Elephants, riders and debate on Twitter


Inspired by the blogging of Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) I have been reading very basic philosophy recently.

I think I like David Hume best.

Hume lived in the eighteenth century. Many philosophers before him had been consumed with identifying what it is possible to actually know, given that our senses and reason itself are unreliable and cannot be trusted. Hume agreed with this, believing that beyond mathematics, we cannot know anything for certain. On the face of it this is a paralysing conclusion; if we cannot know anything then how do we proceed? Any decision we take and any action we make is, if you accept Hume and other thinkers of his school, based on unsupported foundations. Hume goes further, writing that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. By this Hume means that the choices we make are not really a product of reason at all, but are in fact based on instincts that we cannot objectively untangle. We may use reason to explain our beliefs and choices, but this is done post-hoc and is self-justification, not empirical inquiry.

Hume’s ghost haunts the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful “The Righteous Mind”. In this book, about why good people disagree over politics, writes “the mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” By this, Haidt means that humans are, primarily, instinctive creatures and that our ‘higher’ reasoning faculties are designed to justify our instinctive choices not to challenge them. Haidt uses this metaphor to explain why good people of contrasting political beliefs struggle to understand opposing arguments. Almost always, these arguments are between riders, who are unwitting slaves to their elephants.

For those of us interested in education there is a lot to think about in the work of Hume and Haidt. We inhabit a world in which it is very difficult to work out what works. We work in diverse, chaotic schools that contain so many variables that attributing success or failure to one thing over another is, in many cases, impossible. Was it our Growth Mind-set programme that resulted in our 7% GCSE A*-C improvement or was it our new literacy programme? Did our results fall because we introduced vertical form groups or was it because we stopped doing as many interventions after school? Is recruitment and retention an issue because of bad behaviour or is it because teaching does not pay enough?

Without clarity we are, whether we admit it or not, often led by our elephants. We make instinctive decisions about what to believe and then seek out evidence that reinforces the preconceived opinions and views that make us, us. Teachers like me, inclined towards pedagogical conservatism, seek out evidence that supports this teaching style and find it very difficult to listen to a teacher of a very different pedagogical bent with an open mind. I am sure the same is true in reverse.

We see this play out on edutwitteer where tribalism makes it even harder for us openly engage with the arguments of those outside our alliances. Even in the comparatively short time I have been an active member of the community I feel things have changed. We are no longer just pixels on a screen to each other – we are meeting more and more in real life. We are sending each other books and presents. We are becoming friends. This is wonderful but it brings with it the danger of further division, as personal loyalties strengthen our elephants and cloud our riders. As tribes coalesce it may become more and more difficult for us to find space in which debate can be truly meaningful and we run the risk of ossifying into silos lobbing empty slogans at each other.

Hume may offer some insight on how we can avoid this. He believed that we should hold our opinions lightly, knowing them to be based on instinct and our own experiences, and so fallible. This is not, for one moment, to suggest that we do not have fierce debate and disagreement or that we should all join hands and sing as one big family, Hume points out that while we know nothing for certain we still have to live in the world and this means having opinions, which of course means encountering and engaging with those we disagree with. Haidt has helpful things to say on how we might do this. He points out that opinions are rarely changed when we engage only on an intellectual, logical level.

Instead he says we should talk to to each other’s elephants.

I am always heartened when I see off-topic, warm exchange happening between those who disagree on educational philosophy. Whether it is a thread on Star Trek, gardening, football or a conversation about parenting, the effect is the same; the sun comes out and, as elephants relax, their riders find themselves better able to talk about more controversial topics later. It works because these small flares of humanity show that whatever and however strongly we disagree, we have respect for each other as people and make it harder for us to assume the worst of each other’s intentions.

It is in this spirit debate is most meaningful and productive. If we really want to influence each other, we must move out of our silos and meet with those with which we disagree.

Anyone fancy a pint?