8 Tips for Arguing about EducationPosted: April 11, 2015
Have you ever been involved in a disagreement on social media about education? If so, good for you. There is a large amount of education discourse out there that centres around the amplification of views. Quotes are shared that are misattributed to Einstein or W B Yeats and everyone retweets them. It’s a bit like the education version of sharing cat photos.
So you’ve moved on from that. You are a critical thinker who wants to learn. I am a learner too. I have been involved in this for a while and have prompted some disagreement. So I offer some advice.
1. Just because someone disagrees with you it doesn’t mean they are evil
I know that this is an obvious point but this acts as an unconscious bias. I think that it is particularly acute in education. Most teachers are in this business because we care deeply about what we do. We want to make a difference. We see these values as underpinning our views. If someone doesn’t share our views then we wrongly assume that they cannot share our values and are therefore… well… a little bit evil.
This cognitive bias has the potential to colour all of our interactions. If someone you disagree with says, “Thank you, that’s an interesting point,” then it is tempting to assume that they are being sarcastic when they might just think you made an interesting point. And, of course, you should pause before you accuse someone of being ‘abrupt’ or ‘dismissive’ on Twitter. The 140 character limit makes it difficult to convey nuance.
2. The principle of charity
The opposite of assuming that the people you disagree with are evil is to consciously try to apply the principle of charity. This means that whenever you could interpret someone’s argument a number of different ways then you should choose to interpret it in the best possible way that gives your opponent the strongest argument. Then argue against that.
This explicitly rules out constructing straw man arguments where we argue against a position that our opponent does not actually hold.
Of course it can be hard. Our biases tend to make us assume the worst interpretation and possibly not even see any others. That’s why it needs to be a conscious, metacognitive strategy.
3. What people do for a living is largely beside the point
I am happy to accept a teacher from a government school making the case for more funding for government schools. I am happy to accept a purveyor of systematic synthetics phonics programs making the case for systematic synthetic phonics. The holding of such positions comes as no surprise. What really matters is the arguments that they make and we should try to address these in any discussion. Otherwise things get personal and unpleasant and we all leave the discussion feeling dirty and cheap and none-the-wiser as to whether the position was valid or not.
Dismissing an argument on the basis of who is making it is a version of the Ad Hominem fallacy.
4. Experience isn’t everything
Arguing from your experience can certainly be valid. If I were to suggest that every school in Australia has interactive whiteboards in every classroom then it would be fair enough to point out that you work in one that doesn’t.
However, you write-off vast swathes of opinion if you insist that everyone must have direct experience of something in order to be able to comment on it. And this reduces your chance to learn. Even when you’ve done this, you may still find someone with direct experience of the thing who disagrees with you. In one lifetime, we can only sample from the large number of different ways of going about things. Few teachers systematically vary their methods in order to try to find out what works best. However effective you think a strategy is, you cannot rule out that there might be a better one out there. This is where research evidence can help.
After all, we don’t suggest that the only people who can comment on the Moon are Neil Armstrong and the tiny band of people who have actually been there.
5. Think before calling something a ‘false dichotomy’
If I said that you either support the government or you hate our country then you could reasonably suggest that there were other alternatives; you may love our country and not support the government, perhaps. Or, you may be ambivalent on the whole country thing. This is the correct time to criticise me for setting up a false choice.
However, this phrase often seems to be used to try to prevent anyone making any distinctions at all, particularly distinctions that make us uncomfortable.
Imagine, for instance, that I were to make the case for the benefits of group work in the classroom. I may explicitly state its advantages over other approaches but even if I don’t, I’ve implied them; at least in certain circumstances or for achieving particular aims. Otherwise, there would be no point in me promoting group work at all.
It is unhelpful to suggest that I have set-up a false dichotomy and that everyone uses a range of different strategies in different situations. I never made the claim that group work should be used 100% of the time and that the alternative was to never use it at all and so I have not set-up a false choice.
I usually attract this kind of criticism when I write about the benefits of explicit instruction.
6. Mind your manners
It is generally inadvisable to describe someone’s views as ridiculous or bizarre etc. It makes you look bad. If you are right then a calm and patient approach will serve your case the best. If you are wrong then at least you’re not both wrong and unpleasant.
Also avoid grandstanding on Twitter. Usually, Twitter replies can only been seen by people who follow both of the participants in a conservation. However, some people grandstand by inserting a full-stop before the Twitter handle of the person that they are conversing with or by moving their Twitter handle to the end of the tweet. This has the effect of allowing anyone who follows the person doing the grandstanding to see all of the tweets i.e. it broadcasts the conversation to a much wider audience.
Why would you do this? To show off? To recruit support from your followers? Either of these is a bad look.
7. Politics does not imply pedagogy
We seem to have reached a point in history where people associate left-wing politics with child-centered approaches to education and right-wing politics with teacher-led approaches. I think this has much to do with a discourse around authority and democracy, promoted by John Dewey and encouraged by the counterculture movement of the 1960s, Paolo Freire and others.
When you think about it, child-centered ideas where children are all treated differently and follow their own inquiries, are actually a form of individualism. Individualism and choice are usually an aspect of right-wing politics; the left tends to focus on what people have in common. Think of private health insurance versus Britain’s National Health Service.
Indeed, psychologists Dan Willingham and David Daniel have argued that we would be better to teach to what children have in common rather than focusing on their differences. Is this left wing? Many of Dewey’s ideas were actually prefigured by Herbert Spencer who was quite clearly on the right. You also find that many on both left and right will argue that some children are not academic and so should be given vocational courses in plumbing and planting fruit trees. Is this individualism?
Politics is certainly relevant to education when discussing funding or structures but I think it just confuses things when used as a lens to examine what happens in the classroom. If you have adopted your views on pedagogy from your political leanings then I suggest examining them very closely to see if they stand-up in their own right.
8. You’re not convincing anybody
Let’s be clear: the point in engaging in a debate about education is not to get someone to admit that they are wrong. Few people have the self-confidence to be able to do this. Minds do change as a result of such discussions but usually over the course of many. It takes time and you’re unlikely to get any credit.
Instead, you should be engaging in order to test out your own ideas. Do they stand up to scrutiny? Is there something you can learn? Is there a well-known criticism of your position that you need to take into account? To do this, you need to accept the right of others to challenge you.
It can be frustrating. You have presented a definitive piece of evidence that proves your case or you have suggested a compromise position that any reasonable person must assent to, and yet your opponent will not budge. How unreasonable is that?
Well… you know… they might just disagree. And that’s OK. Relax.
Note: In addition to my own experience, this post draws on ideas that I first read about in Paul Graham’s seminal “How to Disagree” post.