False dilemma

I am no expert on critical thinking, but the title of this blog post refers to a standard argument fallacy, that of the false dilemma.  It’s a technique beloved of low-grade arguers, where in order to promote their line of thought, it is presented as one of only two possible alternatives, with the other option usually picked for the reason that it’s totally inappropriate.

Here’s a good example, about global climate change:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ in which the presenter limits our options for dealing with climate change as ‘do something’ or ‘do nothing’.  Whereas I understand that ‘do nothing’ is a stand-alone option, a myriad of possibilities lie within the ‘do something’ heading.  If I were to donate £1 to climate change research, we would still be doing something, just nothing very significant and I’m not sure that many climate change advocates would consider this to be doing enough to allow them to rest easy.

Twitter is a good forum for educational debate, though as @oldandrewuk and @toryeducation proved yesterday, it’s tricky to win an argument on Twitter.  It’s also good for providing links to education blogs that are worth reading.  The problem with many of the blog posts, though probably not the bloggers themselves, is that the majority can be placed firmly on one side of the argument or the other.

The argument goes something like this:

Blog A: teachers are meant to teach.  There’s nothing wrong with tried and tested didactic methods.  Pupils aren’t in the class to have fun, they are there to learn.  Learning is characterised by good teacher subject knowledge and hard work from pupils.

Blog B: teachers are facilitators.  Pupils should work in groups as much as possible in order that peer teaching can take place.  Education is more about skills and problem solving than merely acquiring dry facts; all information can be found on google anyway.

This will generally be followed by all those who agree with Blog A re-blogging it to their own blog, re-tweeting its existence and complimenting the writer for telling the truth about education.  All those who agree with Blog B will do something similar with Blog B and will challenge (usually on Twitter) those who agree with Blog A (with the reverse also being true).

But this argument isn’t black and white.  Blog A is no more true than Blog B and vice versa.  To see the debate as one with only two answers is a false dilemma and if the answer needs defining at all it’s more of a continuum than a right/wrong.  Every teacher should feel happy placing themselves at one end of the continuum or the other, depending on the subject, topic, year group, ability of the class, time of day or just for the need to experiment.  

Sometimes I teach lessons which are characterised by an awful lot of teacher talking and other lessons involve pupils finding out things for themselves with very little input from me.  Sometimes the pupils walk out and I know they possess far more knowledge than when they entered the room and other times we’ve just had some fun (though I feel sure to be corrected on this one if any of the pupils I teach ever read this).  There isn’t a right way and a wrong way to teach – I’ve seen superb lessons that bore virtually no resemblance to other superb lessons I’ve observed.  I’ve also seen dire lessons dominated by the teacher and dire lessons where it was difficult to know if a teacher was in the room.  One of the greatest things about teaching is the flexibility it affords and yet some people are keen to be hamstrung by their own certainty that their method is the one that ‘works’.

Much as I like Twitter, some people spend so long defending their own method and attacking others that it seems as though that’s all they do – defend and attack.  There are other alternatives; it’s what one might call a false dilemma.