The Three Main Debating Strategies of Behaviour Crisis DenialistsJuly 17, 2011
I spend far too long engaged in an activity I call “arguing with idiots on the internet”. I love it. I’ll argue over anything: religion, politics, who was the best Doctor Who, and sometimes I’ll even argue about things where there isn’t a plainly obvious right answer. But fairly often I end up talking about education. And inevitably the issue of the Behaviour Crisis comes up. And I have come to notice that the same three tactics are used continually by those who wish to deny what’s going on in our classrooms. They are so common that I think they are worth commenting on in detail.
1) The Circumstantial Ad Hominem. “Playing the man not the ball” is pretty standard for arguments on the internet, but for Behaviour Crisis denialists it tends to take two forms. The first is political. It is suggested that belief in The Behaviour Crisis must stem from either a political belief, or at the very least faith in reports that appear in a newspaper with a particular belief. This is not a terribly successful ploy to try with me (I don’t vote Conservative, read the Daily Mail or support corporal punishment) but I see this tactic used frequently. Ironically, it is particularly common from people who show plenty of signs of being blinded by ideology themselves. The second circumstantial ad hominem is based on our culture rather than my politics. Apparently people are prone to think that the young are behaving badly. Sometimes this is supported by a few bogus quotations from other eras to suggest that such feeling is something that cultures go through (see myth 3 here). Sometimes the phrase “moral panic” is used, but no strict guidance is ever forthcoming as to the difference between a genuine problem and a moral panic. It is perhaps an irregular verb: I have a legitimate concern; you have an agenda; he has a moral panic. Of course, the single biggest reason for finding it absurd that my views about the state of our schools is a product of political or cultural indoctrination is the fact that I am a teacher and see the truth first hand, although it is not unknown for people to suggest that I’m not really a teacher. (The ad hominems that acknowledge that I am a teacher I have dealt with elsewhere on my blog).
2) The Intertemporal Straw Man. This argument involves taking the claim that behaviour is bad and reinterpreting it as a claim that behaviour has got worse. Now I tend to believe classroom behaviour has got worse since, say, the 1960s for reasons I gave here (and because of the weakness of the arguments I have seen for the alternative hypothesis). However, I don’t think we can be precise; people who seek to attach the decline to one particular government or one particular education secretary are not convincing to me and I couldn’t even identify a particular decade or generation where the problem started. But what really strikes me about this line of argument is its complete irrelevance. If effective education is being obstructed by behaviour then what does it matter when the problem reached its current scale? When I look at American sources I get the impression that their behaviour crisis is a lot older than ours, but it doesn’t change my belief that it is a real problem. This argument is an effort to change the subject and we should not accept the Behaviour Crisis as an acceptable state of affairs whether it is recent or ancient. We know from other countries and good schools that it is not an inevitable and it is no more acceptable if it is a long term chronic condition than if it is a recent ailment.
3) Selectively Applied Criteria for Rejecting Evidence.
The main reason we know there is a Behaviour Crisis is because we can go and see it by visiting schools. We can ask other teachers about it. We can go on to teachers forums and see what teachers say about it. We can look at surveys of teachers which describe it. Now, it would take a conspiracy theory of staggering implausibility to explain why it is so easy to find so many witnesses to a phenomenon which didn’t exist. We can find witnesses without really trying. Almost everybody knows somebody who quit teaching because of The Behaviour Crisis. Witnesses are everywhere and it is far from clear why any of them would lie. By contrast the voices who claim to have seen something different in our schools, while vocal and prominent, are overwhelmingly unreliable. Establishment figures of one sort or another (SMT, OFSTED, educationalists, consultants, even union leaders) who would be blamed for the problem if they were to admit it existed.
What counts as evidence for a belief is a complicated philosophical issue. Different disciplines have different standards. What is evidence for a historian is not the same as evidence for a doctor or for a mathematician. It is always possible to find different criteria for accepting evidence, and so it is very easy to manufacture reasons to be sceptical of anything one does not want to believe. The evidence of the Behaviour Crisis is, inevitably, at some level based on what teachers have reported. So the two most common tactics are to suggest that what teachers see with their own eyes is either “anecdotal”, “unrepresentative”, or both.
Of course, the claim that evidence of the Behaviour Crisis is at some level anecdotal is obviously true. All experience of ordinary life is anecdotal in the sense that we report it rather than have it measured by a machine or described by a unanimous committee of observers. This shouldn’t mean we disregard it. They’d be no recorded history if all eye witness accounts were to be ignored a priori, rather than analysed and compared with other accounts and evidence. Our lives are generally not recorded or validated by the authorities. Not all reports can be believed, but the idea that all reports provide no evidence is to assume that people are incapable of accurately reporting their experiences, which might be true in some areas of life, but seems a pretty implausible assumption when it comes to describing our classrooms.
Ironically, the suggestion that evidence is “unrepresentative” is usually simply asserted without evidence. Statistical language is often used to obfuscate. Now, obviously, any evidence collected can be biased by the method of selection. Equally obviously, all sampling provides only an estimate of the attributes of the entire population. Neither of these concerns is a major problem if what you are investigating is questions such as “what is normal in our schools?” or “what is common in our schools?” We can allow an enormous margin of error for the answers to these questions. For behaviour to be a big problem in education it doesn’t matter if it is disrupting teaching in 15% of our classrooms or 100%. We can’t afford to write off a large chunk of our education system into ineffectiveness, particularly as problems with behaviour are not likely to be evenly spread across the education system affecting primary as much as secondary, selective as much as comprehensive and private as much as state run. Once this is acknowledged most claims to evidence being “unrepresentative” become ridiculous as a statistical argument. In my experience, such discussions usually reveal that the denialist has some basic misconceptions about statistics, such as believing that a large population size makes a sample less representative, that small samples can tell us nothing at all, or that the risk of bias in sampling cannot be accounted for in statistical calculations.
Of course, the Behaviour Crisis denialists never adopt the extreme sceptical position to any area of life where there is evidence which supports their own beliefs. (I tried applying their sceptical principles more widely here.) Normally they fall apart when asked to say clearly under what circumstances they would listen to teachers. It is easy to make rhetorical points about being devoted to the evidence, but far harder to justify ignoring people with obviously legitimate concerns. At its most extreme this form of scepticism is used to suggest that it is outrageously “unscientific” for politicians to believe what voters tell them about their experiences. It does not take much reflection to realise the implications for democracy if voters are to be routinely ignored, and it is not surprising that many Behaviour Crisis denialists will call for education to be “taken out of politics” or, in other words, taken out of democratic control.