I don’t want to be, well, argumentative. But this research does not show what the headline says it does. The headline implies that argumentative children do better in maths and science, according to a study. It implies this by being phrased as follows:
So what happened? How did the researchers find these argumentative children and establish their maths/science performance?
Well, they didn’t. They just didn’t.
What they did do was recruit ordinary — non-argumentative — children into a study. Or more specifically, they included 78 primary schools in a program in which “dialogic teaching” was taught as part of the curriculum.
Such teaching methods do this:
Teachers were encouraged to ask their pupils open questions, encouraging them to become familiar with the idea of exploring a topic rather than simply stating a yes or no answer.
And children in these schools were later found to have higher scores in science and maths than children in other similar schools.
They also had higher scores in English, although for some reason this doesn’t warrant a place in the headline.
Actually, “exploring a topic rather than simply stating a yes or no answer” is far from argumentativeness. Argumentative people don’t explore topics. They align themselves to dogmatic positions and then reject contrary views out of hand without exploring them.
Climate change deniers are famously argumentative. As are creationists. And homeopaths. All cling to minority views in the face of evidence to the contrary. They can only plausibly do so by refusing to explore the topic.
In reality, the Indy‘s headline — like many headlines — seeks to grab eyeballs and clicks by dog-whistling a range of implicit stereotypes, aimed at the type of internet user (i.e., all of them) who gets excited when they see news stories that confirm their own biases.
These stereotypes include:
- Nerdy kids — maths and science whizzes — can be a right pain in the ass
- Maths and science involve getting into arguments and liking it
- Psychology studies can prove our labeling prejudices correct
And by the way, introducing the term “argumentative children” means you are about to describe a subset of the adolescent population who are dispositionally argumentative. This story concerned an intervention that aims to get ordinary kids to behave differently. This does not make them “argumentative” any more than delivering introverts with a social skills program would entitle you to refer to them afterwards as extraverts.
I am always amazed by the uncritical and unthinking manner in which critical-thinking research gets reported. Or written up.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.