told me, on learning that I was a teacher, that the reason the country is in the state it’s in is that “they” need to bring back capital punishment into schools. Really? I hadn’t realised that schools had ever employed capital punishment, although I can see it could work quite well as a disincentive to poor behaviour and not doing homework. Might be hard getting the idea past the parents, mind you….
For a school blog, I would suggest having blog posts proofread by someone other than the writer, just to try to ensure there are no gaffes. We all make them. I have sometimes, writing in a hurry, used “there” instead of “their”. That’s not likely to affect my credibility too much. But if you saw that on a school blog, would you not wonder, perhaps despite yourself, whether this school was fit enough to educate your child?
And students? I really do get fed up with reading student blogs which have poor grammar, incorrect words and wrong spellings. Even if the student can’t spell, surely their teacher or someone else in the class can? I am afraid I am not one of those people who believe that creative self-expression is paramount, and that insisting on adherence to certain rules is an infringement of students’ human rights. If students wish to be taken seriously in their writings, then they need to play by the rules whether they like it or not.
Cite other authorities
Blogs don’t have to be academic to cite references. Referring to other blogs on the subject, or other sources, is another important indicator of authority. Pub experts either never cite research or writing, or quote from the one TV documentary they have watched on the subject, usually either last week or ten years ago.
Schools usually cite from inspection reports, or (adopting the “show, don’t tell” approach) display various “badges” and kitemarks.
For students, this is an opportunity for several subjects, especially the ICT teacher, the history teacher, and the science teacher, because it’s about doing proper research, drawing on credible sources, and citing where the information comes from.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to mark yourself out definitively as an expert to people who have never heard of you. If you think about it, everything I’ve suggested here amounts to giving indications, or pointers, to people which suggest that you probably are, on balance, a real expert rather than a fake one.
Still, nothing like a good rant to get the blood flowing! Now, about my theories of penal reform….