Monday, 7 November 2016

Reasoning, Writing & Arithmetic - Brexit, Education & 'the Three Rs'

The more I see and hear the debates around Brexit (and associated discussions of immigration, and so on), the more I feel like we're not doing well enough in a vital aspect of education (not specifically us, but society in general). It's become clear to me that one if the most important subjects we need to teach to every child is what might be broadly called 'philosophy', but more specifically critical thinking and logic, along with the concepts of research and evidence (and how to apply them in supporting and scrutinising argument).

We've all seen what's happened - in a civilised society with universal education, it should not be possible for so many people to be so easily fooled by stuff that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. Too many people just do not have the basic skills in this area that they should have. I think we need to address that much more effectively in our education system - it's more important in preparing people for life than almost anything else that our children could learn.

The recent court judgement in favour of Article 50 having to be triggered by parliament also highlights a serious deficiency in our education about some of the most basic knowledge that any citizen should have about the country where they live and how its systems work. Again. The same issue was shown up by the reaction to the realisation that the EU referendum result was not in itself a legally binding decision. There was nothing specifically 'anti-Brexit' about either thing, of course - both are simply a reflection of how our democracy works. It's blindingly obvious, though, that many people simply do not understand it. It isn't a very complicated system, and it is as it is for very good reasons (the executive not being able to set itself above the democratic institutions or the law), but people have just never been taught about it, so they don't know.

It is all too easy for those of us who are strongly engaged with politics and the democratic process to forget how little of it we learned at school, and to assume that everyone knows the basics (or even to make the mistake of thinking people are 'stupid' or 'wilfully ignorant' because they don't - very bad mistakes to make). It certainly doesn't help when the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, two people who know exactly how the system works (and who play games with it constantly), give strength to those who don't understand by making outrageous accusations of wrong-doing against people they know full when are simply doing their constitutional and legal duty in exactly the way they are supposed to. Everyone should beware of such deliberate manipulation, but sadly it is the case that they clearly aren't. And then there's the media, and certain sections of it who feed constant half-truths at best to an unsuspecting public - people need to scrutinise information carefully, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that many lack the basic skills for doing so, and aren't even aware that they don't know what they need to to avoid being fooled by those promoting a specific message through emotive false propaganda.

This last point is the most fundamental. Yes, we do need to teach people about 'politics' and the functionings of our legal and democratic systems - it doesn't need to be complicated, and almost everyone will have the capacity to understand the basic concepts without too much difficulty. It goes beyond that, though, to the basic skills of logic and reasoning, and the ability to construct and scrutinise argument using research, evidence and so on. These are very, very basic skills for life that our education system does not seem to have been treating with the level of importance that it should have. There have been some moves to improve things, I know, but I am concerned that not only have we not yet succeeded but that the current government's obsession with taking education backwards endangers what progress we have made.

We often talk of the 'three Rs', and emphasise the importance of them from day one of school. We don't, of course, sit kids down immediately and start teaching them quadratic equations and the compete works of Shakespeare - we start at a very basic level, often leading them through some of the very basic stuff with structured 'play' and 'activities', and so on, and of course that is right. However, we need to be treating the idea of 'Reasoning' with the same level of attention and importance. Being able to think logically is every bit as critical to success in any aspect of life as being able to count, read and write. Reading and writing, of course, are very much two sides of the same coin, so when we talk of the 'three Rs' we should be including those three central core issues, including 'Reasoning'.

Many skills of logic and reasoning are taught in schools, but without being identified as such. Subjects such as Science and History are (or should be!) founded on such things. At the moment, though, we are, I think, all too often doing things the wrong way around - at a very young age, for example, we introduce the idea of 'the past' to children, and start to teach them a little bit about it. That is fine in itself, but later on that little bit we have taught them becomes far less relevant to even their study of that subject than the idea of reasoning, and the essential skills of assessing evidence and making logical judgements based upon it. That is where I think we need to start to a much greater extent - teaching children the skills of reasoning that they can develop and naturally apply later on, rather than just teaching them a few little bits of random 'knowledge'.

'Knowledge' itself is a wonderful thing, of course, but it's really far less useful and important than the ability to think. That is what cuts across every facet of life in education and beyond - not just learning (though learning is itself important) but thinking. Alongside thinking and reasoning inevitably come the basic skills of research and processing of information, and that is massively important in its own right. To put it bluntly, again using a historical example, learning the names and dates of the Kings and Queens of England is really of no practical value whatsoever in life. Understanding how to find out that information, how to assess the sources giving that information, and how to construct an argument based around that information and its context is what people really need in life. Our education system should be geared from the beginning to give people those skills.

Now having mentioned also teaching the 'knowledge' about our political system, though that is less important than having the skills to find and assess that information (since in the days of the interweb it is freely available to anyone), it's important to say a word about 'political bias'. It is absolutely imperative that we do not have any kind of political bias in our education system. I can think of little that has sent a bigger chill down my spine than the recent call from a UKIP leadership candidate for UKIP members to go into teaching to educate children the UKIP way from an early age. That works both ways, of course, and in no way would I advocate teaching children according to any political agenda, including my own. It is all about teaching children HOW to think, not teaching them WHAT to think - that distinction is critical. There is always a danger of an individual teacher, teaching the concepts of our political system and perhaps of the basic political ideologies, to make a personal 'slip up' and allow their own opinions to show. Teachers, for all of their skill and dedication, are still human, and can make human mistakes inadvertently. That perhaps becomes less of a dangerous issue, though, if from day one of their schooling we have taught children to develop the basic skills of reasoning, logic and argument construction and scrutiny. By the time we get to any kind of education about 'politics' they will already have the reasoning skills to assess any such information for themselves and to come to their own conclusions.

I should also say that I am certainly not a teacher, although I did spend many years working in educational technical support, and was involved with discussions on the basis of research about teaching and learning methods (and enhancing teaching and learning through space and facility design). I don't pretend to be able to tell people how to teach, and nor would I want to. We do need to understand, though, that the old 'chalk and talk' methodology of sending out a stream of information for people to 'learn' has been found repeatedly to really not work very well. What works more effectively are things like collaborative group learning, and encouraging people to work things out for themselves rather than just being force-fed 'knowledge'. This is something that has become increasingly applied at all levels of education (and again this governments regressive educational agenda worries me on that score), and it's exactly the kind of thing we need to understand when we're talking about children learning to reason from a very young age.

At the moment it's very clear that too many adults do not understand some of the most basic aspects of reasoning and research, and assessing evidence logically, and so on. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say that Brexit is a huge illustration of that - many people have made an important decision about our entire future on the basis of 'arguments' that don't stand up to scrutiny, 'evidence' that is misrepresented or even entirely fabricated, and an emotional appeal to their feelings of general dissatisfaction that has led them to place the blame for the problems they see at the door of a conveniently supplied scapegoat who isn't actually to blame. Of course I freely confess my own 'bias' on the issue of the EU, but the issue remains the same - many of the 'arguments' being presented are not based in evidence, logic and reason, and those presenting them don't even seem to realise that.

It shouldn't be too hard to make the kind of change I am talking about here in our education system. Children have enquiring minds quite naturally - we simply need to encourage them to use them, and teach them the skills to use them effectively. We should certainly not consider that such things are only within the capabilities of the more 'academic' - it really isn't particularly complicated at all, but it is a habit that people should get into at a very early age. It is not, for example, only within the capabilities of an academically gifted teenager to understand a basic concept like 'the plural of anecdote is not evidence' - children of a much younger age, even those not destined for a life of university academia, are quite capable of grasping such and idea with a bit of explanation. All it needs for them to develop the good habit of reasoning is for them to be taught how to do it early on.

This is why it needs to be put right at the core of our entire education system and educational thinking, right from day one. That is why I think we need to think of those essential 'three Rs' as being Reasoning, Writing and Arithmetic. We have seen the dangers of a civilised society abandoning reason and embracing knee-jerk emotionalism led by political propaganda. We need to make sure that it can never, ever happen again. We need to do so without ever using the education system to teach people what to think. We do, however, need to make sure that everyone leaves education, at whatever age and with whatever qualifications (or lack thereof), having learned HOW to think. How to think for themselves. How to reason. How to research and understand. How to apply logic. How not to be fooled by those with a specific agenda of trying to fool them.

We currently place an emphasis on even the least academically able children leaving school with the basic numeracy and literacy skills to function in society. We need to add basic reasoning skills to that. Instead of making sure all children, as far as possible, end up with a basic qualification in Maths and English, we need to make sure that they end up with a basic qualification in Maths, English and 'Critical Thinking'. We need to gear our education system to that strong and emphasis on reasoning, start it from the very beginning, and keep it up all the way through, in exactly the same way as we do with numeracy and literacy. In my opinion, reasoning is every bit as important a life skill as being able to add things up and write things down.

1 comment:

  1. I trust that lessons in numeracy include the ability to assess statistics and betting odds, so important in twenty-first century Britain!

    My memory of schooling in the 1950s was that there was not much in the way of teaching to reason, or of current affairs, until one reached the sixth form. Hard luck on those who had to leave at the age of fifteen (as it was then). It seems that things improved in 1960s and 1970s, at least judging by the snippets I gleaned from my daughters at the comp. Mrs Thatcher, with her attack on "trendy teachers" threw the whole process into reverse and I am not sure how much devolution has been able to claw back.