Category Archives: Debating in Schools

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

ea3510595ad78596c845f5c417ddfdf0_400x400.jpeg

Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Katie Hopkins, Denial, and Teaching ‘Critical Thinking’

maxresdefault.jpg

AQA state that:

A-level Government and Politics enables students to develop their critical thinking skills and enhance their ability to interpret, evaluate and comment on the nature of politics.

For a teacher this is quite a challenge, especially in ‘politically charged’ days like these. Days in which the ‘politically impartial’ speaker of the House of Commons has found himself in hot water for expressing a preference as to whether Donald Trump should address the Houses of Parliament and stating that he voted for ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. A teacher of politics thinking about developing the political critical thinking skills of her students needs to ensure this critical thinking is sensitive to the values and beliefs of different political traditions. This is hard enough when the values and policies of the two seem to have much in common, it is a much harder task when they don’t.

According to Olga Khazan:

liberals and conservatives… now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences

And, despite many MPs in the Labour Party marching through the same ‘Brexit’ lobby as the Conservative government’s MPs ,the same seems to be at play in the UK.

This distance between the two sides can easily venture into classrooms. A caller to a radio station last Sunday stated that her 17 year old son:

was forced to drop his Government and Politics [A level] after he was “alienated” by fellow pupils for voicing support for Trump during an in-class debate. The concerned mother also said that he was told by the teacher “he shouldn’t have such strong opinions”.

If a teacher and the majority view of the pupils in a class is such that Trump is beyond the pale it might be very difficult for someone with differing views to state their case. That his classmates reportedly shunned him in the next lesson and that this was seemingly supported by the teacher makes it even more worrying. If you can’t have strong opinions in a Government and Politics class, where can you? Maybe the teacher and the classmates need to think about the importance of denial.

The caller was phoning in to the Katie Hopkin’s show on LBC is of note, at the end of the call Hopkins suggested she ‘might go into teaching’, something that might send many teachers into paroxysms of anger. Apparently this sort of response would be quite typical for people of a liberal disposition, our response, whether conservative, liberal or libertarian or a. n. other, to people with whom we disagree tends to be one of complete disbelief, after all our values are the correct ones.

Khazan cites a report by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, who have studied the difficulty in how to persuade people to your way of thinking. She writes:

One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.

Feinberg states:

“We tend to view our moral values as universal… there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”

For someone updating their status on social media this means they usually send out messages that take their own ethical code as being the one that everyone shares, and if someone doesn’t share it then there must be something wrong with them.

If you think Trump, his team and his supporters are a ‘bunch of deplorables’ it might not be the most persuasive language to use if you want to persuade his voters to change their minds. Brexit is another obvious issue with which it is easy to come unstuck and find yourself treating those ‘on the other side’ as if they are completely deluded. The more passionate one feels about an issue the less carefully one might choose one’s language.

For a teacher, in a classroom, if you want to connect with those who do not necessarily share your views it might be worth looking at how you communicate as well as what values you are promoting.

A classroom is a place where emotions matter but it is also a place where the use of reason and reasoning can be taught. As David Hare puts it in his foreword to Denial by Deborah E Lipststadt

“In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are. “

The classroom should not encourage children just to shout off their opinions but be places where opinions are developed through careful thought and analysis of facts and ideas. This would involve the teacher understanding different viewpoints and presenting material, where useful, dialectically. As this article puts it:

Surely [pupils] deserve the opportunity to learn how to think, before a teacher tries to tell them what to think as well.

This seemingly liberal view against teachers indoctrinating kids might seem reasonable enough, until you realise it’s from the Daily Mail and written by the aforementioned Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is a right wing controversialist and the Mail is a newspaper even shunned as a reliable source by Wikipedia, so when I tweeted the article I should have expected a reaction. Most teachers even those agreeing with the sentiment could not see past the Hopkins/Mail concatenation. Not all opinions are equal but for some this is due to who utters them and where, rather than what the opinion might be.

The film of ‘Denial’ shows this brilliantly, as much as someone might hate the words of David Irving because of who he is, in the court of law it came clear that the battle over what is said is more important than the battle around their character. If we are teaching about such things it would be important to show how the teacher should not say ‘Irving is evil’, no matter what their personal viewpoint might be. They might speculate as to his motives, but the most important part of the lessons should be about the facts of the case as presented. A great lesson in how to think forensically rather than purely emotionally, the film shows how difficult this can be and also how all involved are emotional beings and that this is an important part of what makes us all too human it might sometimes get in the way of ‘truth’.

If not all opinions are equal this cannot be based on what we ‘feel’ about those facts but on how we examine, analyse and use persuasive argument to see which opinions count for more. These opinions will sometimes, perhaps often, not reflect our own. We have to ‘deny’ our own feelings. This denial can be very important.

In a Government and Politics class, it shouldn’t be the initial opinions of the teacher, or the children, that matter. It should, however, be about discovering about where ideas come from. We might ‘feel’ our moral sentiments are universal (some of them might be) but we need to look at how other people might differ. Rhetoric can be carefully constructed to persuade those who disagree with us to think about what we might have to say with sympathy. The course could also look at the darker arts of politics: The Prince or, even, House of Cards, but most of all it should look at how to have educated opinions, how to muster arguments, empathise with your opponents, yet be able to argue with them respectfully, eloquently and thoughtfully and perhaps, even, sometimes change their minds. Articulating opinions sometimes needs the act of denial in order to make them stronger.

On Milo and Free Speech in Schools

screen-shot-2016-07-22-at-11-11-16-am.png

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. JS Mill

This week saw Milo Yiannopoulos banned after discussions with the DfE’s Counter Extremism Unit from speaking at his old school, the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, a school from which he was expelled eleven years ago. Apparently the concern was that there might have been demonstrations against him that might have got out of hand and the reputation of the school might be harmed in some way. Meanwhile, in Scotland, (Gorgeous) George Galloway who had spoken at  Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire that morning was later ‘attacked’ (Glitter Bombed) by a group of five people led, according to Galloway by a ‘Trans and an anarchist’, at a speaking event at the University of Aberdeen.

As Galloway said:

Few weeks go by when the ‘identity politics’ crowd don’t strike one campus or another either physically or with their ‘no platform’ demands.

Galloway is right, there are too many people who rather than argue and debate with people wish to close down debate entirely and whether they are groups of demonstrators or state agencies we should do whatever we can to ensure free speech in our places of learning.

Katie Hopkins wrote in the Daily Mail (check your personal triggers at this point) that:

Rather than let the 220 pupils who had signed up to hear him speak, listen, challenge him and make up their own minds, it was decided that exposing pupils to anything other than a liberal viewpoint could be damaging.

Hopkins has a point when she says that too many, so called ‘liberals’ are:

The… champions of diversity who will not tolerate diversity of thought or opinion.

This is an important point. If children in our schools, who can access a wide range of opinions online, are unable to access a range of thoughts, ideas and opinions when at school and are able to see how these ideas stack up under scrutiny then are they being educated properly?

But there is a problem with extreme views, they are not ‘harmless’.

In the Guardian the murderer of Jo Cox MP, Thomas Mair, was described in the following way:

Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.

Mair accessed his local library’s computers, looking up such things as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. His hatred fuelled by his reading and his reclusiveness.

If we were to apply Mill’s principles on Liberty to Mair, we would have to make a decision about what point someone becomes a danger to others. This is a judgement call and would also necessitate some form of scrutiny of a person’s private life in order to ascertain whether they might be a danger.

David Aaronovitch pointed out in this week’s Times:

I have yet to come across an example of a public figure murdered by a mad liberal whose home was found to be stocked with books by John Stuart Mill and covered in slogans calling for proportional representation

The centre must hold. There are certain aspects of a person’s views that might alert us to further problems. This is where ‘society’ takes a view but one in which it can overreach itself, Mill, again:

when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right; or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.  

Those who call for a no platform have a point, we know people have been radicalised  by hate preachers and fundamentalist Muslim extremism and far right extremism are two of the most obvious dangers to our way of life but is that a good enough reason to ban Milo from speaking at his old school?

No. There is considerable difficulty at the heart of Mill’s liberal utilitarianism, but it is not, in his view, for the State to make moral judgements about us unless those actions are going to harm others. The school invited Milo and wished to question him about his views, this is clearly not a school in which pupils will be brainwashed by his ideas and then go on to do harm to others. That his views can be easily found online, often in the context of having little scrutiny means that they would probably have had a ‘safer’ space in which to analyse his thinking than they do now as the talk failed to materialise. The idea that the school which expelled Milo would have some harm done to its reputation is ridiculous and if potential demonstrations are a problem then it’s for the police to ensure freedom of speech is upheld as a principle as far as is possible.

It is the danger of views not being open to scrutiny that should worry us more. The more we can argue with those with whom we disagree the better. That some are a danger to others is not the argument, we know this and these people should be dealt with before they can do harm to others. If only Mair could have been prevented from carrying out his disgusting crime, the better for us all.

If anything, more schools should be inviting the likes of Milo and Galloway to speak to their pupils, however, it might be better that schools forgo the idea of having people  ‘preach’ to their pupils and ensure, instead, that equally eloquent speakers are pitched against them. Debate specific issues, invite these people to make their argument in the context of the topic of your choice and through the discipline of a formal debate so that their views can be tied down and exposed to forensic examination.

It’s the hiding away of views or the exposure to unchallenged platitudes that can foment more trouble.