Challenge: Conflict & Controversy

“We spend so long in The Pit we should put a sofa and a drinks machine in it.” – Former Student

I’m a fan of cognitive conflict in the classroom. The idea of thinking hard to me is a greater thing of beauty than dawn in the mountains, a Rembrandt masterpiece or music that would make angels weep. It took me over a decade in education to realise that nothing was more important to me than thinking hard. I value all of the other parts, developing them as well rounded, caring and thoughtful individuals is good for them and society, passing exams opens up life chances in terms of career and further education, I even like them to have fun when possible because I think that happiness is a good thing. Thinking is the thing that drags me in on a bad day, that excites me even in dark moments, that makes me obsess over education.

It’s because of this I’m always looking for ways to make them think hard. My favourite idea on thinking hard in the classroom is The Pit by James Nottingham. Simply put you should introduce an idea they feel confident about, get them a bit confused and questioning their knowledge, provide ways to solve that confusion and ideally have them more knowledgeable and satisfied with what they have achieved and learnt at the end. (That’s super brief, the video link above is a detailed version.)

There are many ways to create challenge or cognitive conflict; questioning, hard sums, appropriately pitched tasks. The one I’d like to share a little thinking on today is using controversy and conflict. To do so I’d like to share five techniques (dirty tricks) I use to intentionally challenge thinking and create disruption in students thinking.

Ad Hominem

This amusing deceit attacks (or supports) an argument or point by pointing out the flaws (or strengths) of a person. It’s a great way to invalidate perfectly logical and well developed arguments or shore up something a bit fluffy with a big name. 

A great example is the way people use quotes on the Internet next to a picture of some legendary figure. No-one ever uses historic villains to back their arguments. Try this one…

“Anyone can deal with victory. Only the mighty can bear defeat.” 

If that makes you feel motivated Google it’s originator.

If we call the character, appearance or any other aspect of the arguer or their source into doubt we unravel their arguments unjustly. Unjustly, but very easily. Give it a try.

Appeal to Emotion

This is the superb method of using emotive language to manipulate those hearing the argument. Appealing to the emotions of the reader or listener by directing how you want them to feel. 

This has become fabulously enhanced in recent years with the use of imagery to support it. Call it propaganda, or marketing, if you will but some nice words and a pretty picture doesn’t make something true. It can convince people that it’s true though.


False Dichotomy

Giving them a choice of two options as if they were the only ones in the world. It’s the “Daddy or chips?” question tactically applied to your subject matter. I’m led to believe people rarely actually have to choose between losing a parent or never again having access to deep fried potato products.

The idea that they have to choose is easily accepted by most, students and adults alike. The obvious counter to this fallacy is to offer another option or expose the absurdity of the limited choices they’ve offered. You could, if you feel particularly feisty, challenge their authority to enforce such a choice.

Slippery Slope

An almost charicature escalation of the situation to make their point or argument sound like the beginning of the end. 

The process is simple, suggest the worst thing that can happen that still sounds within the realm of reason based on their idea. Then repeat that for each step of escalation. An example floating around the ether on Twitter is how forgetting your pen for lessons can cause your death.

No pen = no study = fail tests = no job = no money = no food = die. It’s absurd to assume forgetting your pen will guarantee your death; if I thought that was the case I’d probably let you borrow one. 

Straw Man

Set up an argument which has enough gaps that you can take it apart to strengthen your own argument. It’s the structure of many an essay. Argument, take apart argument, other argument, conclude.

The trick is to make your straw man (sometimes called a straw dummy) convincing enough that they buy in to it just before you take it apart. It’s a very dramatic and simple trick to make your point seem more valid by proving the weakness of an alternative. In reality it doesn’t mean your argument is good, just that you’ve found a bad one that it sounds a bit better than.

Final Thoughts

“There’s a war going on for your mind. If you are thinking, you are winning.” – Flobots

As borderline insane as it may sound I see using dirty tricks and deceit as a moral duty. Training them to keep their guard up; much like one of my old kickboxing instructors who would slap me around the head every time I dropped my guard, when they stop thinking throw in a sneaky trick. It might sound a little cruel but it prepares their minds for the real world where not everyone will be honest or playing fair. If you don’t believe me go watch some adverts or read the news.

If you want to keep the game fair, teach them these techniques to use against you; it makes it even more fun.

Keep thinking, keep winning.

Barry Dunn – @SeahamRE



  1. Pingback: The Norton Teachmeet | "The library, and step on it."
  2. gwenelope · July 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


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