I Disagree With You

calvin-hobbes-Lucy-argument-cartoon

(c) Calvin & Hobbes

“You’re just a complete cretin! You would say that.”

“It’s the internet, stupid.”

It’s easy to see the world we live in today as one where people have lost the ability to argue, disagree or even simply exchange viewpoints without resorting to personal attacks, win-lose confrontation and the very lowest levels of discourse.

The above statements are both ones that I’ve actually received from posting comments of my opinions on Youtube and Twitter. Of course, there have been many far more vulgar ones that I don’t intend to share here. None of them come from people who ‘know me’ in the real world. Is it in fact the depersonalisation that makes it so easy for people to resort to such responses to people who remain strangers to them – people they will likely never meet?

One of the results of all this bad and negative communication is a fear expressed by many that society is becoming uglier in its inability to allow anyone to hold an opposing view and that people have lost the ability to argue or disagree effectively. Ironically, the second quote above just a few days ago was made in response to a very mild comment I made to say that i was uncomfortable with the racist epithets thrown around casually by a popular and much viewed financial commentator from the US. While many blame the internet for this apparent loss of civility and decency in discourse, ironically this person appeared to be telling me that I shouldn’t be concerned by what the video maker had done because this was the internet, where anything and everything goes and the normal rules and expectations of human interaction don’t/ need not apply.

However, in almost every country of the world you will hear complaints of increased incivility, intolerance and ‘zero sum’ communications. We see it in the discourse in the media, we see it in politics – increased polarisation and communication that fails to communicate.

Whether it’s conspiracy theorists adamant in their beliefs that the moon landings were faked or that the earth is really flat, whether its those arguing for Brexit in UK or the sometimes almost rabid supporters of Trump in the USA they are all marked out by one key trait – they express opinions as facts and when challenged or questioned their response is usually to express the same opinion, but louder, more bluntly and with more scathing obfuscation of the arguments given against them.

To me, there is an issue that should concern us in modern society where, increasingly, to express an opinion in a way that tolerates and is open to others’ views is seen as weak. Someone who prefaces their words with phrases like; to me, I believe, possibly etc. risk being immediately marginalised as woolly thinkers. The world wants to applaud and support those who are demonstrative in expressing their viewpoints, even when that crosses the line to opinion as irrefutable fact. Once you’ve declared something to be an undeniable fact, then directly and indirectly a person who expresses any other opinion is essentially calling you a liar. This legitimizes an immediate degeneration to insult, expletives and making the issue about the person rather than the allegedly disputed fact.

In a fast changing, VUKA world I can understand why people can be tempted to seek certainties where they are impossible. People in positions of power and authority who want or need to gain the trust and confidence of others are tempted to ‘give the people what they want’. As a result, the politician who, far more honestly, declares that to the best of his/ her ability,  based on studious in depth analysis of a situation, taking the views of experts etc. believes or hopes that the outcome of taking action X will be desired outcome Y, i seen as weak, uncertain and ineffective as a leader. Instead, too often, we finish up with the blind leading the blind and apparent certainty and conviction in ‘facts’ actually being a smoke screen or a fudge for a lack of in depth analysis or research. It’s like we’re saying things move too fast to do real analysis of anything and once we have an opinion the only way to get progress is to bluff conviction and certainty of belief.

The more I thought about this issue, the more my thinking kept returning to the failure of education to take students in to these kinds of areas of learning. How many of us in school were ever taught (or ever learned) how to disagree, how to enter in to effective and deep thinking and exchange of viewpoints and ideas with others? certainly, schools haven’t done this, so instead, young people learn from what they see in the media, what they see others doing on the TV and what passes for debate on the internet.

Some teachers/ educators might want to claim that at least the students who take part in debating, especially at higher competitive levels do get to learn these skills and competencies, even if not overtly and directly. However, over some years I’ve been increasingly concerned that when judging or observing debates, intra or inter school, even at national competition levels tend to lack real debate, but instead are viewed and judged as a series of stand alone autonomous speeches on alternative viewpoints. The participants rarely engage with their opponents’ arguments for fear of being seen as combative. In the absence of debate judges have no choice but to just judge on quality of speaking.

However, I believe there is a very good tool, too much neglected or not known by educators, that could be used in schools to teach effective debate – essentially to teach children how to disagree. It could be enormously valuable in enhancing the education and learning process, as well as having a material impact in the wider world if it improved the quality of discourse between people holding differing perspectives..

The tool that is available is sometimes known as “Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement.” it was developed by Paul Graham and set out in an essay he wrote in 2008. Paul Graham is a highly renowned computer programmer, developer of Silicon Valley companies and founder of Y Combinator. It’s portrayed as a pyramid:

800px-Graham's_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement.svg

For more in depth understanding of each of the levels in the hierarchy, I would strongly recommend reading Paul Graham’s original essay on the subject, available here:

Paul Graham Essay – How to Disagree

Immediately, by just looking at the pyramid, or reading Graham’s article, we can see where so many of the problems are occurring, whether it’s in politics or what passes for debate on the internet. The vast majority of ‘arguing’ is taking place at the bottom levels of the pyramid. Even when not seeking to ‘win’ arguments through base name calling, still too often the chosen routes have more to do with undermining the credibility of the other person to be expressing a view, rather than the actions or words associated with the higher levels of the hierarchy.

I referred earlier to school and college level debating. Sadly, too much of what passes for debate is simply the participants camping safely at the fourth level, never able to elevate their approach to the higher levels, and careful to avoid the lower levels so as not to incur the displeasure of judges. Incidentally, on that, I’ve known some very fine debaters who could take deliberate and very conscious diversions in to the lower levels of the hierarchy in competition and get away with it, because they did so with humour, sensitivity and proved themselves equally adept at soaring to the highest levels as well to get to the crux of a debate motion.

In public (or internet) debate, would it be too much to believe that we could elevate more of the discourse to the levels 5 to 7 in the hierarchy? I’m not sure, but i believe it’s at least worth the effort. Even if we still saw politicians and others resorting blatantly to the lower levels, we would at least see more people more aware of what they were doing, why they were doing it and very often why they are doing it to conceal their own inadequately thought out beliefs. We would have a common, shared language to talk about such things. also, people who’ve expressed a perfectly valid and legitimate opinion on an issue would be better equipped with knowledge of the hierarchy to understand the responses they get from others. If someone simply resorts to personal insult we can significantly reduce our felt need to respond in a similar way.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I believe we should teach our young to develop their higher intelligence and be able to use it effectively, as well as to be able to identify when others are, or are not, doing likewise and to respond accordingly. For one thing, I believe we would see a generation who would be far less fragile about issues when their views and beliefs are challenged. Not only would we have a more civil world, but also one in which through higher quality debate and engagement man’s progress can be significantly enhanced.

Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

The Blockchain

The blockchain – know what it is? Need to know as an educator?

Yep. I believe so. If it has even a fraction of the impact that it could in the world, then it’s going to have a vast role in the lives of our children.

This video explains it in a way that’s clear for all. I believe this is going to be very very big.

ICT and Children – Extreme Measures

The ICT (Information and Communication Technology – a broader term than simply IT) juggernaut is steamrolling its way through education throughout the world with many schools and whole education systems taking drastic (and very expensive) action on instinct, feeling that they’ve got to be part of the wave, but really not sure of all the implications.

For every movement, you’ll be able to find a counter-movement somewhere. When it comes to ICT, surely this private school in London represents a pretty extreme set of reactions;

Quartz – Article – Banned Technology – In School and Home

I share concerns with many others about what happens to children when they are exposed to ICT so extensively at a very young age and have often written about those issues here on the blog. However, I’m not sure that banning addresses those issues, especially in a world where major companies have been making announcements over just the last month about how they intend to bring “free” internet to millions in the poorest countries of the world (more on that later).

I think the article raises a number of interesting issues:

a) To what extent does a private school (as a commercial provider of a service) have the right to impose strict rules on its ‘customers’ regarding behaviour in their home as well as on the school premises?
b) Would it, in all practical terms, work? Is it even possible?
c) Even if possible, will such a ban serve a worthwhile purpose?
d) What risks are there for a child growing up cut off from the reality of ubiquitous technology?

With regard to point a), I guess some will say that if the parents know what they’ve signed up for, want the education from that school enough and are prepared to make the commitments, then there’s not so much wrong with the school setting down certain expectations about what will go on at home as well as at school. Whilst i’m all in favour of schools that stand for their values and who work to set down some core principles, I believe the way to work with parents is as partners. It is important that educators don’t take the lazy route of giving what parents say they want for their children, but rather take the time to educate and advise parents on what they should want, and why. It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of treating parents like children!

Whilst they’re not necessarily on the same level, couldn’t this be compared to communities that deny children blood transfusions when they’re sick because it goes against their religious beliefs? Whilst as parents, guardians and educators we have a duty of care over children it really isn’t a right of control that goes beyond the needs of society. So, for example in more and more countries the law prevents a parent from using physical forms of punishment with their own child. Could an education approach like this be seen as risking the delivery of only one set of messages, beliefs and views about the world, denying children access to wider and alternative perspectives.

Can a child really get away from the media, TVs and computer screens? How far would you have to go to enforce this kind of policy? For example, restaurants, airports, malls and shops have screens and media. It’s in taxis and buses, on planes and on billboards in the street. Would such children be prevented from having friendships with children of any other schools? Surely, sleepovers and visits to such friends’ homes would be way too much of a temptation? Would we prevent the child from joining a sports team or club because they use video cameras to analyse players’ performances and then watch them back? What about the child’s wider family? No more trips to Grandma’s house because she has a TV?

How will parents live their lives if they’ve signed up to this kind of commitment on behalf of their children? No TV in the house? Never working on a laptop in the evening? Or, sneakily rushing the children off to bed as early as possible, so that they can secretly engage in elicit technology use behind their children’s backs?

Will it just simply lead to blatant dishonesty? Children, potentially lying to their parents and even whole families attempting to hide their infractions from the all seeing, prying eye of ‘Big Brother school? I’ve even seen in India that attempts to impose ‘screen time’ limits or to suggest that there are particular types of programmes a parent doesn’t want their child watching leads to creative underhand behaviour as the child relies on loyal friends to offer them the alternative routes to the alluring, out-of-bounds things they’re being denied. After all that, if directly challenged they have no choice – lie completely! Should parents and educators be creating such situations in which children will almost inevitably be lured in to dishonesty, thereby undermining trust and family bonds? When the evidence of such dishonesty emerges the emotional bank accounts take a real pasting.

There have now been many research articles and commentaries referring to the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital deficit’ – the shortcomings in learning for children who don’t have access to the internet compared to those who do. Now, I’m the first to admit that this is the excuse for the kind of subterfuge that sees Google, Microsoft and Facebook making out to the world they’re heroes for bringing internet accessibility to poorer countries and communities (while I fear it will actually be a trojan horse for pumping enormous volumes of highly profitable advertising and ‘agenda based’ messages to young and impressionable minds).

nevertheless, are we really going to create situations where there are vast areas of employment opportunities not open to these young people when they grow up? With their lack of exposure to technology and media, will these children grow up to be merely quaint and outdated? Those of us who have become very familiar with all aspects of media, especially online know that there’s a vast array that is inaccurate or at best worthless. There’s the well written and the amateurish, the naive and the thought-provoking, the quality and the ‘chaff’. There’s also the creative, enlightening and sometimes downright dangerous. I believe that young learners today need to be acquiring critical skills about how to decide and discern between all these different messages – the 21st Century skills of Media Literacy. Can a student who is cut off from and denied access to such material learn to engage with it critically?

Then, when it comes to writing, students need to learn difficult but critical skills about how to absorb the ideas of others, build them in to new and original ideas without abusing the rights and ownership of the originator. Plagiarism and ‘passing off’ others’ ideas as one’s own is now a vast problem and challenge – good for the law courts, but ultimately bad for creative and original discourse in any field. This isn’t happening more because children today are less moral, lazy or dishonest. Rather, I believe, it’s happening because as vast amounts of writing become accessible, they struggle to find a path through what exists to reach their own original thoughts. Also, too often, educators are overtly or covertly discouraging original and independent thought causing students to feel it’s safer to simply replicate the thoughts and views of others. Effective use of source materials takes practice, and I’m not sure that children cut off from the online world will get the exposure they need to master those skills.

In the end, I’m left with three big concerns;

Firstly, are these well meaning educators who genuinely believe it is their duty to protect these young people from the perils and evils of mass media exposure? Or, is there a more sinister intention to propagate particular perspectives and world views amongst these children, free from balancing and countervailing voices, views and opinions?

And secondly, if we’re unhappy about the more negative aspects of what children get exposed to in the media, as educators don’t we have a duty towards all children to raise our voice to get the content cleaned up or segregated in ways that are beneficial for all children. Instead, this seems to me like taking a handful of children and enclosing them in an ivory tower.

Finally, there has long been a strong force in the rearing of children, parenting and education that starts from the premise that children cannot be trusted, that they are inherently listless, wilful and if left to make their own choices and decisions will always make the wrong ones. This manifests in the control structures in schools, sticks and carrot approaches to rewards and punishments in parenting advice etc. Here, these educators who might at first seem quite progressive and innovative in going against the tide are actually really being quite traditional and backward in their approach. The starting assumption is that no amount of teaching, guidance or advice about safe surfing, the perils and downsides of excessive screen use etc. will lead children to make good, healthy positive choices and decisions in their lives. Therefore, we (the adults) must impose draconian ‘all or nothing’ controlling regimes until we deem them old enough and fit to make decisions (i.e. they’re not children any more). I would like to have higher aspirations for children and a greater belief in their innate goodness. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but when they do I believe we have to look at how we guided them and how we might do so better, rather than see it as justification for taking all decision making away from them.

Internet Safety

Do you know how many different apps or websites for which you have a password?

No, nor me – but it’s a lot.

It’s a strange thing that most people have heard at least some horror stories of how another person’s privacy, finances or even their very identity online has been abused or invaded by wrongdoers. There’s no question that the anonymity and secrecy of the internet attracts a lot of people with very bad motives. Also, when they commit their crimes knowing that the victim(s) are people they will never look in the eye – there’s all the scope for a lot of bad to happen.

And yet, most people are incredibly cavalier about their security and safety in this potentially risky environment. Maybe even worse, whilst they act anxiously about their children’s safety in the ‘real world’ they pay little heed to where their children are or what they’re doing in the virtual world.

This is an interesting article that takes an in depth exploration of what cyber experts do different to lay people when it comes to protecting and defending themselves online.

I’m pretty certain that everyone reading this will take away some valuable advice that they can apply to be safer online. Also, we all need to ensure that we’re applying these for our children, and teaching them the reasons so that they practice safe internet use as they get older;

Guardian – 7 Things Security Experts Do To Keep Safe Online

Amanda Palmer: It Takes a Village

For those who talk about how the internet and world wide web are destroying the sense of community and people’s real, quality engagement with each other – here’s a delightful alternative perspective.

Whilst watching Amanda’s Ted Talk I couldn’t help wondering where all this could potentially lead for the world of education – what are the implications?


Amanda Palmer – It Takes A Village

Personalised News

here’s a story reported quite extensively over the last few days about Facebook:

Facebook Story from NDTV Gadget – Personalised Newspaper

On the face of it, this might look like quite an innocent innovation, a tweak in a social networking website as it endeavours to push itself in to a more significant position in people’s lives. However, as i read it i found one aspect potentially disturbing. If every one of us is increasingly only exposed to ‘news’ that reinforces and sits comfortably with our existing prejudices, does this represent a genuine danger for the world?

Arguably, there has been a general drift in this direction, but to me this seems like a big lurch in a risky direction. For many years, different newspapers and even to some extent TV news channels sought to make their offerings more appealing to a particular market segment. Some newspapers took very conscious and deliberate strong political stances and made no apologies. However, there was still an innate ‘impartial’ vein that ran through the profession of journalism that ensured that good media carried some degree of balance.

I find the idea that a pervasive media like Facebook could feed people a narrowly defined set of views that equate with (and even reinforce) prejudices, bigotry or myopic perspectives is hardly the way towards a broad minded, informed, thinking populace. I fear that this would also leave some parts of society more prone to manipulation, especially for political ends.

Ultimately, I know that it does me good to be exposed to a broad array of views and opinions, both those that come from ‘people like me’ and those that come from people with whom i may disagree vehemently.

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