It’s the ideas, stupid

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People have ideas. So, in a sense, you cannot really separate the people out from the ideas. And this, I believe, is a source of great confusion.

This morning, I was watching Insiders, an Australian TV show that aims to summarise and analyse the week in politics. There was plenty to analyse this week because we have just had a number of byelections. I find these shows frustrating because they inevitably focus on personalities: Will there be a leadership challenge in one of the parties? Who looked silly and fumbled their lines this week? So I almost got out of my seat and applauded when Katharine Murphy made the following observation:

Too many commentators, and I make a point of including the keyboard warriors on Twitter as ‘commentators’, see politics as a pantomine. They want to boo and hiss at the villain and cheer prince charming. This phenomenon has reached such a fever pitch that Julia Baird, host of another politics show, The Drum, felt the need to write an op-ed appealing for calm. In her case, she finds that when representatives of the IPA, a conservative thinktank, appear on her show, they get abused on Twitter, “irrespective of what they actually say”.

Such tribalism is not just foolish, it is deeply misleading. Sitting in your bubble of self-righteousness, you can convince yourself that nobody should vote for Mrs X because Mrs X is the devil incarnate, but then the pesky voters disobey and vote for Mrs X anyway. There then follows much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Academic journals fill with articles asking why the silly voters made the wrong choice and voted for Mrs X. The answer is simple: they were attracted to her ideas; the ideas that commentators have summarily dismissed, at best, and ignored, at worst, as the focus is instead on what Mrs X is wearing or whether she is a representative of her race or gender or whether she wrote a bad thing ten years ago or where she was educated or whether she has just put her foot in her mouth when she said a thing to a person (or, in the case of a man, whether he is fat/bald/pink/orange – highly amusing stuff like that).

We have this tendency in education, too. I’ve seen a number of articles over the past few years wondering about why teachers believe in things like learning styles or cannot appreciate the complexity of research. Again, it is personalised, with discussions about the kinds of cognitive biases these silly people must possess and the psychological tactics we might deploy to subvert those biases.

Yes, it is really hard to change people’s minds and that is a very good thing. Otherwise we would be constantly having frivolous revolutions and we would all belong to a cult. Persuasion is necessarily hard, but the only thing that has ever convinced me that an idea is bad is being exposed to what seems like a better one.

There are some very poor ideas and deepities current in education generally and yet we have some great ideas in our little corner of it. With the advent of social media, we can now talk directly to each other without any mediators or gatekeepers. When teachers and others involved in education hear clear rebuttals of bad ideas and clear explanations of concepts such as limited working memory, explicit instruction and a knowledge rich curriculum, they find these ideas so strong that they often exclaim that they are obvious. So be it. I’ll take that, especially if it spares folks the psychic pain of having to consciously change their minds.

So, forget the manipulation and the personality politics. People are incidental. It’s their ideas that matter. Let’s focus on those.

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