No, no, no, no, no


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:

Argumentative children do better in maths and science, study finds

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.

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  1. Very true! Unfortunately, the people who should be reading this probably won’t and if they do, they’ll just troll and abuse you rather than paying any attention to your highly rational and well-written arguments.

  2. Chester Draws

    All the study actually proves, in any case is one of:

    1) students will behave better if there is a camera and microphone in the room.

    2) teachers who are given extra time and coaching will get better results.

    3) teachers and students who think they are doing something different and special will get better results.

    The control group wasn’t really a control group at all. There should have been extra time for the control group teachers, extra training and mentoring for the control group teachers (in, say, direct instruction) and a camera and microphone in both sets of classrooms.

    Otherwise all we have is the placebo effect in action.

    In fact the design of the experiment was worse than that, since rather than give half of the classes in any school one treatment and half the other, they gave half the schools one and half the schools the other. It’s an appallingly bad set-up and proves nothing other than that educational research is generally very badly conducted.

  3. natepickering

    “Climate change deniers are famously argumentative. As are creationists. And homeopaths.”

    What is meant by “climate change deniers”? Because acceptance of the climate change political worldview requires acquiescence to a whole series of different, and increasingly tenuous, propositions:

    1) The global climate is changing;
    2) This is a bad thing;
    3) Human activity is the primary (or sole) cause of the change;
    4) Governments, by enacting a certain set of policies, can ameliorate or reverse the change.

    Rejecting creationism or homeopathy does not require jumping through multiple intellectual/political hoops.

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