Merits of a good argument

20th March 2009 at 00:00

In the classic Monty Python "Argument" sketch, Michael Palin goes to the Argument Clinic to buy an argument. The receptionist tells him he can have a one-minute argument for Pounds 1, or save by taking a whole course for a fiver. At first, she recommends Dr Debakey, but then suggests that "he's a little bit conciliatory", so Palin chooses something more provocative and encounters John Cleese.

The sketch works because most of us spend our lives trying to avoid arguments. However, I have been wondering recently if we can grow and learn if we are not prepared to enter into arguments. Of course, it is all in the definition - arguments may be contradictory, quarrelsome and bitter, or they can allow space for expressing disagreements, hearing others' perspectives, and developing our understanding of an issue.

I have enjoyed healthy and productive arguments with colleagues on how children learn within the family and how the family relates to formal educational opportunities, at school and elsewhere. Events where there are opportunities for a wide range of professions to exchange views and experiences can be worthwhile learning experiences.

Such debate added spice to the seventh annual conference of the Scottish Network for Parental Involvement in Children's Learning (SNPICL). The network is a broad church, comprising a rich membership drawn from schools, community learning and development, libraries, health, parents and the voluntary sector.

As at most events of its kind, however, the real value of the conference was the bringing together of people who share concerns for children's learning, but who hold very different professional assumptions. Several issues sparked healthy debate. Some argued that effective parental involvement is school-based and gave examples of how active and co-operative learning were engaging parents in understanding the Curriculum for Excellence and supporting it in the home.

Others made a case that learning in the family is most effective when it is based on home and community around the issues and concerns of the family and the community.

There were suggestions that parental involvement could be cost-neutral, while some delegates protested that engaging the group of parents whose voices are seldom heard requires additional human resources to build relationships and trust. Some were optimistic about the role of the new parent councils to lead on promoting parental involvement, while some were more cynical.

Finally, some wondered if family learning was merely parental involvement in a different context, while their opponents regarded it as radically different in its approach.

Quite a lot of argument, in fact, for a fiver - which is exactly what membership of SNPICL costs. But don't expect us to be too conciliatory.

Jeannie Mackenzie is a convener of the Scottish Network for Parental Involvement in Learning and director of Conditions for Learning.

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