The value of dissent

Consensus is desirable. Can we at least agree on that? I’m not so sure.

One of the interesting features of the education system is the role played by concord and discord. We place high value on the former but live mainly with the latter.

Think for a moment: what do we actually agree on? There is little consensus over what schools are for, how to improve them, how we should teach, or the best way to socialise and develop the nation’s youth (if that is indeed even a priority). And where consensus does emerge it is often a weak and transient consensus. Sometimes, it can be a harmful consensus.

For decades, corporal punishment was tacitly accepted as the way to punish children. This is documented in my school’s archived ‘punishment book’ which reveals the normalised beatings of students for relatively minor misdemeanours. There were dissenting voices to such practices, and these voices eventually led to change. Note that it was discord, not concord, that brought about progress.

Whilst our distaste for corporal punishment is so clear to us now, that is because the passing of time affords us a view from beyond the pull of consensus. As L P Hartley said, the past is a foreign country.

To a lesser degree, there are beliefs that many of us held once which now appear unwise and ill-informed. It was common to argue at one point that a significant number of children should not study the same curriculum as the rest because they were not able to access it, or because they were unlikely to progress to higher education. The consequent ‘pathways’ and ‘alternative curricular’ were mainstream ways of dealing with curricular segregation. The consensus has now coalesced around an ‘entitlement curriculum’ and ‘teaching up’. The rights and wrongs in this debate are less clear cut than for corporal punishment, and the degree of consensus consequently weaker, but we can still observe the swing from one accepted wisdom to another.

Consensus is an alignment of belief and action. It is the holy grail for those setting out to build a school culture. Indeed, we might say that the consensus is that consensus is desirable.

We are told that an alignment of values, principles and practice is the objective. But is a healthy school culture one in which everyone agrees or where there is permission, even encouragement, to disagree?

The case for discord is firstly that harmful and misguided practices and beliefs are challenged. The lone dissenting voice will later be joined by a chorus of approval.

Secondly, we are in danger of overrating uniformity. Diversity is a hedge against group think and collective stupidity. There should be a tentative alignment on some things, but a respectful divergence with regard to most things. How do we find the sweet spot?

The answer is that we cannot engineer cohesion, consensus or consistency, we must allow its emergence. Counterintuitively, this means cultivating constructive dissent.

Constructive dissent is an organisational norm whereby disagreement is valued and invited. It does not mean we welcome undermining behaviour, rebellion, or resistance. The right to disagree goes hand in hand with the responsibility to toe the party line. Indeed, the questioning of the status quo leads to greater willingness to conform as the consensus view is perceived as an informed one, arrived at by debate, not imposition.

For those in a position of influence, we can promote constructive dissent by holding our ideas lightly, indicating when and why we have changed our minds, using the language of ‘best bets’, and explicitly stating our assumptions and principles. We can signal our openness by dealing in parameters rather than directives. By setting boundaries rather than non-negotiables, we provide room for interpretation, experimentation and personal preference. The implicit signal is that broad alignment is desirable, but certainty is not achievable. If we’re getting this wrong, speak up.

Perhaps most importantly, if we are told we are wrong, we should ask ourselves ‘are they opposed to me, or are they ahead of me?’ The critics are often the early adopters of tomorrow’s consensus.

Discord need not be a sign that things are falling apart. It may actually be just what we need.

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