Monday, November 3, 2008

We Have Issues

Last week, we started to explore some details in having a critical discussion. We talked about defining the resolution of the discussion (that is, the main claim) and expressing it. I asked you all to practice doing so. While I am certain you ALL practiced, I will cover what you may have encountered in a brief dialog before moving on to identifying issues (the questions that flow naturally and must be answered in fully exploring the resolution). Here goes:
Tom – “I am so upset with my kid. He got in trouble at school!”
Me – “Sorry to hear that. What was it about, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Tom – “He has a terrible history teacher. He tries hard, but can’t really follow all of the details for this class.”
Me – “So how did that get him in trouble?”
Tom – “He borrowed some ideas from another kid’s homework, just to get some ideas. They’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Me – “How did they know he did that?”
Tom – “Well, he copied the other kid’s words exactly! All the kid’s copy from each other – but he got caught”
Me – “So, you’re saying that what he did was alright?”
Tom – “No…of course not. I just don’t think he should be singled out”
Me – “So, you’re saying that he shouldn’t be punished?”
Tom – “No – I am just saying that cheating in school is common and punishing my kid won’t help”
Me – “So, you’re saying far more kids are engaged in cheating in school than the teachers think”
Tom – “That’s exactly right”

In this conversation I had to try three times to actually gain agreement on what the resolution is, but I finally made it. The resolution is “Far more kids are engaged in cheating in school than the teachers think” and that gives us a starting place for a critical discussion.
The first thing we may ask is: do we ourselves know this to be true? Do we KNOW with certainty that “Far more kids are engaged in cheating in school than the teachers think”? I DON’T know that so I may want to test the truth of that claim a bit. In order to test a claim, one must identify the issues underlying it.

The resolution is a special claim. I called it the “main claim” earlier. Even though it is the main claim in a controversy, it is still just a claim. There are four kinds of claims. That’s right – In all the controversies you have ever been involved in, there have only ever been four kinds of claims in play. Our resolution (“Far more kids are engaged in cheating in school than the teachers think”) is called a “claim of fact” – a statement one makes that is presented as a plain fact. We will examine all four kinds as we progress, but for now we will just define them:
1 - Claim of Fact – presented as a plain factual statement like “Far more kids are engaged in cheating in school than the teachers think”
2 - Claim of Definition – presented to offer a definition or characterization like “The kid wasn’t cheating; he was just harmlessly cutting a corner”
3 - Claim of Quality – presented to make a value judgment about something like “Those teachers are incompetent”
4 - Claim of Policy – presented as a suggested course of action like “They should allow the kids to work together and share ideas like they’ll have to in the workplace”

The underlying issues for each kind of claim can be found in four ways:
1 – Breaking down the key words and phrases in the claim, and asking questions about them
2 – Reviewing the context of the claim, rather than simply breaking down the phrases
3 – Reviewing all that we both agree on about the subject, and questioning that which we do NOT agree on
4 – Using an ancient model (called the Topoi) to determine the underlying questions based on the kind of claim being made.

We will illustrate method number one, two, and three in this article, with special attention to the fourth next time.

In breaking down key words or phrases, we would view the resolution in parts and ask questions about those parts. See the table below.

Key word or phrase


Far more kids

How many kids? How many more is “far more”?

are engaged in cheating in school

What do we mean by engaged in cheating? What does one
have to do to be “engaged in cheating”? What does it look like? What exactly
is “cheating” in school? Does this exclude cheating in other places? Is it
only in academic subjects, or can one cheat in art or physical education?

than the teachers think

Do we know how many kids the teachers think are
cheating? Are the teachers in a good position to know? What would make the teachers
think that kids are cheating?

If we were to examine the context, we might ask questions about the pressure put on kids to do well in school; the erosion of ethics in society in general; the temptation of a “quick fix” approach over longer term and deeper education strategy; or the incongruent emphasis between individual achievement in school and team achievement at work.

In reviewing all that we agree on within the topic, we might stipulate that kids do cheat and teachers can’t be certain as to how many do it, and that cheating means turning in work for credit for which you were not the original creator. We would still have discuss the teachers’ estimate of how many cheaters there are and how may cheaters there actually are, and would the difference in the two numbers qualify as “far more” or not.

When I review a claim I like to use at least two of the four methods, which ever seems more appropriate at the time, in order to make sure I have a good perspective of the resolution. Practice it this week – first, question until you have the resolution defined to the other party’s satisfaction and then develop all the salient issues you can. You don’t have to ask them all (I never do) but identify as many as you can and see if you can ask the most important ones. You will never be at a loss for something to ask about a claim again!

Next Week – the topoi!

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