Teaching students how to move people to their point of view is a very important thing to do. Challenging students to try to persuade fellow students, by debating in public for example, is a very useful thing to do in education. It is useful because constructing and backing up arguments and causes you to think hard. The more you have to think hard the better you get at it.
So, I have a simple suggestion for school. Teachers should stop having persuasion conversations all together (where they are the persuader) and help students learn to persuade each other better. Students learning to persuade is a very valuable educational goal. We need to make that part of any school we create.
But, of course this is very difficult to do within the current system. Here is an article from the today's New York Times:
AUSTIN, Tex. — Texas’ State Board of Education has approved new history textbooks, but only after defeating six and seeing a top publisher withdraw a seventh — capping months of outcry over lessons that some academics say exaggerate the influence of Moses in American democracy and negatively portray Muslims.
The board on Friday approved 89 books and classroom software packages that more than five million public school students will begin using next fall. But it took hours of sometimes testy discussion and left publishers scrambling to make hundreds of last-minute edits, some to no avail. A proposal to delay the vote to allow the board and general public to better check those changes was defeated. “I’m comfortable enough that these books have been reviewed by many, many people,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican and the board’s vice chairman. “They are not perfect. They never will be.”
The history, social studies and government textbooks were submitted for approval this summer, and academics and activists on the right and left criticized many of them. Some worried that the textbooks were too sympathetic to Islam or played down the achievements of President Ronald Reagan. Others said they overstated the importance of Moses to America’s founding fathers or trumpeted the free-market system too much.
Bitter ideological disputes over what is taught in Texas classrooms have for years attracted national attention. The new books follow the state academic curriculum adopted in 2010, when Republicans on the board approved standards including conservative-championed topics like Moses and his influence on systems of law. They said those would counter what they saw as liberal biases in classrooms.
Friday’s 10-to-5 vote, with all Republicans on the board supporting the books and Democrats opposing them, was the first of its kind since 2002. The books will be used for at least a decade.
Mavis Knight, a Democratic member from Dallas, said she could not support books adhering to the 2010 academic standards.
“I think it’s a disservice to the students when we have a particular bent in which we present things to them,” said Ms. Knight, who is retiring and attended her last board meeting.
Texas is such a large state that textbooks written for it can influence the content of classroom materials sold elsewhere around the country — though that clout may be waning. A 2011 state law allows school districts to buy books both on and off the board list. Technology, including electronic lessons, has also made it easier for publishers to design content for individual states.
The final vote was supposed to be without rancor, but an effort earlier in the week to give preliminary approval collapsed. Board members raised concerns about a series of issues, including Moses, Muslims and the Common Core, a national set of curriculum standards in math and English that is forbidden by Texas law.
Why does the government think that it should direct the conversation? The government is after all just an assortment of politicians with what is probably a rather limited view of history. The answer is simple enough. Politicians understand persuasive conversation well enough, and they want to direct it. They could, of course, simply participate in it, allowing others with different points of view to participate as well. But they don’t. Politicians see school as way of indoctrinating students, and they always have. If we are ever to change our schools to ones that teach thinking, we must allow students choice in what they learn, and choice in what they choose to believe. We must encourage them to reason from evidence and not from someone older than them told who wants to tell them what to think. This is not easy to implement.
The kind of thing we see happening in Texas here, happens in one way or another everywhere. “Truth” ought not be taught in schools. Students need to learn to verify, not memorize.
What should a persuasion conversation be about? How should one be conducted? How can we help students be persuasive?
Instead of teaching history, how about if we asked students to convince other students why it was important to learn history and what history it was important to learn? Instead of politicians having that debate (not really, they all know the answer) let’s let students have the debate.
This weeks assignment: was Moses important to America’s Founding Fathers?
How could we find this out? What evidence is there? Why would it matter if it were true? Who benefits from believing it was true? What would happen if it weren’t true?
Next week’s assignment: "how good a President was Ronald Reagan? How can we know if a President succeeded? What should the criteria be for success for a President? Whose interests does it serve to have Ronald Reagan be seen as a great President?
Another assignment: What is the free market system? Who wins? Who loses? Why does the Texas School Board care about this?
Now I am making a simple point here about persuasive conversation. It can be about anything. But students need to be involved in making judgements of the sort the Texas Board is making. They should be in this conversation, not for political reasons but because it is within such conversations that real thinking takes place. While no real thinking probably goes on in any actual Texas Board meeting, students would not be serving vested interests when they addressed those issues and would not be making any real decisions anyway. They would just be learning how to be persuasive using evidence, facts, and reasonable argumentation. They would be learning how to attack and defend such arguments in a reasonable way. This is what learning in school or out of school looks like, or should look like.
Students need to be in persuasive conversations in order to learn.