Arguing by Analogy

I think that I can safely say that every time that I thought that I had a good analogy I was going to use in writing a post, I have ended up discarding it.

Analogies are hard to get right, and it frankly doesn’t seem productive to me to use an analogy if it results not in illumination, but instead results in arguments about whether school assessments really are or are not like packing parachutes.

One analogy I see from time to time, and saw again quite recently, is that if you would defer to a doctor during surgery, than you must defer to teachers.

I hardly think it is likely that parents are showing up in your classrooms actually interrupting lessons as you are trying to teach. However, without spending too much time on it, I also think that the culture of medicine is no longer one of absolute deference–think second opinions, informed consent, and patients showing up with articles they have printed off the internet.

So if we must have a medical analogy, here’s how I think of it: Imagine you are compelled to see a home birth specialist when you want an obstetrician, or an obstetrician (with a high c-section rate!) when you want a home birth. Imagine you are compelled to see a pill-prescribing psychiatrist when you want cognitive-behavioral therapy, or a talk therapist when you want to experience “better living through chemistry.” Imagine you are compelled to see an orthopedic surgeon when you want a chiropractor, or a chiropractor when you want an orthopedic surgeon.

All of these practitioners are experts, right? So what difference should it make to the patient? And, yet, I don’t think it is at all hard to see that the differences between patient and practitioner in those situations will not easily be resolved by a display of the practitioner’s diplomas or licenses. The differences may not even be easily resolved by research, after all, what good is research showing something “works” if the patient has a fundamental value conflict with either the ends or the means or both?

I think the same is true in education to some extent, though I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to imagine all the possible value conflicts between parents and teachers/administrators with regard to discipline, grading, acceleration, or teaching any subject you choose to consider.

In other words, though credentials may play some role in whether a parent is willing to defer to a teacher or administrator’s professional judgment, I think that it is much more important that the parent perceives that the parent and the teachers/administrators are all on the same page/same side.

Or, as Chris says:

I wish people would distinguish between questions about how to reach certain educational goals (on which I think teachers’ expertise is particularly valuable) and questions about what goals to pursue. People seem to want to reduce every debate to a contest about whose “evidence” is better, rather than confront the conflicting value questions that are often at the bottom of the disagreement.

Ultimately, I think that public school teachers, administrators, and school boards need to be able to explain their decisions and the bases for them. And, that professional judgment probably is an incomplete explanation, particularly in circumstances that are largely or entirely about values and preferences.

Have you seen analogies you particularly like (or dislike) in education debates? Please share them in the comments.


5 thoughts on “Arguing by Analogy

  1. SStewart

    Well said and presented, Karen. I was glad to see this topic written about. I had it on my list to blog about too. The point about values is important. I wrote about the comparison of education and medical fields in another forum in the past. I will paste and adjust some of it here and hope you don’t mind that.

    I do think we have to be careful how we compare professions, or experts in different fields. There will often be differences in skills and services, how they are trained/educated and governed, and the extent and time frame to which they impact a child or family’s lives, as well as how much choice we have in choosing the individuals who will advise us and make decisions in whatever matter.

    The medical profession has not invited me (a parent) to become a partner in a public sense. But when we take our child to visit the doctor I do feel that I am usually offered options, and often acknowledged that, as a parent, I will have a fair bit of final say in the option or treatment I choose for my child (and this will vary depending on the issue and level of emergency at hand of course). And yes, the medical strategies would be far less an area that I could input on. I might be able to get a second opinion as well. But this is where education may be different. Education and schools affect children every day, and impact much of their lives. Many of our days revolve around getting them to school, supporting them in school and afterschool, dealing with what affects them in school during home/family time, not always having much choice in who is making the decisions about strategies, etc. It becomes a “relationship” whether we want it or not, whether it is positive or not, and regardless of how much we want to be involved or consulted, because it impacts so many of parents in a more daily way. I recognize that we may have other more regular relationships and contact with other professionals and services, and differences may vary in need for them at different times. But schools are left with a huge, long-term clientele and job, and it seems many more jobs, and maybe social change as well. I also think, historically and before schools, education of children (or the teaching of skills as well as values) was under the charge of parents, but the world is very different now and we seem to be still sorting this out.
    Not a new analogy, but I thought I would add… if it helps at all 🙂

    1. Karen W Post author

      Thanks for the comment! I think you raise an important point about just how much of a child’s life–and by extension, parents’ lives–revolves around school.

      Which reminds me of another analogy I used to see–that if you wouldn’t blame the dentist for children’s cavities, then you shouldn’t blame the teachers for low academic performance of children. I always thought maybe it would be different if the dentist saw the child 180 days out of the year, instead of just once or twice per year? Which I think touches on your other point of the difficulty of comparing professions.

  2. Chris

    The argument that the public should defer to the expertise of teachers has another problem, which is that teachers as a group are never unanimous about particular policy choices. Surely there are teachers in the world who do not agree with Standards-Based Grading; aren’t they also “experts”? My feeling is that if you can’t explain your policy argument in a way that can persuade a layperson — beyond just arguing from authority — then you’re not much of an expert.

    I say this not out of any preconceived opposition to SBG, which actually sounds to me like an improvement over the grading practices here in Iowa City. Nor do I mean to say that proponents of SBG haven’t made any substantive arguments — just that the Twitter battle did sometimes veer into arguments from authority of the kind that are inherently unpersuasive.

  3. Michael Tilley

    Karen, I’d say that education is much worse off in terms of deliberating about values/end than in medicine. There are four clear values in medical practice: beneficence (do good), non-malfeasance (do no harm), autonomy (don’t substitute your values for the patients), and justice (fair distribution of medical resources/goods). In education, what are the most important values? Could we list them? Would that list be exhaustive? And, even if we had the four central values (or whatever number that is!) in education, we would still have the same problem that is currently found in medical practice. That is, it isn’t exactly clear how to adjudicate cases where one or more of those values come into conflict. For instance, do you perform a surgery that could give the patient many more quality years of life (beneficence) even if the patient doesn’t want it (v. autonomy)? In other words, we’d still have the problem of rank-ordering those values. If you cannot identify and deliberate about underlying values, then you’ll have a hard to deliberating when differences in values or a rank-ordering of values come to the fore in a practical issue.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Michael. Here’s a link to an extended version of his comment over at J. Michael Tilley’s blog.

      I agree that education is much worse off in terms of deliberating about values, which is why I’m interested in exploring the analogy a bit. Why is it relatively easy to accept that people have a difference of opinion–values, really–about say, home birth versus delivery at a hospital attended by obstetrician but we can’t tolerate–explore? recognize?–a difference of opinion about Singapore Primary Mathematics versus Everyday Math? Or how pretending that the differences don’t exist might exacerbate conflict or distrust among education “stakeholders.”

      I think, in my analogy, I was getting at the widespread recognition of the importance of the value of autonomy in medical decision-making, yet there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent value in education–in fact, some in education may not value autonomy at all (compulsory attendance laws, state and/or federal impositions of policy/programs). I suppose that in some sense, that is a part of my preference for local control of public schools. There are value judgments made in public education, and if in public schools, they can’t perfectly reflect the preferences of individual parents, they could at least reflect the value preferences of a majority of the community served by the public school/district–but only if they are identified and publicly debated–which I think is at least one of the points you are trying to make.


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