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Sophisticated Educators, Please Stand Up

People have been talking about false dichotomies in math education forever, it seems. And so have I (as long as you think of seven years ago as “forever”). And so has Professor David Clarke! His paper, titled Using International Research to Contest Prevalent Oppositional Dichotomies, was published in 2006, and I wrote it up on my old blog in 2008.

In that old post, though, I only highlighted some good quotations from Clarke’s piece. So perhaps it’s time to talk about it again in a little more detail. I’ll do just that in the next post, I promise.

But before we get to Clarke’s dichotomies, I find myself compelled to anticipate the inevitable reaction that Sophisticated Educators (to repurpose Dr Coyne’s “trademarked” phrase) have when cornered by what seem like caricatures of their professional ideas.

You see, Sophisticated Educators do not dichotomize in the ways Clarke describes. They are flexible and open-minded. They can, for example, be advocates of a teaching practice or philosophy and even cite research and make solid logical arguments defending it, but they are also, with no loss of reasonable vigor for their own preferences, aware that there are narratives that compete—directly and legitimately—with their own. Sophisticated Educators find the discussion about dichotomies “tedious” because they have long ago learned to accommodate competing theories and practices into different contexts within their own work.

Problematically, however, the messaging of Sophisticated Educators often overlaps with batshit insanity. And we simply don’t have access to the reasoning that would help us tell the difference between the two.

There is an analogous situation in religion. Both a Sophisticated Theologian and a fundamentalist share a fervorous belief in the supernatural, but whereas the former has arrived at his belief through some process of semi-rigorous investigation or inquiry, the latter believes what he does because it says so in a book. When pressed, the fundamentalist may quickly scribble some syllogistic ransom note, cut and pasted from pieces of different arguments (helpfully delivered by his Sophisticated counterparts), but this is only a makeshift shield, employed to deflect scrutiny. The content of his belief is derived solely from an ancient text. If he had grown up with a different ancient text, he would have a different belief.

Similarly, a Sophisticated Educator and his less sophisticated counterpart may claim some common ground in their opposition to lecture, say. Yet, whereas the former stands this belief on evidence and knows where it begins and ends, the latter believes it because someone told them to believe it—because it’s popular to do so. (Note that over 40% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form if it seems incredible to you that large groups of good, smart people can believe silly things in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The fundamentalist educator runs the idea into the ground, into the absurd, as does the fundamentalist believer—because no one is there to stop them from doing so.

The problem, among both co-religionists and co-educationists, if you will, is that there is no price to pay within the group for having bad reasons or no reasons for your beliefs. It seems to be enough that their constituencies’ opinions are pointing in the same general direction, because there is no robust and widespread tradition of scrutinizing the value of evidence or logical arguments within either community.

And as long as there is no internal policing of critical thinking and scientific reasoning within education, it will be imposed, annoyingly, from the outside. If Sophisticated Educators are tired of the tedium of dichotomous thinking in education, perhaps we should practice what we preach and demand more often of fellow educators what we ask of students—to explain their reasoning.

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J.D. Fisher

J.D. Fisher

Josh Fisher is an author and designer for K-12 mathematics curricula, currently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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