Monday, August 17, 2009

What Are You Talking About?

Quite a few years ago, I got into a friendly argument with a friend's much older husband. Well, he and I had quite a few friendly arguments, but this one was fairly specific: who was the best running back in NFL history?

I'm a Barry Sanders guy, though I respect the Jim Brown argument. I don't care for the Emmitt Smith argument at all, though I'm a bit more sympathetic to the Walter Peyton argument. My friend's husband did not advance any of these candidates. He argued for Gale Sayers.

I was floored! How could he say that!?

Well, there were two big reason that I did not think of. His first reason, the one he consciously espoused, was that Gale Sayers was the best return man in NFL history, and that meant that you got two great players in one package. This was a hard argument for me to make sense of at the time. I thought that this guy had gone senile or something. We were not talking about that, so why was he bringing it up? I found his point to interesting, but largely irrelevant. He truly believed his argument, and did not see any way that anyone could answer it.

I think that this sort of situation if found throughout our education debates, both on the policy level and on the pedagogical or curricular level. We think we know what we are discussing, but it turns out that the participants in the discussion/debate/argument really are talking about different things. Neither side is convinced by the others' arguments because they are truly engaging on the same topic.

In my example, I was arguing about who did the best job at running back, and he was arguing about which guy who played running back was the best player overall. I've got to say, each of those seems a valid interpretation of the original question ("Who is best running back in NFL history?").

In our educational debates, sometimes those differing interpretations of the questions at hand are both truly valid, and sometimes they are not. But how often do people stop arguing against their opponents to figure out what those opponents are arguing for? I believe that the best ways to counter someone's arguments always begin with understanding them, that requires understanding their goal -- in this sort of case, understanding their interpretation of the question.

Obviously, there is lots of disagreement about the aims and goals of schooling. I think that people would generally agree, however, that preparing students for their lives as citizens and members of society are among them, and that that includes preparing them to understand and participate in public debates. I believe that that is not a controversial idea. Well, I wonder about how well we can do that if we are not so capable ourselves. Can we teach habits that we do have, or are not even inclined to use on a less-than-habitual basis?

I am not sure about the answer to that last question. More thoughtful schools, however, would address that question for themselves.

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