Argument and arguments

Arthur Camins’s blog offers an energetic discussion of the importance of argumentation in science, math, and STEM education here . His post then goes on to contrast the intellectual values which argumentation incorporates with the assumptions of mainstream education “reform,” and concludes with this rousing passage:

Current education policies interfere with establishing…conditions for successful STEM learning. First, because assessments are inextricably linked to high-stakes consequences, teachers and students are apt to think about tests as the goal of learning — and fear them — rather than embrace opportunities to demonstrate progress and learn from error. Second, performance pay linked to students’ testing success fosters competition among teachers for rewards rather than collaboration to collectively meet students’ needs. Third, supporters of current education policies violate the basic framework for scientific argumentation, setting a bad example. They have failed to take seriously the evidentiary challenges to their policies while refusing to consider that they may be mistaken and change course. It is time to back away from high stakes testing induced fear and competition and instead embrace learning from failure and collaboration.

Do I agree with these points? Well, mostly. David Cohen and Deborah Ball long ago wrote about the “pedagogy of policy” and Philip Jackson and Benson Snyder about the “hidden curriculum” embodied in the structure, and even the architecture, of schooling. There is every likelihood that the shape of policy, and the way that policy is shaped, convey messages about what education is which, when made explicit, would be unappealing and even alarming.

The argumentation which is central to rigorous inquiry is part of the safety valve of science — the gradual self-correction and “learning from mistakes” which means that most of the time, we approximate the way things work more and more closely. At the level of the learner at work on the challenges of the day, this can look like learning from our mistakes, which represent a precious, and ever-flowing resource.

So argumentation of this kind is perhaps the best tool we can offer the next generation, who tend  to start by learning to address their little mistakes in classroom or home, but soon enough start to critique our big ones— before they see the fresh material they’ve created themselves, as the experiment of life goes on.

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