8 Tips for Arguing about Education

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.


15 thoughts on “8 Tips for Arguing about Education

  1. Reid says:

    Greg, I found this article informative and helpful. What was particularly useful for me was to take a copy of your tips and then reread the comments to your recent article in The Conversation. It allowed me to find examples of some of these practices at work. Well worth the effort and good for my learning.

  2. I like this blog, Greg. Excellent advice. Howver your point on ‘grandstanding’ does contradict the principle of charity. There are many good reasons for sharing a conversation with people on Twitter who don’t follow both parties. Especially if one of those parties doesn’t currently have many followers and the person they a conversing with wants to share the conversation with a wider audience, perhaps (charitably) in the hope they will pick up more followers in the process.

    • Hi Tim. I don’t think there is a contradiction here. If you were to deploy a full-stop in a Twitter discussion with me then I would try to apply the principle of charity and assume that you were doing it for a good reason. However, I would advise against the practice in general because of the way it may look.

      Also note that I am referring to a disagreement here. Widening a discussion where there is no substantial disagreement is another matter entirely.

  3. This is sound advice, Greg, but I question the use of the term ‘grandstanding’. Not everyone who wants to widen a conversation will do it to ‘grandstand’. They may just want to ensure that their challenge is heard more widely and that others are aware of a different view in the debate. Social media, is, after all, public, and it seems reasonable to invite other people to join a conversation – as long as we are willing to accept a range of views in that conversation.

  4. “Individualism and choice are usually an aspect of right-wing politics; the left tends to focus on what people have in common.”

    I’m not sure if this is entirely true. The Conservative tradition is one that believed in institutions is/was ‘anti rampant individualism’ whilst also opposing the ‘tyranny of the majority’. This might be of interest: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10046562/Edmund-Burke-the-great-conservative-who-foresaw-the-discontents-of-our-era.html

    Arguably, Liberalism and its belief in the individual took over the British Conservative Party from Thatcher onwards… Is this what people mean by ‘neo-Conservative?

    The repositioning of some on the left and right into blue labour/red tory perhaps finds much in common through ideas of community and institutions?

    I wonder if others on the left have used identity politics to talk of the individual as having dominion over their rights which also has echoes in right wing libertarian thought?

    Anyhow, Hannah Arendt saw the classroom as essentially conservative in the sense of conservation a sense of commonality with the past – I suppose this can mean the tradition, whereas some on the left will see tradition as the reason why the world is unfair and that therefore it needs to be broken, replaced with a new way of doing things thus ‘progress’ – a ‘progressive’ way of making things better. Tradition vs progress is a real dichotomy and the playing out of these forces in the classroom is highly political albeit with a small ‘p’. For me, both tradition and progress need to be held together in creative tension and the real danger occurs if one ‘side’ of the argument wins…

    As you say, ‘structures’ are different and this is maybe based on views of economics – two systems of organisation come into the picture: ‘capitalism and markets’ vs ‘social democratic state’ which is how the argument over school organisation seems to be playing out, the ‘third way’ of trying to do both in order to alleviate the effects of political change might be why beyond the rhetoric there is arguably, a certain amount of agreement from politicians in England about Academys etc.

    • David says:

      While Australia and the US have different political dynamics at play in ed reform movements, see this from Terry Moe at the conservative Hoover Institution of Stanford University for a view from the political right that embraces “progressive” ed reforms, as well as the librtarian hopes of “disprupting” education: http://www.hoover.org/research/has-ed-reform-failed

      • It is interesting how the libertarian right and ‘liberal’ thought coincide on technology and other ways of disrupting institutions in order to liberate individuals. This, of course, ignores tradition deliberately and does little to conserve the way things are… Perhaps we should draw some multiple Venn diagrams…?

    • David says:

      You might be interested in Zygmunt Bauman and Riccardo Mazzeo, On Education (Polity Press, 2012)–in one section they discuss “techno-nihilistic capitalism”. This comes from Mauro Magatti, an Italian scholar who wrote about it in his book LIberta imaginaria. I can’t find this in English, but he has an abstract of an article he wrote in 2012 that explains the concept:

      “In the last decades of the twentieth century, a powerful restructuring of capitalism – particularly marked by the set up of a new accumulation phase – has progressively occurred. In this respect, the most crucial elements are represented by a typology of power system based on flexibility and mobility, by the accentuation of technical dimensions – which allow the efficient management of diverse flows -, and by the nihilistic vision – according to which all meanings are malleable. Thereby, the “techno-nihilist capitalist” has arisen as a new form of social life organisation. On the one hand, it has taken form of a collective imaginary able to support the logic underlying the social world structuring, and on the other, it has claimed the identification of freedom with the will of power self-determination based on a highly reductive anthropological idea.”

      Mazzeo asks Bauman about this concept, and he agrees that it is very problematic for our society. He sees it as the “omnivorous capacity of consumer markets, their uncanny capacity to capitalize on any and every human problem, anxiety, apprehension, pain or suffering–their ability to turn every protest and every impact of a ‘countervailing force’ to its advantage and profit.”

      Bauman goes on by pointing to Tim Jackson’s Redefining Prosperity, where Jackson singles out Western culture’s “appetite for novelty” as being the main culprit for putting us on a path of consumerism, materialism and egoism, echoing Hannah Arendt. Baumer ends this part of the discussion by arguing that we need a true cultural revolution to change the path we are on. With regards to education, he states: “However limited the powers of the present education system look, and it is increasingly subject to the consumerist game, it still has enough transformative powers left to be counted among the promising factors for such a revolution.”

  5. David says:

    Since many of our conversations about education deal with the use of technology in the classroom, which in turn devolves into a discussion of pedagogy, I might add a few more rules:

    1. Don’t make the assumption that technology must be in the classroom for good teaching to take place. Good teaching has been happening for centuries without devices.

    2. There are no such things as “digital natives”. See Kirschner and van Merrienboer: http://ocw.metu.edu.tr/pluginfile.php/3298/course/section/1174/Do%20Learners%20Really%20Know%20Best.pdf

    3. Avoid the argument that technological change is inevitable, so teachers must use it to keep up with the times.

    4. Devices are not neutral. Their design and programming reflects a variety of cultural, social and political constructs.

    5. Don’t use the word “disruption” in a conversation about education and technology.

    6. There are no true “21st century skills.” Many such skills identified by these movements take what had been 20th or 19th century skills and add a tech wrinkle. Also, many are specific to the content being taught and do not transfer across different elements of the curriculum.

    7. Media multitasking s not the same thing as doodling.

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