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Criticising the Obviously Wrong

November 4, 2013

One of the most difficult challenges in a debate is when somebody is so obviously wrong that it becomes difficult to see how they can be corrected. Most efforts to argue against a position are ultimately efforts to change how people see that position; to highlight flaws or to identify arguments used to support it as fallacious. If the flaws in a position are already clear, or the arguments supporting transparently fallacious, then it is hard to identify what more needs to be done. I think I may have fallen afoul of this in my last blogpost.

In my account of what I did during half term, which really wasn’t arguing for any particular position, I mentioned opinions from panellists in an education discussion that I felt, from the point of view of a classroom teacher, were somewhere between “hard to justify” and “obviously wrong” and showed the panellists to be out of touch. I didn’t attempt to demonstrate why those positions were problematic, I assumed this would be obvious to my readership. Clearly I was mistaken.

This post challenges me over my attitude. Now there’s a lot of stuff in it to object to. An audience member objecting to Tom Bennett’s tone is considered particularly striking, even though this is one of the weakest arguments against a position possible. Also, the author who finds it “odd” that I was dismissive of some panellists is equally dismissive of Tom Bennett and his recent book on education research. Most of all, a lot of it is simply an argument from authority. How dare I dismiss “the expertise of a panel with a combined 250 years or so of relevant work experience” one of whom has an OBE? Why don’t I “Start by seeking to engage with and learn from the immense output of the academic education research community, instead of painting them as a tribe of irrelevant dinosaurs who need to make way for the tribe of tweeting teachers who shoot from the hip and take no prisoners, baby”?

Now some of this is simply a straw man about how I feel regarding academics. I am engaged with the work of education researchers. The opinions I heard from the panel made me want to engage more. (Seriously, if anyone has any recommendations as to where I could do a funded PhD in education, please tell me now). I did not go there with an attitude of hostility to academics or a belief that all education research is terrible (although a lot of it is). I had even read and enjoyed a book by one of the professors. However, there is a problem in education research that there is no agreement over epistemology; no identified methodology which we can expect educationalists to use. That does mean one can never assume beforehand that an educationalist has ever paid any attention to the logic of, or empirical evidence for, their position in a way we might expect from academics in some other fields. But while that means I have no time for the argument from authority in education, that doesn’t mean I dismiss everything said by educationalists a priori, and one of the panel seemed to have a solid grounding in economic and statistical methods which added plausibility to her opinions. This isn’t about my attitude to academics affecting my respect for their opinions. It is the other way round: I had commented on how their opinions affected my respect for academics. As for those opinions which I found to go beyond the realm of common sense, I will defend my rejection of them a little further here.

”One panellist declared that the students should be in charge of education”

I still find this position absurd and find no “context” to justify it in any way. If there is an argument for this beyond the usual 70s deschooling rhetoric or the belief that children are natural saints then I’d be grateful to hear it. When people have tried to write up a more detailed argument for it, I have been known to point out the flaws in more detail. Now I admit that in finding this obviously wrong I am appealing to the direct experience of schools and classrooms where the students were in charge and the times I have seen this power used to thwart the aim of educating children. I am aware of the literature seeking to justify this position, but I am also aware of its incoherence and absurdity. Robin Barrow’s book Radical Education does a good job of pointing out the former, while experience does a lot to highlight the latter. More importantly, I am aware of how much this literature rejects any commonly held notion of what education is. But I still think the key point here is that the position is not remotely plausible to anybody who has enough experience of the chalkface to have seen what happens when children depose adults and I don’t hesitate to call the position out of touch and I don’t apologise for the assumption that classroom teachers will find it to be out of touch.

“and that Estelle Morris was the best of the recent education secretaries.”

This is an argument I have had before. The simple fact of the matter is that Estelle Morris quit being education secretary, after relatively little time, because she felt she wasn’t up to it. Nobody at the time seemed to think she was coping well. It is hard to think of any solid achievement in that time. Of course it might be possible to argue that an apparent failure was in fact, for obscure reasons I have never thought of, one of the best in much the same way as a friend of mine likes to insist that Octopussy is the best James Bond film. However, little argument is ever forthcoming for either claim. The usual arguments for Estelle Morris’ s greatness (including the reasons given by the panellist) tend to be that she had been a teacher, or had the right attitude. However, no amount of personal experience or personal qualities can make somebody a success if they are in the absence of any actual achievements. Liking Estelle Morris or thinking that somebody like Estelle Morris could be a good education secretary no more implies that she was a good education secretary than liking Octopussy, or thinking a film like Octopussy could have been good, implies that Octopussy won the Academy Award for best picture. Demonstrable failure cannot be ignored in favour of personal preferences or counterfactuals. Until making little change then quitting is the established criteria of quality in education secretaries, I don’t hesitate to declare that in this case it takes someone out of touch to make the above claim.

“Another warned that teachers were scared of expressing their views on Twitter because of the@toryeducation Twitter account”

For some reason the second part of this was cut when quoted in the blogpost I am replying to. I had continued with

“…which is presumably why you never see anybody criticising Michael Gove on Twitter”

There’s little to add to why I thought this was ridiculous beyond clarifying that I don’t defend @toryeducation; in fact I’ve been known to argue with him/them.

As for the rest, and the talk of “depoliticising” education, I think it all comes down to my preference for democracy over dictatorship. I don’t claim there is such a thing as a “mandate” for every single policy a politician carries out. I do not claim that a dictator cannot be benevolent or enlightened. I simply prefer to have ultimate control of policy in the hands of those who are part of the political debate and engaged, to some degree, in the practice of winning votes. I don’t think it guarantees good policy or the best expertise, I merely think that it is the only fair way to resolve problems which stem from conflicting values. Both the compromises of a committee and the impartial recommendations of a supposedly neutral expert seek to minimise open disagreement. I think that in a democracy disagreement over fundamental values should be open and obvious. If somebody cannot say openly to the public “this is what I believe” then they cannot be trusted with power over the public. Politics may not always conform perfectly to this ideal (particularly in education), but it is preferable to government by stealth. I have seen what happens in education when major policies are implemented without open debate. No politician declared that badly behaved students shouldn’t be excluded; no minister defended Assessing Pupil Progress at the despatch box, and no elected figure decided that lessons were inadequate if they didn’t involve groupwork. Yet these decisions were made without debate; without accountability; without even a clear idea of who was responsible for them. I don’t always agree with politicians, but at least I know who I have to persuade when I do disagree with them: either them or the voters. Committees often hide who is actually making decisions and for what reasons. Those who hide their ideological agenda behind a claim of technical expertise are often impossible to reason with; far worse than any politician who at least has an electoral motive to engage with the lay person. More on this argument can be found here.

This is in danger of becoming a big discussion over what is actually a fairly small point. When I find people in the staffroom arguing that the students should be in charge; when I see politicians whose ultimate aim is to achieve nothing and then quit; when I find education debate on Twitter to be dominated by card-carrying Tories, then I will find the comments I criticised to be plausible. Until then I will stick to my opinion that they showed people who were terribly out of touch with what they were talking about, and I will resist wholeheartedly any suggestion we should give those people more power.

7 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. You could almost certainly provide the entirety of this blog as the basis for a PHD and have it accepted.


    • I would be interested to read the methodology chapter.


    • This will be from a little known US University for a fee of approximately 25,000 GBP. Any educational establishment that actually required to see the material might be a little more problematic.


      • £25k sounds like a bargain by today’s standards!


  3. […] Andrew Old’s thoughtful response to my last letter, here are some further reflections on the matter. In the interests of continuity with the last […]


  4. […] few weeks ago, in a post about educationalists and their opinions, I made the following […]



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