28 December 2005

On new bookshelves

As my diligent readers will have noted (if there are any; this page does not appear on the site stats, so I am writing to thin air, or "semi-privately", as a regular correspondent puts it) — I am into building built-in furniture in the study. The wardrobe is complete, and I have now done half the bookshelves.

Trivial task? Yes, but only at one level. The study has been improvised for the past ten years; it evolved to meet the needs of the moment. More books? Find another stretch of wall to put up shelves (including above the door, an oft-neglected place). Insufficient electric points? Plug in a new four-way extension; and so on. Now, under pressure from my wife, I am not merely re-building the opportunistic hovel, but having to impose some rationale on it.

And that it is the rub. Just as Thoreau warns us to "beware any enterprise which requires new clothes" and C Northcote Parkinson's lesser known "law" is "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death." (Parkinson, 1958)

So the opportunity/imperative to remodel my clunky study may represent the zenith (and hence the imminent decline) of my productivity! Why? Not because of a superstitious belief in Parkinson, but because I have had to take all my books off my shelves, and I shall have to put them back. But their order has evolved (and I use the term advisedly) over the past twelve years, since we moved to this house. Those in current use have been promoted to the shelves in front of the computer, and the spaces they have vacated on the other side of the room have periodically been reorganised to close the gaps. (This is leaving aside the new books, which graduate from a "current reading" shelf to somewhere else, as I finish them.) So the arrangement of the books reflects my interests; and I occasionally have a fun/frustrating hunt for one which has dropped back. But I can't reload my new shelves like that, if only because I can't remember it all, and the logistics of piling them up in the spare bedroom (thank goodness we had no overnight visitors over Christmas!) have violated the order. So I shall have to resort to a proto-Dewey classification, and twelve years of organic ordering have been lost.

I may well donate many of them to Oxfam; after all, if I can't remember why I have them, why keep them? But, just but, I may occasionally feel, "I know I've got something on that somewhere—now, where is it?"...

22 December 2005

On unfamiliar achievement

I have finally completed the wardrobe. Doors hung; catches installed; the whole thing. It's not perfect. There is at least 1.5mm between the closed doors, and about 4mm misalignment between them at the top and bottom, but over 1200mm and given that the walls, floor and ceiling were not straight to begin with, I'm very satisfied. It's a B+ at least, and probably an A-.

I'm not just satisfied; for the moment (fortified by a well-deserved glass of plonk), this counts as much of an achievement as my Ph.D or my National Teaching Fellowship. Over the top? Probably, but...
  • I'm familiar with the academic game. I know how to play it. I don't pretend to be in the premier league, but I'm good enough. It's a game which is slow to give feedback; you don't know how you are doing for months (in the case of peer-reviewed articles and books) or even for decades (in the rarefied atmosphere of Nobel prizes).
  • The practical game is different. I could not know (despite all the calculations) as I drilled and screwed the piano-hinges for the doors, whether they would actually close together, or overlap, or have an unacceptable gap, or be hopelessly misaligned. (Piano-hinge, being continous and not allowing for adjustment, is very unforgiving.) But as soon as I had set the last screw, I could test it and find out. It was a trivial, but nonetheless anxious moment.
Why go on about this over two blogs? Simply because my students are frequently making the same transition into unfamiliar territory. There is a teacher of carpentry and joinery on one of my current courses; he would no doubt have serious points to make about everything from the original plan of the wardrobe to its execution; by his standards my efforts may well be pathetic. On the other hand, I am grading his skills in writing academic submissions.

  • So this is simply a salutary reflection on how difficult it is to learn how to produce good work in an unfamilar area, and the need to respect those making the cross-over.
  • And; my learning in joinery has been entirely self-taught. Would I have learned any more effectively by taking a course?

19 December 2005

On Wardrobes (no lions or witches so far)

It's installing the lamp-post in the back which is the real hassle.

I'm trying to construct a fitted wardrobe. Flat-pack is for wimps; this is the real McCoy. Just authentic ready-made dimensionally-stable laminated furniture board, an arsenal of power tools and hundreds of bits and pieces from Screwfix.com (most of which will not be used, but what the hell? They are such good value!)

I have measured twice and cut once. With half-mm precision. Everything has been planned and pe-cut and drilled (in the garden, thanks to the fine weather round here). There's no room to handle 8x4 (2.4m x 1.2m) boards up in the bedroom so it had to be done that way. The assembly sequence has been worked out so as not to put too much strain on the fixings (this board is heavy stuff). This afternoon I started to put it all together.

The room ain't straight! One end of the location is 7mm higher than the other. The wall in the corner is 13mm behind the wall 4ft out (OK I mix the measurements, doesn't everyone? Which do you prefer, 37.5 mm [actually nearer 38mm] or an inch and a half?) Blow the drawing board, back to the real world!

What has this to do with teaching? A lot. Prepare all you like, the students don't conform to your predictions. "SMART" objectives are all very well, but they are "teacher" (and teachers' bosses) things. The real world is much messier.

Hope it's fine tomorrow: I shall be out in the garden trimming 7mm off an 8x4 board.

16 December 2005

On the web and distance learning

I've just had an email from someone doing a distance-learning master's course. She thanks me for expressing some ideas in language she can understand (as opposed, by implication, to her course materials). I'm flattered, but equally aware that the style of my sites is not for everyone; for some they are too flippant and lack academic gravitas; for others they are too discursive and indirect. However, the sheer blooming buzzing confusion of the web means that there is probably something out there to meet her particular need.

The problem is how to find it. We have umpteen different search possibilities at our fingertips, and with ingenious devices such as http://del.icio.us/ we can build communities to share mutual interests, but the issue of the distinctive "voice" remains.

Sites on learning and teaching have a limited range of "voice": (no examples given!)

  • There are of course the business sites plugging the latest educational panacea
  • There are the prescriptive sites which tell you how to teach in a mechanistic way
  • There are the academic sites which are more about the writers' concerns than the readers'.
  • And a distinguished few, particularly;
  • http://tip.psychology.org/
  • http://www.infed.org/ and
  • http://www.itslifejimbutnotasweknowit.org.uk/
  • and more broadly http://www.businessballs.com/
  • and doubtless others which would take for ever to cite (it's getting late and I've just realised this is an endless quest), which are more interested in their readers than themselves.

    I'm not a great believer in "learning styles", but it would be great if there were ways of tagging "voice" or "style" as well as "content" for all the distance learners out there trying to tune in to stuff to which they can relate.

    13 December 2005

    On Cobblers' Children

    The proverb is; "the cobbler's children are worst shod". (No relation to "load of cobblers", although that might also be apposite.)

    I have just been trying to read around to provide some sound academic base for my stuff on the "Content and Process" distinction, so I have been looking at material on pragmatics and discourse in communication. One would assume that academics writing in this field would be aware of the ramifications of their work, and their texts.

    So why is it all so badly written?

    27 November 2005

    On "Teacher's block"

    Do you ever get the feeling that you haven't got anything to teach, or offer?

    "Chance would be a fine thing! With the kind of syllabus I am supposed to deliver, that must be a luxury only a semi-retired academic could indulge!"

    Fair point. But it is not that there isn't anything to teach, more a loss of conviction that the way you are doing it is actually helping people to learn. OK, the way I am doing it. I've been teaching for almost 40 years. I've taught this particular module for nine years. Its general shape is stable, and previous evaluations and achievement rates have been fine, but I have tuned the schemes of work from cohort to cohort, of course. I've reviewed those schemes from previous years, and somehow this time around they don't "work". And this may be the last time I teach this module.

    So why the crisis of confidence? It's not that the group is unresponsive; far from it. They're lively and eager to learn (which makes it more of a challenge, of course, to meet expectations). The only significant difference was the way they handled the "menu" exercise at the beginning.

    (That's an exercise in which we go through all the possible material for the module, pointing out that we can't cover it all in class, and so they have to select what we do cover and what we don't.) This time they handled it in a more sophisticated way than any previous group; they asked, "Which of this material can we get from reading books and the web, and which do we really need to discuss?" We worked out the schedule on that basis, which fits perfectly with the learning and teaching strategy of the course. Great.

    I'm hoist with my own petard! I've put so much of the sheer module content on the web, that if I exclude that, there ain't much left. There's plenty of arcane and detailed stuff, of course, but since the module is an 80:20 situation (in this case, 80% of the ideas can be conveyed at the informational level in 20% of the time), more about values than facts, to do that would be otiose.

    I should have recognised this coming last week, and not left the prep. until now. Still, no doubt the students will rescue me. In the past such sessions have really worked well, but I have got three hours to fill... (constructively). Well, I've got my conservative back-up stuff, but I'll quite enjoy winging it again!

    24 November 2005

    On "Scholarship"

    Recently I attended a conference (or three) on the "Scholarship" of learning and teaching. I've just been contemplating submitting a paper to another one about the same subject. But I can't help feeling they have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

    I can see the problem. A number of very well-intentioned people, concerned to improve the quality of teaching and hence learning in higher education, have decided that one of the reasons for its diminutive profile is that there is little theory, scholarship and celebrated research underpinning it. So all that should be encouraged and developed.

    I can't complain. I have benefited from this agenda to the tune of £50k (about $US87k); it has allowed me to semi-retire (apologies for the clumsy not-quite-split infinitive) to concentrate on things I love doing.

    But the whole enterprise is wrong-headed. We don't need more "scholarship" of learning and teaching. The more we get, the lower the quality. Some of the papers at the last two conferences were merely anecdotal; I know of no other "discipline" (with the possible pragmatic exception of "business studies") in which they would have passed peer review.

    The whole discipline is stuck in a bind. It is basically a craft. But for years we (government and HE providers) have deprecated "mere" craft skills. To find them at the heart of the HE enterprise is profoundly embarrassing. The defensive response is to turn them into something else—into academic skills which can be learned in the classroom, studied via literature reviews, and researched in dissertations.

    They can't be learned that way. Teaching skills are painfully acquired and honed in practice. Many of the best teachers I know have no knowledge of the "theory". The more of it there is, the less they will know of it. But academic discourse refuses to privilege experience and practical expertise.

    A year or so ago, someone just about qualified on our course, on the basis of his plausible reflection and theorising of practice. He scraped through the directly observed teaching practice. This year we have one of his colleagues on the course, who is disparaging about his current practice. Practically, she is clearly streets ahead of him, already; the hoops she has really has to jump through are academic (with which on present evidence she will have no problem). But she already has the craft skills and is not "qualified"; he has the bare minimum and is "qualified".

    22 November 2005

    On being reactionary

    We have several sides to our characters, and in particular to our values. Sometimes my impeccably liberal approach to life is sullied by the resurgence of my atavistic conservative side, which cannot be suppressed forever.

    A former colleague was brilliant at managing this. She was and indeed is, a very accomplished and effective counsellor, the embodiment of empathy, warmth and genuineness for her clients. But she emerged from her sessions and (without letting slip of her professionalism of confidentiality, and only in the presence of trusted colleagues) she would—in the jargon—"abreact". She became judgemental to say the least; "What a total prat! How could such a f****** immature selfish git think she could sustain a relationship...?" and so on for five minutes or so. Then she would sigh, and say, "Sorry. That's better. I just needed to get that off my chest." When tackled about this (I was not her supervisor, just a trusted colleague and friend), she was open about it. "I can't deny that that there is a bit of me which wants to slap some clients' faces and tell them to get a life. It's better to acknowledge and vent that bit than to leave it simmering to contaminate my real practice."

    It is in that spirit that I respond to the glimpse of a notice the other day. It advertised "Post-graduate learning support."

    What? We have graduates who need "learning support"? OK, I concede that in particular circumstances such as specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, or overseas students working in a second or even third language, support may be needed. But surely, one thing which should be taken for granted in graduates is that they know how to learn!
    What does it say about our university system that we graduate people who still need support to do what they have spent about sixteen years learning how to do, i.e. learn?

    Abreaction over, for now.

    29 October 2005

    On Graduation

    Since I have technically retired, Friday may have been my last graduation ceremony. They appear to follow fashion cycles; I was excited by my Bachelor's ceremony, in the presence of the then Prime Minister. Then it became "uncool" to attend, so I didn't bother to attend the ceremonies for my two Master's degrees, but family pressure required me to go to my Ph.D event.

    Sitting on the platform is a different experience (I always end up as part of the platform party, principally because my academic robes [red and gold] are so spectacular). It is still a deeply moving experience to process into the hall, filled by graduands, but more important by proud parents and partners. Each graduand's moment of glory is very transient, but the look of nervous pride on their faces as they present themselves is inspiring; in many respects I am a jaded cynic, but graduation, for all its pomposity, remains uplifting.

    There has been an interesting change over the past few years, most apparent in the dress code of the men. From being "uncool" to attend, there was a shift to an ironic stance. Graduands would attend, but made a point of wearing academic dress over sweatshirts, jeans and trainers, as if to undermine the significance of the occasion. Currently, there is a swing back to suits and even ties. Impressionistically, more of the women seem to be wearing skirts. I don't know what this fashion shift "means", though.

    Many faculty colleagues disappeared immediately after the ceremony to a free lunch at a local hotel; few of us stuck around to congratulate our former students. That's sad; it is their day, a really big day for many of them: I was greeted and thanked by former students I barely remembered as part of a lecture group of 100+ students. They may have merely been polite, but it gives me a real buzz when it happens; I wouldn't trade it for an infinity of rubber chicken lunches. Those colleagues don't know what they are missing.

    Perhaps the greatest incentive to the development of teaching in universities would be to require all faculty to attend graduation. It's formal, ritualistic, and the speeches are platitudinous; but it marks enormous effort and achievement, and if we respect our students it is a wonderful collaborative celebration.

    There are two things to balance. One student passed across the stage in front of me who should not have done so, in my opinion; I had failed him (or her) on two courses. I wondered then about the academic integrity of our courses. On the other hand was the pride and burgeoning confidence of the graduands, and the parents and partners who were introduced to me afterwards (and were in some cases so embarrassingly deferential—I don't handle that well).

    Best wishes to all of them!

    24 October 2005

    On potential

    I'm in Vancouver, and seem to have booked into an hotel in the "backpacker" district; went out for a meal and then sat outside Starbucks for a coffee afterwards. While I was ordering the coffee, a much-pierced girl came in to ask to use the "washroom". Outside, she was with two guys (and a dog); one of the guys clearly affecting the style of a character from Burgess/Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (bowler hat and eye make-up, etc.).

    Not having a book to read for once, I reflected on what their experience might be; they were hanging around, bumming cigarettes, but not destitute and still concerned about their style. They seemes to be undergoing an initiation ritual of a kind; a brief flowering of rebellion before they became the corporate lawyers or shelf-stackers or even politicians of the future. Only thing was, it looked as though much of the initiation experience was deadly boring at the time. Perhaps it will acquire a rosy romantic glow in the future.

    23 October 2005

    On conferences

    Conferences are the traditional way for researchers and developers in many disciplines to exchange ideas; and, it has to be admitted, the international conference circuit is one of the perks of the job. I have only recently joined in, never previously having been able to get the funding to attend; so what, as an old-timer not seeking advancement or networking, do I make of conferences on teaching and learning in higher education?

    Not a lot. I have left it a week to reflect at leisure on the last one. It was the second annual conference of an outfit I won't name. There were 650 participants and 280 papers in three days. I suspect that many institutions will not fund attendance unless their staff member is presenting, so the organisers must have been under great pressure to accept as many papers as possible. They crammed them into hour-long sessions with three papers each, in many cases; and multiply-authored papers got precedence. OK, my poster session will go on the c.v. for what it's worth, but to be frank many of the papers were not worth inclusion. I generalise, of course. I couldn't attend all of the sessions, and like any self-respecting conference member in an attractice and strange city I skipped some I could have attended; but accustomed as I am to marking work at Master's level, I had to admit that much of what I heard would not pass muster at even that level. Some of it was not worthy of undergraduate levels.

    With some conspicuous exceptions, many papers followed the pattern of:
    • This is our background
    • This was our project
    • We did this, we did that
    • We evaluated it and
    • Guess what? It worked really well!
    In other words, they were narratives. Each was backed up with references to obscure articles in journals people only read when they need to confer spurious authority on whatever idea they originally had, but almost totally devoid of critical analysis and proper theory. Theory is much maligned in a practically-based discipline, but it is the discourse which enables ideas to develop and be tested; but most presenters I heard ducked out of claiming any theoretical substance to their ideas.

    Much of the discussion in the plenary and keynote sessions was about how important the "scholarship of teaching and learning" was and how neglected it is. There was no real debate about positions and ideas about it; there was no deconstruction of its assumptions, just a "motherhood and apple pie" endorsement. Participants wanted to promote it, and were evangelists, advocates and champions for it, but it was never clear what "it" was. The most-cited person was Lee Schulman, who proved to be a witty and engaging speaker, but offering little more than plonking platitudes about the desirability of this "scholarship".

    If anyone reads this I'll probably get black-listed from future conferences. So what? But aren't they barking up the wrong tree? The issue is the craftsmanship of teaching (pardon the implicit sexism), not its scholarship. Scholarship is what you exercise on given accomplished facts, like Shakespeare's folios; it's more prestigious than craft (although not as prestigious as "research", of course). Moreover, "craft" is difficult to communicate, particularly in 20 minutes.

    Much of my stuff is sloppy, if (I hope) stimulating. I don't pretend otherwise; but then I don't have to ask anyone else, nowadays, if I can spend £1k to travel half-way round the world for a three-day jolly.

    06 August 2005

    Introducing semiotics at A level

    [This is a note from some time ago--time-shifted to prevent identification of the people concerned]

    I went to observe J. today. She really has come on leaps and bounds since the last observation, when she was looking for whatever teaching she could get, and gabbled her way through the material, obsessed with telling the students things rather than helping them to learn. There's some of that left, but she is much more relaxed, and her fund of information is kept for asides and interesting glosses on the main business.

    Still, I was left thinking about "spin". She was teaching AS level students (Year 11 if they had been at school) about advertising in the context of "English language and literature": in this case a basic introduction to semiotics. She had them working in groups, deconstructing a variety of advertisements for perfume, cosmetics and jewellery. That was fine; I had some reservations about the amount of structure she gave them and her reliance on verbal instructions to brief them, but they were not serious.

    It was in the plenary discussion after the groupwork that I saw the problem. I have observed this kind of lesson many times in the past, and indeed I used to teach it in my "Liberal Studies" days. In the context of social studies, key skills, or similar classes, the intended outcome is broadly, "Don't be conned by advertisements." and "This is how they manipulate you." If that had been the intention, this session would have been very good.

    But it wasn't just that, in the context of this syllabus. It was to employ the concepts of "denotation" and "connotation" and the Saussurian/Barthesian notion of "signifier/signified/sign" as tools for the analysis of media communications.

    I personally have considerable reservations about whether such analysis (or "deconstruction" as the current jargon has it) is any use. When carried out dispassionately, I tend to respond with, "OK—but so what?"; when undertaken from a committed perspective, I regard it as a form of special pleading. But that is not the point. J's task was to inculcate the idea of the analytic tools, and this was the final session in this part of the scheme of work.

    Instead, she was concentrating on the substance of the deconstruction. She was encouraging the students to look at the outcome of their discussions, rather than reflecting on the tools they were using to arrive at it. She was more concerned with the answers than the manner of the questioning. It's a tricky distinction. She was rightly concerned with getting them to use the ideas, and to reinforce them for productive results, but I was left with the feeling that the results were what they had learned about, not the process by which they had arrived at them. (It would be too much at this level to ask them to evaluate the utility of the tools; they are simply a "given".)

    The moral? We are discussing the development of intellectual skills, here. It is all too easy to confuse the production of the desired content with the development of the appropriate skill to arrive at it. J. actually modelled the process very well: she clearly has the idea inside her. But she didn't necessarily help the students to develop the same frame of reference for themselves, unless they were taking her as a role-model in a fairly sophisticated way. It is a testimony to her development that they do seem to be taking her as such in a general sense, picking up on her enthusiasm and excitement by the subject—but not I think at the level of her own specific skill.

    Recommendation? At this level, plug the questions to ask, regardless of the answers generated. Since this is an examination-preparation course, they may need quite specific tools to use.

    Many years ago, I spent my summers working voluntarily on an evangelistic
    beach mission for children. Every morning at 8 a.m., we would each meet a group
    of children for a bible study. We were trained to ask two questions about the
    study passage (always from the selected gospel for the year):

    • What does this passage say about the Lord?
    • What does it say about me?

    Years later, teaching literature to students, I found no better formula
    that to adapt that one:

    • What does this passage say about the subject?
    • What does it say about me? (That needs some unpacking in relation to
      literature, of course),
    • What does it say about the author?

    Are there similar touchstone questions which could be developed for students seeking to develop the skills of deconstruction of media messages?

    01 August 2005

    Levels of Learning

    Last night we had a family dispute. Well, as usual it was a parents vs. child dispute (or row). I'm sure it fell into one of Minuchin's categories, but my knowledge of family therapy is a bit rusty and in any case that is more "knowledge about" rather than "knowledge by acquaintance". As is the way with these things, there's a lot of tacit taken-for-granted knowledge involved and it was conducted in a restricted code.

    (Who is this guy? Are these theoretical perspectives more important to him than the feelings engendered in a family row? Far from it, but this blog is about reflection as a disciplined practice—take all the rest as given.)

    Our son is 24 and living again at home after graduating while he finds a permanent job, so that he can move out and on; this is an aspiration for all parties. The point, for present purposes, is that he lived away from home as an undergraduate, and learned a certain life-style which is not really compatible with our middle-aged grumpy conservative daily routine. So, as often happens, his mother threw at him a series of accusations:
    • You wake me up coming in late!
    • You leave your dirty clothes lying about!
    • You don't clean the shower!
    • You're so inconsiderate!
    • etc. There's nothing special about the content. [Note for any readers who have not yet got there—it's routine.]
    To be frank, such things are not a big deal to me. There are various ways to construe that view, but they are germane to this discussion.

    My professional reflection was: what kind of learning does CJ have to undertake to deal with this?
    • At one level, he could learn all the prescribed "rules" for living in the house, one by one; this is acceptable, this is unacceptable—a sort of domestic rule of St Benedict.
    • But this is not what his mother was talking about, despite her accumulation of violations. Her primary concern was that he should be "considerate".
    That is a different order of learning. It is not about following rules, as much as "putting oneself in the shoes of the other" and considering the potential impact of one's actions. It is a much taller order, and (in the face of other baggage which students—and sons or daughters—carry) a much more difficult task.

    This is learning 2; the ability to put individual bits of learning into a context. Eventually, most of us acquire it, but how the blazes do you teach it?

    25 July 2005

    On dealing with dogmatism

    Recent conversation (after hearing the French MP's remarks about prior UK failure to deal with terrorism):

    Acquaintance: "He's right, you know! How come we let all these people in anyway?
    We're just a soft touch."

    Me: "I don't think that was quite the point he was making,"

    A: "Whatever! They all come here, don't they? I mean, where else would they get social security payments and housing and vouchers to spend in supermarkets? They wouldn't get that in.. in Spain, or the USA. How do they deal with them?"

    M: "I don't know."

    A: "Well, here the local housing association is saying that shortly they won't have any housing for local people because they have these targets to meet for asylum-seekers. What do you say to that?"

    M: "I don't know if that is the case or not."

    A: "Don't be so pathetic! You known more about this than I do, anyway."

    M: "Probably, but I know enough to know that I don't know very much. I certainly
    don't know enough to be sure whether what you are saying is accurate..."

    A: "Are you saying I'm lying?"

    M: "Of course not! It's just that..."
    On reflection

    Another typical liberal wash-out! But, given that we may well encounter that kind of viewpoint fairly frequently in class, it is worth a little examination.
    • If you are a fan of Transactional Analysis, it could be explained as an encounter between Acquaintance in Parent ego-state, full of dogmatic opinions supported by anecdotal (but unevaluated) evidence; and Me as the rational adult trying to counter those opinions from the fairly weak (but true) position of confessing relative ignorance. It is a "crossed transaction" which will get nowhere. But so what? We knew that anyway (apart from the jargon, which does make it easier to explain).
    • It illustrates the potency of stories (page on this coming soon) and that their discourse is different from reasoned argument. I can argue with an argument, but the response to a story—a statement of claimed fact—is to accept it as "true" or to accuse someone of "lying" (in this kind of discussion, "honestly mistaken" does not really enter into it).
    • I could have risen to the challenge with my own stories about asylum seekers and the privations they experience: but that is just a head to head, "who do you believe?" confrontation, which is OK informally, but not one you want to get into in the classroom.
    • The potency of the dogmatic argument comes from its "definition of the situation". Partly because she initiated the exchange, A set the rules within which the discussion (if such it was) proceeded. In these terms, "I don't know" is the most pathetic response imaginable (apart perhaps from, "OK, whatever you say..."). On the other hand, it is the response with the greatest intellectual integrity, and perhaps the most "scientific" response.
    So how might I have handled this in class? I could have resorted to my positional authority as "teacher" and simply put an end to it. In some cases, if the actual discussion were irrelevant to the topic and the scheme of work, that might well be the appropriate response.

    "You are entitled to your opinion, but we are currently looking at tesselating patterns, OK?"

    However, (as I can now say after years of painful experience) I should not have allowed the discussion to proceed in this way. Not that the issue should not have arisen. In the social studies classes I taught, it would have been routine. But I would have established ground rules in advance, about opinion being based on clear evidence, which would have helped me to define the situation, with a quick—"Hey! Remember what we said earlier about evidence? And the quality of that evidence?" And I could then have legitimately referred to "we" and "us" because I would have had everyone signed up to the principle.

    It's never as simple as that, of course. It gets more complicated when you encourage people to bring their own direct experience to bear on the topic, which is very useful; and even more complicated when you actually agree with the dogmatic opinion. But you can't exempt something from the ground rule simply because you agree with it.