Tricks and dummies

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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.


2 thoughts on “Tricks and dummies

  1. Greg,
    I think it is worth you articulating the dangers you refer to here and perhaps what to do to avoid them. For example, an Ad-hominem tends to work well to elicit a emotionally defensive reaction and even a tit for tat. The net result to any third party is both sides look bad or depending on the third parties disposition either one side can look bad. Antidote – call them on the Ad-hominem argument but only to bring the focus back to the actual issue.

    Another technique sometimes hidden in an ad-hominem is whataboutism – where you are at fault by not considering something else that is deemed far more important. A valid answer to this is to credit the other side with a complete win on this score – they are doing such a great job covering that issue that you feel you can make a better use of your time on the issue you are tackling.

    Sometimes there may be a real conflict of two competing demands. Inquiry verses instruction is a good case. Here you focus on the area you see as a deficit but I think it would help your case to add a regular update on how you would avoid the pendulum swinging too far. We see this in Canada where the proponents of more instruction in math give a 80/20 guideline for DI verses enquiry. This forces the other side to either stay vague and less convincing or come up with their own guideline.

  2. Iain Murphy says:

    “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.”

    Greg, I respect your thoughts but have you been living under a rock. I would accept the statement it has got worse or more transparent but you can’t believe that sexism and racism are the product of the last 6 years?

    The name calling has got worse, which is awful. One of the reasons I enjoy your blog is that your readers or moderators or the fact that you require a name and email to comment, limits this low brow retaliation. But to suggest it isn’t prevalent in academic circles or society seems naive.

    Your work is exemplar in its research (don’t always agree, but that’s the point) and I guess many “reviewers” don’t engage at a similar level, you can only hope to raise the bar of public discussion by sticking to your resolve and not engaging with baseless rhetoric. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same morales.

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