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What’s Essential in the Education Debate Part 2: Reason

December 7, 2013

In my previous post I considered the importance of valuing truth in making arguments in the education debate. Here, I look at the importance of reason, and in particular, how vital it is to disagreeing with a claim.

As well as those who have no enthusiasm for truth in education debate, there are also those with no particular regard for rational argument. At its core, the issue is still the same one of truth. If claims are contradictory, arguments fallacious or inferences poorly thought out then false claims can be supported as easily as true ones. Those expecting to argue over education should be familiar with the most common informal fallacies, or at the very least be willing to look them up when required, yet I still encounter those who think it unfair or underhand to point out that their argument is invalid. There are even those who think it particularly unfair if the fallacy has a Latin name like “tu quoque” or “ad hominem” as if one’s mistakes are somehow acceptable if the name for them was established at a time when Latin was more widely used.

In particular, if you wish to challenge something it is vital to know what is, or isn’t, rational grounds for disagreeing. In my experience, the most useful and convenient tool for providing a simple reminder of how to argue rationally against something, is the essay How to Disagree by Paul Graham and the following graphic summarising it:

Designed for the internet age and ranking methods of disagreement according to their rationality, this seems a particularly good starting point for education debate as it is common to see some of the lowest forms of disagreement dominating debate. Here I will start from the bottom of the triangle and work my way upwards, exploring how it is particularly relevant to debate in education.

Name-Calling: Probably the most obviously flawed form of “debate” but common in education discourse, particularly on the internet where it is usually the method of first resort for trying to shut somebody up immediately they appear. The general rule in education appears to be that, as long as you aim it at the right target (usually Michael Gove, but sometimes Michael Wilshaw), abuse is utterly acceptable. Expressions of hatred, usually abusive, aimed at Michael Gove have become so common that Frank Furedi coined the term Govephobia for it. Beyond the colourful phrases thrown at Michael Gove though, but it is hardly rare to see insults thrown at anyone who dares dissent from the progressive line. Complaints about advocates of knowledge being “Gradgrinds”, Victorian or from the 1950s fit firmly into this category often apparently in the belief that it constitutes an argument in itself.

Ad Hominem: This type of argument is one which ignores the content of what somebody says in order to describe why they might hold the opinion. It is of no validity as an argument in that who happens to say something does not tell you if it is true or not. Unfortunately, this line of argument, although considered ridiculous in many academic disciplines, is common in education. (As an example, it is staggering that an article like this could be written by a professor in any academic discipline.) There are “critical” readings of education policies and beliefs which seem to pigeon-hole the opinions of others according to ideology and position rather than truth or reason, there is also a conspiracy theorist mentality which claims to know what is really behind any given policy. The political right are accused of wanting to privatise everything, and the political left of wanting to dumb down, regardless of what is actually being proposed. Sometimes people put such effort and ingenuity into labelling and “explaining” the hidden motives of others that you end up wondering what they could achieve if they actually addressed what people actually said. So common is the ad hominem argument in education debate that people who take part in it anonymously through social media are often seen as having an unfair advantage and attacked for being anonymous in debates which have precisely nothing to do with personal experience.

Responding to Tone: If there is nothing wrong with what somebody has said, it is common to simply attack either the fact that they said it or the way that they said it. Tone is notoriously difficult to judge on social media and people often interpret rudeness where there is none, particularly if they are not used to the sort of debate where people express opinions freely. We all, also, interpret people’s tone in light of what we already know or think about them, However, and this goes beyond debate on social media, the worst objection to tone argument used in education is to describe arguments against an opinion or practice as an attack on a person. So common on it that it has almost become received wisdom that certain individuals (Gove or Wilshaw again) keep “attacking teachers”. Virtually any criticism of anything anyone does in education, no matter how many teachers would agree whole-heartedly with the criticism, can be reframed as an attack on teachers or a teacher. We are then encouraged not to support the attack on teachers (or a teacher). Two recent examples of this were Sir Michael Wilshaw’s criticisms of heads and governors who use stress as an excuse for doing their job badly and Michael Gove’s criticisms of a website suggesting that year 11s write about the rise of Hitler in the form of a Mr Men book. The former was presented as a claim that teachers in general are not subject to stress; the latter as a personal attack on the creator of the website.

Contradiction: This is the point at which we move from worthless arguments to one that may have some limited value. So much of our education culture is based on accepting the assumptions of progressive education as if they are uncontroversial that simply telling the truth, without an argument, can have an impact. Certainly, one of the most positive reactions I get from some people about my blog is “I hadn’t realised we could think those things”. Contradiction is, for this reason, not without value. It can be enough to get somebody thinking and to realise that they are wrong. More importantly, it is vital in cases where something is falsely presented as uncontroversial. In this blogpost I listed the following claims that are often simply assumed to be uncontroversial, where actually arguments against them exist:

  1. Children learn better when they are happy.
  2. A good lesson is entertaining.
  3. Good lessons result in good behaviour.
  4. Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher.
  5. Lessons need a variety of activities.
  6. Learning will result from discussion between students.
  7. Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives.
  8. Knowledge and understanding can be distinguished and taught separately.
  9. Children like using technology.
  10. If you teach well, your students will like you.

In cases such as these it can be useful simply to say that some disagree. However, in the case where we are already aware that a particular claim is controversial merely expressing contrary views adds nothing. Worse, if too many people do so, it can look like an attempt to drown out the views of the opposing side.

Counter-argument: A lot of the time people simply haven’t heard the arguments for the opposing positions. There are certain positions, supported by solid arguments, which are, in themselves, a counter-argument to a lot of what you hear in the education debate. Blogs are very often useful for this, as a place to collate arguments over particular points that you know other arguments might depend on. So for instance, I might refer back to back blogposts such as It’s Not Just Me as a counter-argument to claims that poor behaviour is rare or to What OFSTED Actually Want as a counter-argument to claims that we are free to teach as we like. And sometimes, if something’s cited often enough, it is worth collecting the counter-arguments together in a blogpost. However, there is probably one link that I use more than any other; one resource that everyone needs to be familiar with before they can make an informed argument about teaching. This 2006 paper “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching” by Kirschner et al is a counter-argument to most progressive education theories. Whether it is convincing or not is, of course, open to debate but the argument it makes is one that, if accepted demolishes, countless other arguments.

Refutation/Refuting the Central Point: I’ll deal with these together next time, as they are the same thing varying only by how well-targeted they are.

7 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Nicely clear – a good exposition of some of the principles of Critical Thinking. I teach these to students, but unfortunately also experience the widespread failure to understand them at a professional level. Many times have I come across, “I hadn’t thought of it like that before” – and not only from children. It’s scary, the degree to which some in positions of authority in education simply do no want to hear any dissent – and even scarier how many others are prepared to go along with that.


    • Experienced Critical Thinkers found it extremely difficult to survive the PGCE course I was on – all of us fighting the obvious nonsense we were _required_ to deliver, include in our copious lesson plans and extol the virtues of in our assignments.

      We were forced to cope with extreme cognitive dissonance, and that’s extremely stressful.

      Those who swallowed it hook, line and sinker, had a much easier time of it. They probably sailed through their Induction periods too and many will now be heads of department or have moved on to leadership positions.


  3. There is no ‘absolute truth’ nor is there ‘pure reason’ – other than as articles of religious faith. If we want to ground education theory in material reality, we must recognise that both truth (that which one believes to be the case) and reason (the conscious application of logic) are socially and historically conditioned concepts.

    You deride Professor Barker for using Gove’s personal history to undermine his ideas, while actually Barker wasn’t doing that at all. Barker was countering Gove’s idealised and one-sided interpretation of his own personal history (which Gove himself had used to justify his policies) by exposing the reality of that history.


    • Putting words like “absolute” and “pure” in front of truth and reason seem to add nothing other than to suggest a more extreme view than that which is being put forward, perhaps a claim to infallibility or omniscience. Not sure where religion comes into it, I can certainly think of atheists who claim to know the truth of certain matters (when was the last time you heard Richard Dawkins say “well I can’t decide, there’s lots of good arguments on both sides”?) I’m also not sure why you have put a phrase in brackets next to truth that is clearly not a definition of “truth “and is more like a definition of “opinion”.

      If you want to deny that truth exists then go ahead, but you would then need to explain whether your claim that it doesn’t exist is true or not, at which point the whole argument would fall apart. Reason does, of course, have it’s socially determined methods, conventions and applications. However, the idea that this is all there is to it is pretty hard to accept. What about the law of negation? What about mathematics? Are these merely cultural artifacts?


  4. These comments seem to be representing one of my least favourite forms of argument, the unsupported idiomatic accusation. Cliched phrases and mixed metaphors become damning assertions or clever rebuttals. The meaning of phrases like “fighting obvious nonsense” or “absolute truth” or “if we want to ground educational theory in material reality” seem vague. And then there are the sporting idioms like ” level playing field” or ” down to the wire” or “moving the goal posts”. They are used all the time and I often feel none the wiser after the waters have been muddied.


  5. […] Teaching in British schools « What’s Essential in the Education Debate Part 2: Reason […]



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