How to win an argument in education

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When the world didn’t end in a great flood as predicted on the 21st December 1954, the followers of Dorothy Martin were presented with a thorny problem. Many had given away money or left partners in order to be rescued by flying saucers from the planet Clarion. Rather than deal with the reality of being horribly, foolishly wrong, cult members largely doubled-down and became even stronger believers: The devotion of the cult had caused the aliens to save Earth instead of letting it be destroyed.

Leon Festinger and his colleagues predicted this outcome when they infiltrated the cult in a study that gave birth to Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. People, it seems, will tell themselves all sorts of untruths rather than deal with the pain of being wrong.

This does not provide much hope for those who seek to influence the education debate away from early twentieth century romanticism and towards a more rational evaluation of evidence. Evidence is simply not enough: The flying saucers didn’t come? No drama, that just proves how right we were.

But I’ll give you two reasons for hope.

Firstly, there are those rare individuals with more than their share of humility and intelligence who do change their minds. 

Secondly, we mustn’t forget the others. 

Sometimes, it is tempting to see the education debate as taking place between two distinct parties on Twitter and in blogs. Most of the active participants are deeply committed to their cause. After my recent post on constructivism was tweeted by a U.K. minister there was something of a furore. One progressive educator suggested I was making snide comments for the purpose of self-promotion. It makes much more sense that I am a bad guy than that I might be writing what I actually think and that I might have a point.

Few of my critics deal with the points I make. You might have noticed that.

And so to these others. Who are they? They are people like you who are not particularly committed to a position but who like reading posts and thinking about teaching. They are the ones who dip in to Twitter and read a few articles with an open mind. It is these people who will change education, and change it for the better.

That’s how the argument will be won.


5 thoughts on “How to win an argument in education

  1. Greg, some years ago I did a post graduate diploma in education and after a module I was sold on constructivism. I never questioned it as I should. For whatever reason I thought this is it. And then I ran into your blog about direct teaching and recently the constructivism post. I cannot say i fully understand the matter but i have a more skeptical view. I have questions. I will continue reading, especially the evidence you share, the papers etc. I’ve given direct instruction a new place in my teaching. I want to thank you very much for what you do. That you help a few question their own assumptions and practice suggest to me you’re doing fine.

  2. One question before I continue: Which education debate? There are so many.

    How to win an argument in education (or seemingly win an argument in education): have a bigger pocket book (unfortunately).

    I was broadly pondering this question (or a similar version of it, somewhat politically speaking) today, after having a busy weekend with family, friends, and acquaintances across the education spectrum. In this instance, people fell into two categories: A) the people who have gone to school or have children in school, and therefore are experts B) the people who see others with lots of money to throw at problems in education, as opposed to communicating (sometimes arguing) in order to better understand why the problems exist in the first place. Either way, these two groups of people seem to have all the answers to win the various arguments and debates regarding education.

    I apologize for the ramblings. I just thought it was interesting that I was cogitating on something similar today (through a different lens).

    Also, I enjoyed your blog on chasing the constructivist rainbow. As I develop a better sense of human cognitive architecture, the more I question constructivism (or various teaching approaches for that matter.)

  3. I’m one of those people, Greg.

    I took heart from Tom Alegounarias’ speech (link below) last year:

    ‘Evidence-based practice relies essentially on a modernist, scientific ethos. The ethos applies equally to developing effective policy as it does to teacher practice. The ethos is this: the expectation that another professional having regard to the same evidence will likely come to the same conclusion.’

    Now, I think we might have a way to go before we can look at the same evidence and have the same conclusion in some areas, but this is the aim. I think Tom Bennett’s proposal to increase literacy for research methodology in teachers is crucial.

    Thanks for being something of an Atlas – with young children I don’t have the time to break down the validity or reliability issues with much of the ‘evidence’ particular positions are relying on. That you are willing to do this on a regular basis has helped me believe my exhausted, undignified years teaching constructively might one day be a distant memory :).


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