It’s not about agreement, but the quality of the argument.


Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

Socrates taught us to learn through logical disputation. I suspect that this may be put to the test over the next few days.

I suppose that most teachers have mixed feelings about marking student’s work. This is a situation that probably pertains no matter whether working in a primary school or a university. These days, the majority of my marking activity is undertaken in relation to post graduate courses, which means that I often read work that is interesting and thoughtful, and sometimes provocative and challenging.

Recently I have marked assignments that have taught me about various aspects of education in India, and a dissertation that challenged my views about setting children for English lessons in a primary school. Occasionally students express ideas and opinions with which I am fundamentally in disagreement. This can in itself be interesting as the marking process is not about having to be in accord with the ideas advanced, and if the student presents a good argument supported by appropriate referencing and sound evidence, it is good to be challenged.

There have been times when I have read statements that have made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. I recall once marking an essay written by an undergraduate student that opened with the never to be forgotten words “A little known Swiss psychologist called Piaget…” At the time I was tempted to write “little known to you maybe, but not to most students of education!” I resisted the urge to be slightly sardonic, and simply directed the student to some reading that I hoped might expand their knowledge of one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the twentieth century.

Early this morning I opened my emails and found some work forwarded to me by an undergraduate student who was asking for some initial comments. My first impressions were favourable. The introduction to an assignment addressing teacher understanding of behaviour difficulties was well written, with reference to some interesting literature and a well-constructed description of the framework upon which the work was to be developed. So far, so good, but then I came across a phrase that made me take a sharp intake of breath. “Children who cannot abide by classroom rules,” argued the writer, “should be excluded from the school and educated in a separate unit where they cannot be disruptive of lessons.” Reading on I anticipated, or at least hoped for, a qualification of this bold assertion. However, two pages further on and my desires had not been realised. Teaching is a difficult enough task, argued this student, and if children make it even more so by disrupting lessons they should simply be removed.

Reading to the end of this work, which presented a lot of emotion, but little evidence upon which to base a logical argument, I found myself wondering how to respond. I most certainly find myself at odds with the sentiments expressed in the assignment, but did not simply want to express my disagreement or disapproval. I was far more inclined to write a response debating the points made. But having reflected on the contents of the essay, I eventually decided that rather than putting my thoughts on paper, I would invite the student to meet and debate the issues.

Having decided on this course of action I emailed the author of the work asking her if she would like to discuss her assignment, and suggesting that the work was well written, but that she needed to strengthen her arguments if she really believed that excluding children from lessons, or even from school was a good idea. I made it clear that I didn’t agree with her perspectives, but hoped that she might be able to justify her suggestions. A reply came within an hour welcoming my invitation and suggesting that all alternatives to exclusion have been shown to fail. “Why don’t you put my arguments on your blog?” She asked. “I think you will find that most teachers agree with me and would like to see trouble makers removed from schools.” Now there was a challenge I couldn’t resist.

I look forward to meeting with this interesting student and to seeing how she builds a case for her assertions.