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Start arguing! We can do better

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

Watching a YouTube panel discussion recently I was struck with the low level of argument. It seemed to consist mainly of a series of rebuttals and defending of views by the participants (who fell into two camps) with little attempt to find areas of agreement so that people could move forward. It was divisive and seemed to encourage a “winners or losers” approach. Where was the push for unity?

Stuart McNaughton says that we need to teach our students how to argue. His own grandchildren had apparently told him that arguing is rude. They did not see that arguing is in fact an important skill and as a way to clarify meanings of differing viewpoints has the potential to be both respectful and inclusive. Where had the idea of rudeness come from?

Perhaps the problem is that despite student talk in classrooms being encouraged so much more nowadays we still tend to shut down potential argument too soon and deprive our students of the chance to tease things out a bit more. Dan Finkel, in an engaging TED talk about encouraging mathematical thinking, encourages teachers to say “yes” when students make claims (e.g. 2 + 2 = 12) that may on the surface appear fanciful. Scary or just plain silly? He differentiated between saying “yes” to our students and saying “that’s correct”. “Yes” encourages further discussion, it doesn’t say that you agree or that it’s right. It’s encouraging further examination of a hypothesis. Better, he says, to give time for an idea to be examined in depth, and perhaps be disproved eventually, than to just shut it down with no further discussion. Suspending judgment is the key…

What have you said “yes” to recently?