Tag Archives: Dialectic

The Importance of Debate in Schools


Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.


Schools and Freedom of Speech


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions

David Hume

Try as we might to be rational beings, devoid of emotions, especially in times of crisis it is in times of crisis when we can’t help but notice we are nothing of the sort. When we experience visceral reactions to events we often give words to our feelings and we shout out into the void. Such has been the temerity of recent events to upset our proverbial apple carts that we can’t help running around, picking up those metaphorical apples, only to see them roll further from us and the few we have clutched to our bosom look lonely in comparison, so we shout. Our beliefs, traditions, certainties guide us in the best of times, these beliefs are not the result of reasoned argument, rather they are the result of custom. Those of a rational bent might say that this is a bad thing but I would argue it is a positive. Positive because it retains as central to the human condition a healthy dose of doubt although we might forever ignore this fact feeling. Rather than use reason to defend our feelings, use it, when we can, as the slave to our deep seated uncertainties. Feelings and reason, side by side, with feelings the ‘master’ and reason the ‘slave’; we feel wronged, but have we been, we feel on top of the world, but should we?

When beliefs are challenged, when certainties are taken from us we become fearful, tearful, angry, depressed… and it is at moments like this when instead of being most sure that we are the only righteous ones in the world and everyone else is mad, bad and dangerous to know, we should be at our most doubtful. As I look around for ‘I told you so…’ justifications for my thoughts, evidence that I was right and you were wrong, so that my conscience may be salved, I should do so with underlying doubt. When circumstances change we have to examine our outlook in response.

Those of a liberal disposition who have spent the last few years in the ascendancy, changing the world economically and socially to be more individualistic, global, connected, tolerant, competitive, creative are having to come face to face with the idea of nationhood, nationalism, community, intolerance, the desire to disconnect, the downside of competition: areas where optimism might fear to tread, and it’s a shock. Some people who last week were castigating other people for a lack of optimism are the pessimists now.

Should they be? Why not? It would be dishonest to their feelings to be anything but. Yet, if custom is to be our guide, there are positives – firstly principles: this is a time to reexamine and make positive changes – witness our two political parties reacting to their gut instincts – time for change that restates what their parties might be for and the pursuit of power in a democracy. That this is occurring now should be no surprise and is an essential part of making things better. A general election ought to follow. A liberal party and, maybe, other parties of the centre need to strengthen if our two main parties veer to left and right, why? Custom: we need the centre.

Look at the large global companies, countries, organisations that have moved beyond the human scale and look to how some of these big brands have delighted in being ‘disruptors’ for the communities they have long since lost touch with, desiring instead to be part of an almost bizarre homogenous, idealistic, utopian, cosmopolitanism in which all people can live in a non-multi-cultural space in which diversity is to be celebrated by all wearing pastel colours, drinking Starbucks, connecting via Apple, driving a Volkswagen, wearing Nike, and supporting Manchester United; diverse under the same or similar branded umbrella. This vision of liberalism became far from liberal, intolerant of diversity it sought to impose a happy-clappy utopia onto the world. Now liberalism is in danger of losing its grip entirely maybe it is time to reject this pseudo-liberalism and replace it with the real thing.

Schools can be part of a solution, by returning to first principles and rather than trying to ‘disrupt’ themselves they should concentrate on what they do best and provide stability in troubled times. Schools should be building links with community, nation and nations, and instead of a tick box pursuit of liberal idealism where nobody is right wing, racist, sexist, or homophobic, where all things intersect and victimhood takes centre stage, where intolerance of intolerance is in danger of closing down debate and where ‘western’ means all things bad, we need our feelings to guide us and have them brought out into the open.

And then what? Blood on the walls? Reason must counteract – argument and debate – patient, well argued, well thought through and, yes, emotional too. For too long we have tried to deny some voices and then recoil in horror when they shout and we resort to the most extreme measures to shut them up, and so we should… As Aditya Chakrabortty  points out racist belligerence, boorishness and downright dangerous viciousness can be encouraged when “cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison. When intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged.” This needs to be stamped upon as it has been in the past, let custom be our guide – draw on the cry from The Battle of Cable Street: ‘They shall not pass’ and resist with every sinew. But might it be better to also challenge these thoughts at their root rather than just relying on suppressing them when it is almost too late?

When I was at school I had a friend who was proud of his National Front views, he would air them regularly, even to his friends who were black. Instead of no-platforming him, we played, talked, debated with him, told him he was an idiot, got angry, argued and continued over time so to do. We didn’t think it through, this was no co-ordinated plan, we had no idea there was such a thing as ‘no-platforming’, we were just kids, trying to make sense of a complex world. It worked… well, by worked, I mean he changed from being a fascist to becoming a sweet, loving, anarchist hippy/punk type; whatever floats your boat maaaaaan.

In schools, voices should not be shut up – for this is where debate is of most urgent importance, because these children are makers of the future and it is within them that solutions need to be found. This is not easy but it is an essential part of strengthening a consensual democracy. Space needs to be found for arguments to be exposed and not shut away so that feelings turn into simmering resentment and airing of reactionary thoughts retreat back into the safe space of home or group. Our institutions need to encompass real difference, not become ‘safe spaces’ for those who all agree. We need unsafe spaces – not dangerous spaces but spaces where confrontation and debate can take place and instead of intimidating people on trams, at bus stops, and through Naziesque propaganda, the challenge to these, what I consider, abhorrent ideas needs to happen not from a position of shocked defence but one of engaged attack.

All should understand that a muscular liberalism can assert ‘moral truths’ about conduct, that violence and bullying is wrong and that this might include grey areas but if in a school election there is a fascist candidate let them stand and face the arguments and maybe, even, vitriol from their peers. Let them feel it. Liberal democracy needs voices, it is consensual not through physical violence, nor from the violence of excluding people from that debate, but from the  agreed position that freedom of speech is one of its central tenets. Abhorrent views need to be challenged in the open and not just dismissed as ‘wrong’ and closed down.

It is customary to say that free speech is sacrosanct, do the customs of your school have that enshrined? Teach kids to argue and debate about stuff and get them busy strengthening their community so that they can reach out to each other, to the future and to the world with ‘an open hand’ rather than, later, with a closed fist.




The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’


“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Gangsta’s Paradise: Coolio

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Psalms 23:4 King James’ Version

The other day I was working with some teachers coming to the end of their training, the conversations were rich and rewarding and I have a good deal of faith that they will become great teachers. I was opening up debate by offering some provocations, including saying that it is important to not only teach ‘great’ work but also to help children develop a sense of what ‘great’ might be. Whilst emphasising the subjective nature to these judgements, I was arguing that children need to develop an ability to take part in the conversation and not feel excluded. One ITT suggested that this could occur from popular culture quoting the ‘Coolio’ lyric above. I pointed out that if someone did not know the biblical quote they might not recognise the reference. A biblical reference transcends class and race, and a child who has access to some words from, lets say, the King James Version of the Bible has a rich vein of material they can draw on throughout their life, whether they believe in the Christian God or not.

If I am educated in the works of High Culture my cup runneth over and I dwell in a world in which I can articulate thoughts I wouldn’t even have had if I didn’t know anything about it. I can enter into conversations with people I would have no business even being in the same room as them. I can change my life. I remember as a teenager being snubbed in an Oxford college because I was a mere ‘townie’, not for me the privileged discourse of the ‘gownie’; instead of obsessing about myself… my narrow obsessions… I could’ve thrown that mirror to the floor, and let my image, distorted, scream back at me: “Just learn about what you know, limit your life, and forever hide the inner you…”

If you only know popular culture and the most accessible aspects of it, then what do you know of the world? I’d warrant you’d know a lot but there would be a whole lot more you wouldn’t know. This is where school comes in, there is no point in teaching children what they already know, at school it is the inaccessible that should fascinate us, the downright difficult, the stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily come across or would find difficult to access. The stuff behind heavy oak doors, or in secret gardens. Yes, children might be scared of the things that schooling might put them through but this education can touch and enrich their ‘inner you’. High Culture is looking for recruits, children salute! If this education is only for the rich, or only for the geeks then what do we become? Weirdly bereft of a whole tranche of human knowing, we scatter ourselves around the basement, debased, not wholly aware of what or why we might be. We’re weird.

Weird people from the basement need to climb to the roof; You know the people on the bus and the people on the street people like you and the people like me! Weird people! Geeks! Whoever! People like you and me. A little mix of high culture with our lived lives enriches us, it expands us, it opens up possibilities. By denying high culture on the grounds of class, or any other, demeans the person denying that knowledge to others, because they ‘know’ of it but decide not to tell. In whose interests is it to not teach children the supreme works of humanity?

Then I hear the refrain: “But who is to say they are the supreme works?” And with that quip ‘high’ culture is dismissed; easily ignored and hated as elitist it becomes ever more elitist by denying it to our children. In the basement they can dream of climbing to the roof, but they know it’s not for the likes of them and the effort might be too much on their own. If only a great teacher would sing: “But it don’t matter who you are, you can be who you wanna be,” with an education that sees no reason not to teach great works a child can be comforted in the knowledge that can restoreth their soul.

Schools Should Not Teach the End of History


Schooling changes lives. That is the claim. Without having attended school our lives would be different, how different we do not know but, clearly education makes a difference. A liberal arts education is an education for freedom. This seems laudable but what does it mean? Freeing a person through knowledge, insight, and initiating them into the conversation of time, is different from freeing them into being at the beck and call of the tyranny of the majority or the strong. It is an internal freedom, an ideal, a freedom for thought, and to realise oneself through choices as well as being able to free others who come into contact with you. The paradox is that this freedom also gives you the freedom not to do this. You are free to be indoctrinated and also to indoctrinate others. This is where a liberal approach can falter.

By demanding that the future be ‘fairer’ or ‘kinder’ or ‘free from oppression’ one immediately faces the problem that in order to be fairer, kinder and free from oppression one has to deal with those who are deemed to be not fair, not kind, and a bit of an oppressor. Once these types have been ‘identified’ they are then unfairly, unkindly, oppressed. As this continues those who are being unfair, unkind, and oppress in the name of a better world, create a terror which is far from kind and fair.

In a school that believes one shapes the future in pre-ordained ways freedom falters. If a school has decided how a utopia is formed, let us say it is full of ‘fair’ people, they define what fairness is and decide that these ‘traits’ should be forced upon those in their care, whether these children and their parents agree or not with their definition. In the name of progressing towards a ‘new dawn’ children are changed. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains implies freedom but demands ‘unity’ and those that refuse to unite will remain chained.

Tradition offers a different approach, this approach imposes the habits of the past rather than a definition of a new age. Rather than change children for the future, this approach changes them to fit ‘in’ to current conventions. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. This can imply one way to be, just as much as the progressive vision. Both play with history, in one ‘it just is’, and in the other, ‘it must be…’

The liberal arts approach recognises the importance of initiating children into ‘the way things are done around here’ as well as a way of reaching out into the world. It is conversant with different voices and teaches children to recognise these competing voices. Where it is very different is that as it is education for independence it passes the world, in all its complex and competing ways, on. It does not impose on children a blueprint of a utopia that they must create, rather it gives children an idea of what was and what is so that they might form the future in the way that they see fit. Free.

Maybe this is where the obsession with ‘self’ comes from. The fetishisation of the self, the selfish, the selfie, the ‘it’s my opinion so it counts’… this would be the inevitable consequence of teaching that any content is king or anything produced by a child is queen. This could not be further from the truth. A liberal arts education is conversant with truth, with beauty, with quality, with excellence. It is conversant with what it is to be human, in all its divergent interpretations. It begins with the constraints of the past, it investigates and critiques in the present and passes the responsibility on to the next generation to continue the conversation but not in a way that finishes the said conversation in a vision of a utopian state but in a way that is responsible for continuing to pass the conversation forward to their children, their children’s children and so on…

A liberal arts education does not believe that history has ended or that history will end in a progressive vision of a fair and kind world, rather it believes that history will continue to be made and it hopes that the better the quality of a child’s education the freer they will be to make that world, then the better that world might be. Or worse, ay, there’s the rub.

Voices Joined, Not Silenced.


Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.  Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.

In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:

…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.

Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.

If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.

In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.

Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to  begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.

Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up,  they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!

Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.

If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.

The Socratic Method, Teaching the Trivium: Dialectic


Not many teachers would want to wander into the staff room after a particularly robust seminar and be presented with a coffee cup full of steaming hot hemlock, ‘drink this you corruptor of youth!’ No, best to keep quiet in the classroom and not ask too many questions…

But how wise are you?

Admit it, you know nothing and in knowing this, you know you are wiser than anyone who thinks they know everything. This is the starting point for the Socratic method, do not start with a lofty appreciation of your own knowledge but with an appreciation of your own ignorance. It is through the admittance of ignorance that you can then begin to seek out how best to live. Know thyself! Rather than worrying about convention or worrying about what others might think, you have to find it in your own soul how to live the good life. For Socrates this is a moral and rational process that involves hard questions. These hard questions are a constant intellectual process through which we might uncover the truth and reality about our lives as lived. Make no mistake, this method is looking for truth.

Socrates used dialectic as a teaching method: ask questions, get answers, then question the answers. There weren’t easy answers to his questions, no wonder he pissed people off, as soon as something was settled up pops Socrates to undermine the consensus. Socrates saw himself as a kind of intellectual midwife bringing truths to birth; does this method do that?

Socratic method is a form of argument called elenchus – refutation and cross examination; it is great fun for those involved if all are happy to participate, it is however quite threatening to those who are not, they can see it as upsetting and quite aggressive. What the questioner tries to do is look for contradictions and inconsistencies in answers and by the time the session is finished most often participants find themselves in a state of Aporia or doubt about quite fundamental things. This is the heart of the Socratic dialectical form of questioning, with many people often ending up none the wiser.

Socratic questioning examines statements of fact, it questions something that might seem at first to be quite simple, say: ‘what is courage?’ and exposes it to analysis, resulting in a realisation that these ideas are really quite complex. Each statement is treated as conjecture, you then think about the consequences of such a thought. To give a contemporary example, someone might say that pupils need grit and determination, the Socratic questioner might ask: “what if your pupils are metaphorically banging their heads against a brick wall, is determination and grit a good thing, would not giving up be a better option?” The answer to this would be, yes, in this case giving up would be a better option. Therefore grit and determination are not what pupils need more of. This assumption, in turn, opens itself to another question and so on…

It has no doctrines to pull out of the bag, you don’t want to use it in a discussion where you want students to respond in one way. It would be dishonest to use it in a citizenship class to discuss in race or gender if you are wanting a certain outcome. Therefore use carefully in the classroom! Don’t open pupils minds to all sorts of thoughts only to castigate them for those thoughts. In fact it’s not a good method for lots of teaching, if you want children to know that 9 x 11 = 99 you might not want to question their answer if they get it right because the answer is ‘true’.

It is a good way to get students to realise the enormity of their own ignorance, and also yours! Therefore in order to pull it off the relationship between a pupil and teacher is important as well as the relationship between the pupils in the rooms: can the pupils take the rigorous questioning that is bound to come their way? Are they robust enough at a tender age to realise it is not them being questioned but our assumptions and that some unpalatable truths might be exposed on the way?

So why use it?

Where it works really well is examining a core belief in your subject that is open to doubt. In Art this might be the perennial question ‘What is Art?’ For me, as a teacher of theatre, I would return regularly to the question ‘What is truth’? It was a question that allowed us to look at the different theories of many theatre practitioners: Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud… We questioned ‘truth’ through realism and naturalism, surrealism, expressionism, dialectical materialism etc. Therefore, instead of questioning the ‘facts’ I wanted students to know, we had the purpose of bringing our knowledge of different theories to our Socratic dialogue. The students had to know lots of stuff to enrich the argument; my aim was always to disrupt the central question but not to disrupt the knowledge that was brought to bear in the argument, this I would always check for accuracy.

Eventually students would try to persuade people as to the efficacy of certain ideas more than others, I would expose that to questioning, we’d come up with a new understanding, expose that to questioning and so on, in other words the process of the trivium, through grammar to dialectic to rhetoric and round again. At the end of the theatre course students had explored fully the question of what is truth in theatre, and would be able to express their own strong opinions as to what it was to them; this helped each of them to know thyself as a maker of theatre.