I was never actually taught how to play football at school. We just played it. A lot. Our Physical Education teachers would throw us a ball and we would get on with it. Sometimes, they didn’t even bother to referee and so games would descend into arguments about whether someone had handled the ball and whether it was deliberate. I was never great at learning football by discovery but I did figure out one important thing: Keep your eye on the ball. My ability to keep looking at the ball when an attacker was trying to baffle with tricks and dummies enabled me to become a competent defender. That was my niche.
This is good advice for Edutwitter: Keep your eye on the ball.
The central point of my recent Quillette article was that it is a mistake to think of literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and other constructs as learning progressions that are largely independent of context, in the way that the Gonski 2.0 review does. I explained where I thought this argument comes from and I advanced my alternative view on the basis of my understanding of cognitive science. I suggested that we need to pay much more attention to the knowledge that students learn.
There is plenty to refute here. A critic could attack my understanding of the cognitive science or provide evidence that critical thinking can be taught as a general capability. He or she could dispute my reading of Rousseau or his influence. This would be good for debate. I am under no illusions: It is highly likely that some of my arguments are incomplete, flawed or just plain wrong. So it would help if they were properly tested.
However, despite drawing criticism, I am not aware of anyone refuting the main idea in this way. Instead, I have seen people making comments to the effect that they do not like Quillette or they see Quillette or me as part of some movement they object to. Probably the strongest criticisms of my piece were plain contradictions – i.e. that I am wrong or that the piece was poorly researched – and the objection that I should have included more on the history of Australian education. Neither of these really leads anywhere unless a critic can explain why I am wrong or why my omissions affect my argument.
We are in quite dangerous times when it comes to reasoned debate. I started blogging six years ago. At that time, I don’t recall anyone having their argument dismissed on the basis of their skin colour or gender, and yet, it some quarters, that seems quite legitimate now. Ad hominem is still a logical fallacy but some commentators have embraced it as a badge of honour.
It is not emotional labour to explain why people are wrong. It is not good enough to claim that they have not done their homework. These are just tricks and dummies. If you have done the work and you know something that sheds light on why another person is wrong, then the human thing to do is to share that understanding and not to write people off as others who are somehow beyond redemption.
Look for these tactics in the education debate. Keep your eye on the ball.