Education Gurus

It’s easy to make your own guru memes with Canva.

Knowledge and advice for schools and about education often seem to exist in a world of commodification and memeification. There is plenty of disagreement and debate in education, and plenty of competition on bookshelves and in conference programs. Educators and academics position themselves as brands via bios, photographs, and certification badges. As an educator and a researcher I have those whose work I follow closely; academics, for instance, whose presence affects me when I meet them because their reputation and body of work precede them.

In education, we have perceived gurus. These are people who have become ubiquitous in education circles, at education conferences, and in education literature. Teachers and school leaders scramble to get tickets to their sessions and to get photographic evidence of having met them. Their words are tweeted out in soundbites ad infinitum (or is that ad nauseum?), and made into internet memes. Sometimes these individuals partner with publishers or education corporates, and so the visibility and reach of their work grows. They become the scholars or experts most cited in staff rooms, at professional learning water coolers, and in job interviews when asked how research informs practice. 

Sometimes, these gurus are teachers or principals who have gained a large following on social media and subsequently a monolithic profile. Often, they are academics who have built up bodies of work over many years, becoming more and more well-known along the way, and eventually being perceived as celebrities or gurus. Yesterday I had the pleasure of learning from Dylan Wiliam, firstly at a day long seminar, and then at my school. At one point the seminar organisers apologised for running out of Wiliam’s books, acknowledging the desire of delegates to have the book signed.
Marten Koomen has traced networks of influencers in Australian education organisations. In his new paper ‘School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie’, Scott Eacott challenges the rise of the edu guru, those academics whose work is ubiquitous and influential to the point of being uncritically accepted and canonised. Eacott pushes back against the ‘what works’ mentality in education, in which educators are sold ‘what works’ and encouraged to slavishly apply it to their own contexts. Jon Andrews, too, questions the unquestioning way in which the loudest and most prominent voices become the accepted voices. Meta-analysis and meta-meta-analysis, often translated into league tables of ‘what works’ in education, have been the subject of criticism. George Lilley and Gary Jones have both questioned meta-analysis on their blogs. I’ve written about cautions surrounding the use of meta-analysis in education, especially when it drives clickbait headlines and a silver-bullet mentality of having the answers without having to ask any questions. Yesterday Wiliam made his oft-repeated points: that everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere, and context matters. A guru cannot provide easy answers in education, as education is too complex and contextual for that.

taken at AERA last year

Much of this conversation around the rise of the edu guru has surrounded John Hattie, although he is by no means the only globally renowned education expert likely to make conference delegates weak at the knees. I was personally uncomfortable when he was beamed in via video link to last year’s ACEL conference and began to give an ‘I have a dream’ speech about education. As an English and Literature teacher I understand the power of rhetoric and analogy to persuade and inspire, but appropriating the legacy and words of Dr Martin Luther King Junior seemed a way to gospelise a personal brand of education reform.

I don’t think that education experts, no matter how influential they become, should encourage the uncritical acceptance of their ideas as dogma, or present themselves as the bringers of the One True Thing To Rule All Things of and for education. As Dylan Wiliam, channelling Ben Goldacre, repeatedly said yesterday, “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.”

I wonder how perceived gurus feel about being guru-ised by the education masses. In part the famous and the infamous in education are so because of their actions: accepting more and more speaking gigs, performing the game of publishing and promoting their work. Most, I would guess, do this for the same reason someone like me speaks and publishes. To contribute to education narratives and change those narratives, hopefully for the better. To be of service to the profession and the field. To explore and wrestle with ideas, trying to find ways to make sense of the complexity of education in order to improve the learning of students and the lives of teachers and school leaders.

I wondered about the rise to gurudom and the moral obligation of the academic celebrity figure last year when at AERA I saw a panel in which four educational heavy hitters—Andy Hargreaves, Michael Fullan, Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch—all advocating for the moral imperative of educational research and practice. They spoke of lifetime journeys of work intended to make the world a better and more just place. I wondered at the time about how much an early career academic can be brave and resistant in their work, as they try to build a career via the performative pressures of the academe. Can only the guru, free from institutional performativities and the financial pressures often associated with early career academia, say what they really want to say and do the work and writing they really want to do?

I don’t think experts in education are dangerous. We need expertise and people willing to commit their lives and work to making sense of and making better the world of education and learning. But in a world where teachers and school leaders are busy racing on the mouse wheels of their own performative pressures, we need to figure out ways to support and facilitate sceptical and critical engagement with research. Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically. The danger comes when experts become so guru-fied that the words they use become part of an unthinking professional vernacular, used by educators who haven’t looked behind the curtain or beneath the book cover.

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14 thoughts on “Education Gurus

  1. This is a superb overview of the education guru we are all encountering on the professional development gravy train. Conference organisers are keen to secure ‘experts’ and sell concert tickets to the masses who are keen to grab selfies, autographs and hear the latest quote – and then apply it back in their own setting.

    Academic and/or school experience helps, but I also think having a financial and published platform – to then be able to go on and accept conference requests – is what makes being able to attend a conference – the perfect recipe for having your work / voice exposed to 100-1000 people at daily conferences.

    “I’d love to speak at a conference keynote and be paid £,thousands” said no classroom teacher, ever.

    Liked by 1 person

      • …meaning you have enough stability to leave the classroom and/or your day-to-day job to be able to attend conferences to speak and or be paid to speak about your own work. Plus have the backing of publishers or academia/think tanks to have your own thoughts / writing / books / journals published and/or promoted. Not something I have aimed for – but has evolved as my website has grown naturally over time.

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      • Financial stability indicates a level of privelege, as well as willingness to take risks and leaps of faith.

        Have you found that as your website has grown over time you have focused on different ways of constructing yourself in terms of expertise and influence? I imagine that experiencing one’s growing influence might be like being the frog in the pot that slowly comes to the boil; hardly noticing the incremental changes.

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  2. Excellent article Deborah. ‘Ad nauseam’ is about right. Too frequently, in my specific area of interest, the words of school leaders become easily accepted. Certainly the extent to which philosophy, via blogs, is rammed via retweets becomes nauseating. The unfollow button is useful! I ask the simple question “why do they not work harder at their day jobs?”

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    • Thank you. It’s the easy acceptance that worries me; the followers rather than the followed. But both follower and followed have a moral obligation, especially when we are talking about the lives and learning of students.

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  3. Excellent narrative Deborah. Worries me that we are in a habit of seeking the silver bullet when we so desire to develop the skills of critical thinking, creativity and collaboration to young people whilst not modelling them ourselves.

    Especially like and often return to Williams quote myself precisely because it encourages a deeper conversation and analysis with self and colleagues. It is this discourse with fellow professionals surely which will result in improved outcomes not blindly attaching oneself to those who shout loudest or sell the most books or have the most followers on social media?

    Thanks for this. Timely, balanced and appropriate

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    • Thank you, Mark. I understand that silver bullets are seductive; educators want to know how to distil the complexity of education down to what’s most effective. How do we know where to best spend our time and resources? The media, meanwhile, loves a silver bullet or a polarising argument (teachers vs. parents or schools vs. the academe).

      But those of us in education know that it is complex and contextual. There isn’t a one size solution, a single tonic for better learning everywhere.

      We need to keep reading, talking, and engaging – with research, our communities, and one another.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Deb a great overview. As an academic I’m even finding I need to have a byline or commercial profile for my results of research to be heard.I charge very little for my workshops but still finding it hard to compete for the PD $ with the full on commercial ventures. I think we are seeing some sort of anti-expert meme which to me appears on Twitter a lot from the UK. I’m not sure I see it though when I work in schools thankfully. I agree we all need to keep talking and not be as combative as the twittersphere can be. Thanks for keeping the conversation critical!

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    • Thanks, Jennie.

      I think it’s tricky because if you’re not being paid by an institution (e.g. presenting on behalf of a university that is covering your costs) then you should be paid a fair amount for running workshops or presenting desired expertise. There is plenty of unpaid labour in academia, especially if you’re an indie or honorary academic.

      I wonder how clear the line is between being remunerated fairly for time, work and expertise; and being complicit in a system of commodification and monopolisation.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. There’s so much here that is absolutely correct, both about the university and about education. You wrote … “Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically … ” but in education such engagement isn’t always possible, because of the multiple contexts and conditions under which we classroom teachers work. Almost no educational practice is ever tested under appropriate scientific conditions, so the research is very mushy. Practices and theories that work well in one context may not in another, yet there remains a desperate desire in schools to universalize “what works” and to quantify “how much it is working.” Admitting that these ideas and theories are formative and must be considered critically by educators is somehow missed by most.

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  7. Good evening Deborah (well, in the US anyway). This is a fantastic overview, and mirrors many of my eyebrow-raises about such consultants and gurus. I am having an experience in which my school is moving towards a new grading system, and there is one expert that we’re told to rely on and talk to. We are heavily encouraged to read his books and attend his conferences, etc. He is very knowledgable on the topic, but I do feel that it would benefit us to find other resources even if they contradict. I know he can’t be the only person with ideas on this grading topic. I also wonder, now that we’re taking his methods and applying them, why can’t we teachers demonstrate how it works in a school like ours and not just in a conference room full of ideas? Thank you for your insightful post.

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