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.

18 thoughts on “It’s not about agreement, but the quality of the argument.

  1. I totally disagree with the author who believed that excluding children from a class or a school was a good idea! I just want to ask her some questions:
    1. What motivated you to be a teacher?
    2. How do you define a good teacher?
    3. What is education?
    4. Everyone has got the right to be treated fairly in the same environment, how would you say it was a good idea of excluding children from mainstream? Show me your evidence, please!

    • Hi Yumy,
      I like to think that when people become teachers they do so for the benefit of all children, and not simply for those whom they choose to teach because they are the easy option. You ask some key questions Yumy that we all need to ask of ourselves on a regular basis.

  2. Hi Richard – I also can’t resist responding! I would love to discuss the issues with your student, as there are many, but I will stick to just one point and let your other readers add theirs.

    It appears to me, obviously without having read the essay, that the student views children who do not readily abide by classroom rules as being disruptive to teaching. I fully agree with this statement. When most teachers teach a lesson they want it to go according to their well-considered plan, and the closer to the plan the better. At the end of such a lesson curriculum objectives have been taught and the children have appeared to receive the knowledge. Students who do not abide by the rules disrupt these plans.


    Let us not focus on teaching. To simply teach a lesson is meaningless. What we are trying to do is to promote learning. The two concepts can be very different. I can keep kids ‘under control’ and give a tight instructional session within the planned time frame, but I can almost guarantee you that under such circumstances learning is minimized for many children. To learn children cannot be passive, and learning, when it happens, is often messy and does not always follow the plan. Kids need to be engaged, not simply kept under control. Out job is not to teach in the traditionally understood sense, but rather to facilitate learning. Sometimes the ones who challenge us the most are right.

    Albert Einstein was disruptive in school. Winston Churchill was disruptive in school. Many others who have made a difference were. What if they were pushed out of school to sub-standard segregated special education? And, although I’m not in the same league as the above, I was also disruptive in school.

    So, I encourage your student to flip the paradigm. It’s about kids learning, not teachers teaching in comfortable circumstances.

    • Hi Tim,
      You raise many interesting points. The relationship between teaching and learning is far more complex than many believe. When delivering a lesson I fear that many teachers anticipate that all children learn in the same way, and in some instances those who are perceived to be “disruptive” are indicating that this is not their way. As you say, learning is often messy, but from this melee can often come more creative opportunities. If teachers have the confidence to be facilitators rather than instructors they are likely to enhance these opportunities.

  3. As ever Richard, a rich & stimulating blog/debate.

    In my role, as policy developer I come across several professionals with similar views to your student & the emotion to accompany it. As we discuss it through & drill down on the issues; many a time it boils down to:

    1) the perceived ‘identity’ the practitioner holds of themselves
    2) the perceived ‘identity’ the practitioner holds of learners & the process of learning.

    Unpacking our own ‘identity’ & what experiences in life have contributed to that journey is an interesting exploratory process. Perceptions of identity inform our role, thoughts and indeed what we do (behaviour).

    My questions for your student:
    How is excluding the student enabling in terms of life long learning?
    Who benefits from the exclusion and what are the consequences for all stakeholders involved?
    Why are self-esteem & self-efficacy important dimensions of the learning process, both for the teacher/facilitator of learning & the learner?

    All the best, Anita

    • Hi Anita,
      The who benefits? questions are important here. If a child genuinely has a difficulty denying that this is a problem best dealt with by the teacher is not going to help find a solution. Abdication of responsibility is a significant factor in teachers who remain static and have given up learning for themselves.

  4. Is an undisrupted classroom an indication of meaningful learning? To me, a disruptive class means that there is a lack of meaningful engagement in the classroom. So that brings us back to planning a lesson that is child centric, keeping every child’s learning needs in mind, one that does not focus only on delivery of a lesson. A teacher that focuses only on the “delivery of the script”, will than perceive children as “disruptors” rather than the main players. It is important not to lose the plot in our enthusiasm while planning a lesson.
    So I guess a bit of reflection is called upon. I feel that if there are disruptors in the classroom the onus is on the teacher to consider whether her plan includes all the learners in the classroom.

    • Hi Shuba,
      You are describing more inclusive approaches to teaching here. This is a message that we need to keep pushing if more children are not to be excluded from learning. Well; said.

  5. Just as well we are not going to meet this student.
    Like others, I would ask the student to consider things from the pupil’s point of view. It may be that only one pupil is expressing ‘disruptive’ behaviour but others are feeling/thinking it. I also wonder what the ‘disruptive’ behaviour is.
    Too often the child is considered the problem rather than revieiwing all aspects of the environment: the physical environment of the classroom is so often overlooked. It may sound radical, but perhaps asking the child to explain the reasons for the behaviour might lead to some insights.
    While reading your blog I was reminded of the account of a young man with multiple and complex learning difficulties who suddenly stopped wanting to go outside. The professionals around him looked for all sorts of explanations as to the onset of his behaviour. It turned out that a nail was protruding from the bottom of his shoe and into his foot. This only happened when he was required to changes from his slippers to his shoes.

    • Hi Carmel,
      Looking for solutions rather than abandoning problems is generally a very good policy. I actually look forward to meeting with a student who clearly has some difficulties. I will not condemn her for her current feelings, but hope that she can be persuaded to see that there are alternatives.

  6. I have been following the comments -very meaningful and interesting and they speak my mind. I can only say this – it is a teacher who has given up on a child who will resort to this, and the impact this will have on a child will scar the entire ‘learning life’ of the child. The teacher needs to review the classroom rules and look at what is the trigger for the disruptive behaviour. When we talk of a multi level classroom , then there are bound to be differences in all areas. Exclusion is not and will never be the solution!! Board exam results are out in Bangalore just a few days ago and we have been getting calls from parents of many of our children who we’ve worked with doing well!! And they were in the same class -it was the management of the so called ‘disruptive behaviour’ that made all the difference to these children.

    • Hi Jayashree,
      Good to hear of your successes. Perhaps we should be concerned about teachers with disruptive behaviours!

  7. Hello Richard
    very thought provoking indeed!!!!

    If all “disruptive ” children are to be excluded from the classroom what are the teachers there for? Are we good teachers/ educators only if we can manage the well behaved, non disruptive ones? I would love to see the evidence for this statement. . I agree that it definitely is a challenge for the teacher but not an impossible one….

  8. Perhaps some challenge in our lives as teachers keeps us alive. Personally I have always enjoyed having an opportunity to solve problems with children. When we succeeed we see major benefits all round. Keep up the good work Pooja.

  9. This could be a very interesting discussion for a School of Education seminar with perhaps some of our Colleagues from India joining in via Skype or other means. Perhaps those who are involved in research could identify how their work contributes to minimising disruptive pupil behaviour/teacher misunderstanding.
    I would be particularly interested in hearing some of the strategies that Jayashree has used to achieve good results (congratulation Jayashree to you and your pupils).

  10. Hi Niall,
    I am hoping that this student is coming to see me this week. It will be interesting to have a face to face discussion about first principles.

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