My father was a wonderful story teller. He would capture my imagination and attention with tales of his childhood, how he met my mother, how much he cherished his family and his hopes for our future. My father was also a man who enjoyed situational storytelling, often using a place or time to illustrate a point that he felt quite strongly about, not in an evangelical fashion, but one that would evoke reflection.
My father was as far away from misanthropic as it was possible to be, but one thing that did irritate him was when people blindly accepted what they heard or were told, bought into something without doing their research or made decisions about things that matter greatly without applying some criticality. Part of his contention is that too many similar views can heavily distort perspective, build pressure to follow consensus and after a while makes grasping the truth feel like trying to catch smoke. The more things are uttered the greater the possibility of speaking things into existence and belief.
To illustrate this point he would take us for a walk to one of our favoured walking spots, Cooper’s Hill (near the village of Brockworth in Gloucestershire, UK).
The view is a pleasant bi-product of the walk, but it is a peculiar annual event that is the story here, The Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake. This piece of local tradition is said to have pagan origins when farmers would tumble burning hay bales down the hill to herald the end of winter and the start of spring to resident villagers. Nowadays, hundreds of people from around the world make the pilgrimage to the site to witness dozens of competitors run 200 yds down a 1:2 gradient hill in an effort to catch the prize of an 8lb round cheese with a one second head start and can reach speeds of 70mph!
It is some sight to behold folk throw themselves down the hill with the foreknowledge that things could get very serious very quickly. Bayed on by the apoplectic cries of the watching crowd, some sceptically stand atop the hill watching others hurtle towards the bottom, but succumb to the pressure and throw themselves downhill any way. After the adrenaline floods subside, one can only imagine the possible pain and discomfort competitors feel in the days and weeks that follow.
In some way, this notion of people chasing after something, perhaps uncritically, reminds me of some activity we witness in education, sometimes online, e.g. on Twitter, especially if it’s about impact, solutions, products, rankings/ratings or certainty.
How often do we observe the effects of folk soaking up and spouting off conference jargon, chronic outpourings about policy that stinks, attempts to control (or not) all educational variables, gushing platitudes about the promise of technological innovation, one approach to research pushed over another, a smorgasbord of #chat waffle etc. turn heads and sway people? They seem to create a language and culture of their own rightly or wrongly. Is this attention based on who or what is spruiking it or how it collides with moments in time? I’m probably guilty of some of the above, hence this is a reflection.
Often those with the largest followings generate the greatest impact & spread stuff virulently and unquestioningly. I’m not saying here that I ‘know’ what is or isn’t right. I equally see how it can transform usually inert educational behaviour in some into enmity as the scale and proliferation of uncritical consumption becomes apparent.
I wonder why this phenomena occurs. The need to belong, to affirm, to simply connect people and ideas? Online, does groupthink, as it takes on a personality and entity of its own, serve to exclude rather than include others and arrest participation from outside? Again online, does groupthink slowly immunise itself from what it perceives as irrelevance from others? Does groupthink calcify its own attitudes or philosophies rather than welcome and accept that there is something good about variety?
Returning to Cooper’s Hill and the cheese rolling again, what I really wonder is what the role of the crowd is. What exactly are they there to do? Do they have any responsibility for what they are witnessing? They know there will always be a steep gradient, something to be chased and some chasers. Do they watch with wonder, admiration, curiosity or dismay? Do they ring-fence hopemongers by identifying and dismissing things as unscientific guff or compound the groupthink by creating a sphere of influence that disseminates and satisfies their bias? Maybe it’s somewhere in between or altogether different. I’m simply curious.
My father pointed something out to me the last time we saw the event together many years ago. He said, ‘son, watch the few hesitant ones who go off after the surge. Watch their eyes. Do they look down the hill at what is unfolding or do they watch the crowd? Despite the known risks and certainties, the crowd enjoys witnessing the spectacle.’ When you see something or hear something educationally interesting, uncertain or perhaps ill-conceived, what do you do? Why do you do it?