Tag Archives: facts

Katie Hopkins, Denial, and Teaching ‘Critical Thinking’

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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.

Where Gradgrind Got It Right; Teaching the Trivium: On Grammar

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Although I don’t like to talk about it I’ve got a soft spot for Gradgrind. Not exactly a sympathetic character, I know, but let’s look beyond his, er, how shall we say… foibles… for a minute and look at his emphasis on Facts.

“Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.”

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. 

The passage about him that is most often quoted follows… (I have crossed through the bits I disagree with to leave us with a rather kinder Grammarian Gradgrind.)

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

This Gradgrind is of interest, he opens up a world of possibilities, where we teach facts and know they are important. That some facts change or become more or less important with time, that some are deemed to be important by some but are challenged as to their importance by others, does not mean they shouldn’t be taught. Quite the opposite, facts become even more important because of this, without knowing facts we can’t enter into a dialogue about their relative importance.

In English the word fact originally meant an action or a deed, particularly an evil one, a crime. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word began to mean the sense of something being true or to have happened. This, through time became problematised as philosophers and others exposed the difficulties around knowing whether something was true or not, so much so that some people seem to think that the teaching of any fact is some sort of thought crime against which children must be saved. This, maybe, returns us to the original meaning of the word… but, I would say it is an ‘evil’ deed not to teach children facts.

What facts to teach? Some seem to be obvious, the classic times tables and alphabet come to mind but what others?

As a parent, teaching my daughter to ride her bike, I needed to break down the skill of bike riding into its component parts: balancing, pedalling, using the brakes, the facts of the road as well as when things are relatively safe or potentially dangerous. This extends the idea of facts somewhat. I call this the grammar of cycling. Every subject has its grammar, in the Oxford English dictionary it gives this definition Grammar: The basic elements of an area of knowledge or skill: the grammar of wine. As teachers we need to teach this grammar: the knowledge and skills that enable someone to understand the subject. For my ‘Grammarian Gradgrind’ facts become the grammar of a subject.

The national curriculum takes the selection of grammar away from teachers, I think, this is a great error. Teachers should be involved in the breaking down of their subject into its essential grammar, by doing this and in discussion with others, teachers can select knowledge and skills to teach what they believe gives children a fundamental understanding of the subject. This process will be easier for some subjects than others but fundamental nonetheless. It also helps teachers to think about the order in which things should be taught, what needs most emphasis, what can be mentioned in passing and what can be ignored, for now…

‘Grammar, the ‘facts’ of a subject, can be learnt, and can be tested. If the teacher tests for knowledge in a low stakes way over a period of time then it would make sense to teach grammar in a way that satisfies these tests. Testing can help students absorb the ‘facts’ and enable them to be able to draw on their knowledge subsequently in an automatic way. I wrote about this previously here.  By teaching it well, and ensuring it is learnt well, we open the grammar of our subjects up to the more open ended nature of dialectic and rhetoric both of which offer far more difficult challenges to assessors.

There are three terms that can help teachers when deciding what grammar to teach: foundational knowledge, threshold concepts and powerful knowledge. Foundational knowledge is the principles, ideas, skills and facts that keep coming up and without this you cannot ‘do’ the subject. Threshold concepts are central to the mastery of a subject. Powerful knowledge is different to the knowledge that we are likely to come across in our everyday lives and opens up so much more to us. These three areas of ‘grammar’ need to be discussed in subject areas, by teachers. By reflecting on these ideas when constructing our curriculum we can begin to see how we can prioritise certain ‘knowledges’ over others. It is through the continual review of these three strands that a vibrant and thoughtful grammar can be constructed in such a way that Gradgrind might find objectionable but it might actually make his central idea palatable: ‘facts’ are wanted in life…

it’s just a bit more complicated than that…