The Queensberry rules of Educational Arguments: we want a clean fight, may the best man win!

My main impression of ResearchEd 2014 was formed by Andrew Old’s talk on how to argue.

Everything I thought after it was structured along the lines set out. It seems to me this was the most apposite educational talk I have ever heard, placed as it was in this stage of the debate to that audience.

It seems we may have passed a tipping point where people are no longer satisfied with what we are doing in education unless we can show them the evidence it works, trouble is in almost all areas we can’t because we haven’t got much.

This is all very embarrassing and we are all rather intimidated and unsure about how to go about building the evidence base. This all means debates in education are fraught and are likely to get more so as the stakes have been raised and are only likely to get raised still higher, but to deal with this we need to get some agreement within the industry between educators and researchers, and pronto!

Trouble is there not much agreement and a lot of discussions do not have decisive outcomes where any clear progress gets made. How discussions are conducted matter a great deal if we want the outcome to represent something meaningful about the relative underlying merits of the opposing camps rather than their ability to appear to win. Many adversarial circumstances evolved rules for themselves because without them the point of the endeavour gets lost in a sea gamesmanship. Boxing used to be a pretty low down nasty affair where a weaker opponent could defeat a stronger in all sorts of dirty tricks. However, audiences really wanted to see who the better fighter was and felt unsatisfied if the weaker won by nefarious means unrelated to skill, strength and courage. So boxing introduced rules so the winner was more likely to be the better boxer.

Andrew Old I think was trying to encourage the Queensberry rules in education debates. He listed his view of the most common dirty tricks he’s seen in education debates, as veteran of the ring he seems qualified to notice the pulling of a fast one. I have tried to memorise his list and understand it for myself. I feel great service would be done allowing us clearer view of how to achieve better learning if everyone else would too.

Eye gouging – Equivocation – I think of this as prevarication, refusing to accept your opponents meaning and terms and asking them to refine down all the statements in their arguments indefinitely, ultimately never agreeing any of the definitions they are using. One effect of this is to ware down your opponent without ever sounding like you agree with a single word they say.
Head butting – Evoking authority to back up a position – saying that status, previous track record, prestige of one camp implies whether the specific argument they are making stands up to reason – that Dylan Wiliam is right about anything because he is Dylan Wiliam.
Biting – Ad hominem – implying that some attribute of the identity of an opponent or sources of evidence that is not related to argument being made is important in the veracity of point at issue –even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.
Hitting Below the Belt – Obfuscation – clouding the issue using words and concepts that aren’t commonly known or agreed. This is particularly easy if you use technical terms or phases used in field of study that your opponent may not be familiar with, or terms and concepts that your opponent does not accept.

Take your best shot! – More positively rather than cheating to win Andrew Old extolled us to see the fight a noble sport designed to make sure the best reasoning wins. He suggests a good way to do this is let you opponent take his best shot. This is to try to see the strongest side to the opponents’ argument and overcome that, then you can truly say you have won. In 1985, in what many regard as the best boxing match in history ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler overcame Thomas ‘The Hitman’ Herns by being the first man to stay standing after a clean right hand from the Hitman, leaving all observers and fighters feeling they knew who was the better boxer. Thomas Herns broke his right hand!
Much more pleasantly Andrew Old called this the Principle of ‘Charity’ and I think intended us to think of the best form of the others argument and deal with that rather than the peripheral flaws with how they might put it across. I know I don’t do this nearly as well as I should and Ad hominem with the best of them.
Another way I like to think of this is that often the position taken by someone is representative of a large number of other people from a similar set of experiences and approaches; you might shoot down one exponent of this position but the real job at hand is to figure out a line of reasoning that brings this whole body of thought round more your way, understanding and respecting where they are coming from.
Educational arguments matter enormously because we are at the very beginning of a long journey figuring out what works and to make any progress we need to merge education and research sciences. Educational research methods are clearly underdeveloped and the educators are not building on the baby steps we have taken at a pace that will get us anywhere fast. We need to let the best man win, at bell come out fighting fair!


2 thoughts on “The Queensberry rules of Educational Arguments: we want a clean fight, may the best man win!

  1. Thank you – I enjoy reading this post. I agree that the more our conversations about education become based on evidence we clearer we need to be about what constitutes evidence and what a constructive debate would look like.

    My favourite flagrant foul is the “immeasurable outcome parachute”. Essentially, when the evidence is mounting against you, you say: “Although my favoured intervention does not improve what it was supposed to improve it does improve happiness/critical thinking/wellness/attractiveness/social awareness etc.”
    Although we have a rough idea of what these things are they have fuzzy definitions and fuzzier metrics. It is very difficult then to disprove this alternate effect.


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