Can children learn to challenge authority?

Genericism is rife in the educational world and it takes many forms. One of its basic tenets is that the generic things we learn can easily be transferred from one domain to another. Common generic ideas include teamwork, critical thinking and creativity: people talk in terms of ‘teaching teamwork’, ‘teaching critical thinking’ and ‘helping pupils be creative’.

Yet I would argue that these are little more than platitudes. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

I remember once taking a group of boys who were rugby players on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition. I had seen them playing rugby before and, although I know very little about rugby, it was quite obvious to me that these boys worked as a highly effective team. They had clearly worked hard over time to make their teamwork slick – the way they passed the ball and anticipated the movements of their team members seemed automatic: they did these things without having to think about it. And yet, when this highly effective team came to put up a tent together, they were all over the place. Each boy was doing his own thing, often acting in a way that made it impossible for another boy to do the task he had been assigned. They communicated poorly and they were not supporting one another: it was a mess. Anyone watching this would have considered it a shambles, yet I had seen those very same boys working in another context as an exceptional team. Perhaps they were just having a bad day. Or could it perhaps be that ‘teamwork’ is not a generic competence? Could it be that learning to work as a rugby team is quite different from learning to work as a tent-erecting team, and that just because a group of people might be successful in one, does not mean they would be in the other.

If teamwork is a generic skill, then it should follow that, once it has been learnt in one context, it can be applied fairly easily to another without having to learn a whole new ‘type’ of teamwork. The same is true of ‘critical thinking’: the basic idea is that, if you teach someone to ‘think critically’, then they will be able to do this easily enough in a variety of new contexts, without having to spend a long time learning a new context. For a good challenge to this idea, I can do little more than recommend Bailin et al’s 1999 paper ‘Common misconceptions of critical thinking’, in which the domain-specificity of ‘good thinking’ is set out. On their argument, we cannot treat critical thinking as a generic process or procedure; rather, we have to think about what it means to think well in particular domains. Domain-specificity is paramount and, frustratingly for those who want to teach ‘critical thinking’ or ‘teamwork’, this suggests that transferable skills cannot really be taught or learnt.

We see this kind of genericism as well where some commentators have argued that strict discipline in schools results in citizens who have no understanding of how to challenge authority. This works on the assumption that ‘challenge to authority’ is a generic idea: if I have learnt to challenge one sort of authority, then I will also be able to challenge other types of authority. Yet, as with ‘critical thinking’ or ‘teamwork’, does this really follow? Could it perhaps be that challenging the authority of your parents is different from challenging the authority of your teachers, which is again different from challenging the authority of a political leader. Why would it necessarily follow that because we insist that children in school follow rules, they are any more or less likely to follow rules in wider society?

To make an argument for transferability, we have to argue that context is not that important. If I have learnt x, then I can do x regardless of whether I am in situation a, b or c. This is how genericism leads us to weak conclusions. We look at two distinct domains (such as rugby and tent-erecting) and we try to identify the things that both tasks have in common. Having identified these and given them names, we then set out to teach the genericised thing which, now ripped from its domain-specific context, has lost the very things that make it what it was. This is what genericism does. It attenuates reality. It leaves us grasping at vague ideas. It causes us to talk in platitudes.

So, in designing curricula, I would implore you to be specific.

If you want children to learn to challenge the authority of political leaders, then teach them how to challenge the authority of political leaders.

If you want children to learn to challenge the authority of their employers, then teach them to challenge the authority of their employers.

If you want children to learn to challenge the authority of violent dictators, then teach them to challenge the authority of violent dictators.

And if you want children to challenge the authority of teachers, then teach them how to challenge the authority of teachers.

But don’t just say “I want children to learn to challenge authority”. In this form, it does not really mean very much at all.


Picture: The Huth manuscript. Initial with image of Arthur taking the sword from the stone, Northern France (Arras?), 1310, 300 x 220mm.Additional 38117, f. 73v detail.

1 Comment on Can children learn to challenge authority?

  1. Michael Fordham // 14 December 2016 at 10:18 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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