Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Arguments by other means

A few weeks ago a post by Carol Black defending the use of learning styles was making the rounds on twitter. I say defending but in reality it was more of an attack on those criticising learning styles. People like me. 

I have a number of issues with Black's post which I will get into another time, however the most problematic part of her essay is that she attempts to discredit critics of learning styles by tying criticism to unpopular social/political positions. This can be seen, for example in the title of her piece:
Science / Fiction
‘Evidence-based’ education, scientific racism, & how learning styles became a myth.

From the title onward, Black explicitly attempts to link critics of learning styles with racism. This is not an attempt to argue that the evidence itself is weak (a legitimate position) or that more researcher needs to be done. She is simply trying to make those who disagree with her seem unsavoury. Debunkers of learning styles, she writes, are "are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism". Now call me old fashioned but surely we should reserve the term 'racist' for, you know, actual racists? Of course, Black never explicitly calls critics, racist. She doesn't need to, the accusation is enough. Arguing from the position of 'this is why I'm not a racist' is not a good look for anyone. 

And what if you think learning styles is bunk but don't think you're a racist? Well, no fear! Black has this angle covered too, noting:
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.

Sexism 

In the same article she also unsubtly suggests that those who are dubious about learning styles are, by and large, men bullying women. This is, as Ashman has shown, entirely untrue. It is also untrue for TEFL where the only article in the literature really critical about learning styles was written by two women (most male academics who have published on the topic are generally supportive). 

Considering the author claims, that learning styles critics are trying to 'bully', 'shame' and 'intimidate' others, it seems astonishing that she would choose these tactics to make her argument. Black is, I think, aware of how bad this looks and so when challenged on this point continually denies it. 

On twitter, in response to Ashman's piece, she writes "Greg has misrepresented my views in his piece. There are reputable & rigorous scientists, both male and female, on both sides of this debate..." which seems a strange statement to make when her piece contains the claim that:
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. 
Her earlier twitter comments also make this statement hard to believe. She previously dismissed Willingham's work on learning styles as 'mansplaining' and issuing 'edicts to (mostly female) teachers'. 



Again, compare this stated opinion of Willingham with later backtracking when challenged by Ashman. 

Is it possible to be respectful and a 'mansplainer'? 











The attempt to smear critics of learning styles continues when Black, through a series of convoluted arguments, arrives at the conclusion that:
when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don't perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent.
The logic here is that if a child is not doing well in traditional settings and we discount learning styles then the only explanation must be that the child is less intelligent. Black presents no evidence for this conclusion. Could there be other factors which affect a student's progress? teacher qualitypeersFamily? Not according to Black.  Any argument that will cast learning styles critics in a bad light is marshaled by Black regardless of how tenuously constructed it is. 

The more general point of this post is to say that I think this kind of 'tactic' in argument isn't helpful. Black isn't the only person who has attempted to discredit ideas based not on their merit but on some of factor, such as who said it or what accepting it might mean. 

We ought to be generous in our assumptions about intent or we risk creating a toxic environment. Accusations such as these can also be a double edged sword. Looking at her blog, how easy would it be to construct an argument that Black, with her frequent uncritical promotion of various tribal practises, actually fetishises minorities? From here it's a hop, skip and a jump to 'Orientalism', essentialising minorities, the 'noble savage' and then, right back to racism. But to do this would be wrong. 

Black's arguments about education, like all arguments, should be judged on their merits, not on assumptions about her intentions. Black would do better to start from the assumption that critics of learning styles actually just don't think the evidence shows they work. That would be the charitable thing to do.