By Steve Wilson
I have been an educator and teacher, in many forms, working with people of all ages, for many years. I have often reflected on what my core values as a teacher are, because teaching often appears to be a complex and opaque activity, and one can lose sight of what lies at its heart.
Yet when you strip away the complexities: the technical and managerial aspects of teaching, the curriculum requirements and the many accountabilities the teacher has, and when you examine what lies at the core, it suddenly becomes very simple – at least, to me it does, much to my surprise.
And I think it comes down to this. I want the people whom I am teaching to firstly, respect and value themselves and others; and secondly, to think for themselves and while doing so, to think well.
What do I mean by, “to think well”? Well, it is about the method and rigour they apply to their thinking, not about the views they ultimately adopt. I want my learners to be able to:
- use evidence, logic and empathy to arrive at informed conclusions they can have confidence in;
- self-reflect, and identify and correct any weak points, misconceptions or biases they find in their thinking;
- take fair and careful account of the conclusions of others, and
- explain their conclusions to, and test them with, other people, and modify their conclusions where they feel they should.
Children of school age, I have found over many years, are surprisingly good at developing and maintaining the habits and techniques which enable them to think well. We should, and do through our teaching in schools, continue to build the capacity of our young people to think well. And this brings me to my current concern, and to the point of writing this particular piece.
I have been thinking about this now, at this particular time, while observing the current discourse in Australia about marriage equality and the related postal survey voting process that has been promulgated by our government. This is because this discourse, and particularly many of the propositions mounted by the ‘Vote No’ (against marriage equality) case, are examples of thinking at its worst, not its best.
The demonstration of poor thinking underpinning the ‘Vote No’ campaign is essentially because, I have realised, the ‘No’ case is running a political campaign on the issue of marriage equality. Rather than engaging in thinking well, the ‘No’ case appears to be attempting to simply misinform or scare the public, mounting spurious or irrelevant propositions, rather than presenting an evidenced-based, logical and accountable case about why marriage equality should not be supported.
Unfortunately, political thinking is not usually an exemplar of thinking well. On most occasions political thinking, evidenced by what politicians say and the way they present arguments, is the opposite to thinking well. Political thinking is designed to highlight and privilege one case, to not present or consider alternative cases, and to obfuscate and misinform about relevant arguments, issues and facts. It is to win people over to your side by whatever means it takes, not by the reasonable and transparent means which underpin thinking well.
While much of the contemporary general discourse about social issues is politicised, the politicised thinking around them often goes unnoticed by school aged children because it is primarily confined to the parliament. The issue of marriage equality is now not confined to the parliament.
Because of the national postal survey and its related campaign, the matter of marriage equality is now public property. It is front and centre in all of our media, and on our devices, on a daily basis. It will continue to be this way for many weeks to come due to the length of the voting process. Our children are watching all of this. And I am appalled by what they might be learning, or un-learning, about thinking well as they observe the current, politicised ‘No’ campaign.
Back in the classroom we would call out and challenge the paucity of thinking evident in claims such as: marriage equality should not be supported because it will limit religious freedom; it will lead to more radical forms of personal development curriculum in schools; families need two parents, and parents of different genders, if children are to be brought up well; marriage equality will impede freedom of speech; vote ‘No’ if you don’t like political correctness; vote ‘No’ if you don’t like the way the world is going.
These are some of the actual, key arguments currently being advanced by the ‘No’ case in the public domain in relation to marriage equality in Australia. None of these arguments addresses the substantive question being asked of the public. Each one is a red herring, designed to create fear and confusion, and distract from and obscure the simple nature of the substantive matter at hand. Each one is an example of poor argumentation and poor thinking.
We would challenge such approaches to thinking and argumentation in the classroom, and we should challenge them now in the public arena. The ‘No’ case, as currently contrived, represents quality of thinking at its very worst. It represents the worst type of role-modelling for our children about how to think well. And because of this, it only helps to undermine the very best of the teaching and learning that occurs in our schools.
Steve Wilson is Emeritus Professor at Western Sydney University and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at Western. With one short pause he has been editor of this blog, 21st Century Learning, since its creation in 2010, but will step down from this role at the end of 2017.