Argue On The Internet Better

The Moral of The Bucket

Is there anything more boring than school assembly?

After eleven years as a pupil and fifteen as a teacher… if I am sure of one truth, it is this: assemblies fucking suck. They’re long and boring and always about some unhelpful, untrue nonsense. ‘Believe in yourself’ or ‘be yourself’ or ‘MLK cured racism forever’. You know, some cheap, useless bullshit that hides the grotesque unfairnesses inflicted upon people by a society predicated upon selfishness and cruelty that we all have to sit through and pretend is in some way enriching the minds of the pupils who hear it. Which no-one listens to anyway, because we all switched off after the first fifteen seconds.

In twenty six years of them, I remember exactly one that was worth my time.

The speaker brought a bucket to the front of the room and put it down in front of everyone. Then she filled it with rocks.

“Is it full?” she asked.

“Yes,” came the bored reply.

So she pulled out some smaller rocks, and nimbly fitted them into the gaps. People looked up, their attention piqued.

“How about now? Is it full now?”

“Yes,” came the reply, although no-one sounded as certain this time.

She pulled out a bag of pebbles and dropped them into the spaces.

“How about now?”

“No,” came the reply, everyone now caught up with her game.

“Clever,” she replied, pulling out the bag of sand and pouring it into the bucket, filling it to the top. “So how about now? Is it finally full?”

“Yes,” came the confident cry.

At which point, she pulled out the jug of water.

With the bucket now definitely actually full, she turned to a hall full of year 11 pupils about to sit their exams, and said:

“You’ve all got lots to do each day: coming to school, doing homework, revising, chores, making time for yourself. The bucket represents your day. So what have you learned about your day? What’s the moral of the bucket?”

“There’s always time if you look hard enough?”

“No,” she replied. “Your day’s a fixed size. There’s only the time you’ve got.”

“We can always fit more into our day?” came the tentative reply from a lone voice at the back.

“No,” she replied. “Your day has limits. You have limits. You can only fit in so much.”

“So what is it then?” shouted one of the louder, braver boys at the back.

Picking up a large, jagged lump of granite that hadn’t fitted in, she held it up to the hall and smiled gently.

“Always start with the big rocks first.”

Differentiation.

That assembly is a perfect example of how teaching works. One of the rookie mistakes every noob-ass teacher makes when they step up to the whiteboard and decide they’re going to impart knowledge to the no-nothing numpties who’d rather be at home killing brown people on ‘Call of Duty’ is this:

“They’ll learn if I tell them.”

No.

No they won’t.

Years of Darwinian existence at the chalkface teaches us all the same brutal truth: you can’t tell anyone anything and expect them to learn it that way. The information might go in, but it falls out straight away, because telling isn’t teaching. Anyone who thinks it is, is a dumbass.

To truly teach, you have to be like Dom Cobb. You have to practise inception.


Pictured: me getting metaphorically ready for the first lesson of the day.

In the film ‘Inception’, Cobb gets a line that – somewhat unexpectedly – perfectly summarises why just telling someone something doesn’t work:

This is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? …but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

 This is an utterly accurate summation of why, if you tell someone something, they don’t retain it. Teaching is the act of making information stick in people’s brains, and the ideas that stick are always the ones you come up with yourself. As Cobb says, perfectly summarising the end result of good quality teaching:

 

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

Now, unlike what the film may lead you to believe, inception isn’t actually as difficult as the film makes out.

And no matter what some people might tell you, you don’t even need to bring a gun.

True inception simply requires what we in teaching call ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation is the act of creating different resources for your pupils based on their needs. You see, the problem of teaching is that you know what you want your pupils to learn, but you can’t tell them what it is. So, instead, you create puzzles and activities that (hopefully) lead them to working out the idea for themselves. Instead of telling them something, you facilitate a way for them to come up with the conclusion you want: to ‘create’ the knowledge spontaneously in their own head.

Inception.

Because Cobb is quite right: if a person works out an idea for themselves, they’ll remember it forever.

Now, teachers aren’t the only people who use this technique; religious teachers of every faith have been using it for years. Parables, koans, fables… These are all ways to convey knowledge to a learner without telling them what the knowledge is. It’s why story is so powerful: every story is a lesson about something, whether it means to be or not.

Now, at this stage, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m bringing this all up. Well, it’s because of arguing on the internet.

Arguing On The Internet

As long as I can remember, wargaming has been a hobby that’s as much about hating the hobby as it is enjoying it. Models have always been too expensive, rules have always been unbalanced, army lists have always included sub-par units, Games Workshop are always on the verge of going out of business… Since the second issue of White Dwarf, someone out there has complained that ‘White Dwarf’ isn’t as good as it used to be in the good old days. (They’re always wrong; ‘White Dwarf’ has never been good.)

The thing is, the internet has taken this hobby-within-a-hobby of relentless mythering and supercharged it. On the internet, like-minded misanthropes can meet and, just like the sort of strung-out junkies who’d suck off a dog in exchange for a hit, they can complain about a hobby they hate that they’ll never, ever quit.

The problem – for me, at least – isn’t actually the complaining. There’s nothing wrong with calling out crap when you see it, and despite what the memes may tell you, arguing on the internet can be quite productive… assuming both sides are properly supporting their ideas and coming from a place of informed debate. Sure, emotive, emotional arguing achieves very little, but proper, reasoned debate is possible… It’s just difficult.

So, my aim here is a primer for effective differentiation: a way for you to more effectively incept your ideas into the heads of others when you’re online. A way to ensure your arguments remain n reasoned and supported, rather than pure unthinking emotion, better able to convey the nuance and subtleties of what you actually think.

Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Just knowing something doesn’t mean you’re clever.

This is kind of hard idea for people to wrap their heads around; I know it was hard for me during my teacher training, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Knowledge simply represents data. Intelligence, on the other hand, represents the ability to actually use that data in useful, meaningful ways.

This is why we teachers use Bloom’s taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom was the educational psychologist who chaired the committee which first broke down the various educational domains into ranked areas of increasing complexity and specificity.

The theories Bloom and his buddies came up with date from the fifties, and I’m not about to argue that they’re completely accurate in their description of human learning processes. In fact, in modern education, the theories can be contentious. Don’t take them as empirical truth is what I’m saying.

Despite this, I personally regard Bloom’s as a useful tool. Not as something to be slavishly adhered to (as some educational institutions treat it) but as a kind of mental checklist; I use it whenever I’m trying to establishing exactly why a specific pupil doesn’t get the topic we’re covering. Bloom’s is useful as a reminder that intelligence isn’t just about IQ… which is why all the best ‘schemes of learning’ (the technical teacher-name for a collection of related lessons) will therefore necessarily take pupils up a kind of ‘slope of learning’, from simplest concepts to hardest. Despite its imperfections, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a simple guide to difficulty levels. Its utility lies in the way it can be a reminder that a person may not be able to advance from a lower level to a higher level as they haven’t understood all the steps in between. After all, you can’t evaluate a topic if you haven’t got knowledge of it.

I would argue it is these ‘missing gaps’ in our readers’ knowledge which makes arguing on the internet such a pain in the ass. Bloom’s is flawed, yes, but taken as a rough and ready system, it presents a useful tool to enable us as educators (yes, including you) to identify where our audience might have gone off-piste, as well as the kinds of things we might need to help them get back on track.

So, what are the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy?

1.) Knowledge: the ability to recall data or information.
This is the most basic level; it’s literally rote retention of simple facts: ‘The sky is blue’; ‘Christians believe in Jesus’; ‘a simile is a comparison using “like” or “as”’. Knowledge represents the capacity for a learner to repeat information that does not have to be understood, simply defined through clear observation.

2.) Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems.
Which sounds really complex, but all it means is that instead of simply observing something, you are now able to say something a little deeper about the thing you know. “Christians believe in Jesus because they have read the Bible and agree with the tenets within”, for example. Comprehension also represents the ability to state a problem in one’s own words: “The sky is usually blue; however, when it’s grey, that means there’s more water vapour in the air, which means it’s more likely to rain.”

3.) Application: the ability to use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction.
This is the ability to apply something that’s been learned in the classroom into new and unexpected situations, either in life or in the work place. For example, if I teach a pupil how to use emotive language, they might use that skill at Christmas time, pulling on their parent’s heartstrings to try and get more presents. Doesn’t mean they succeed of course, merely that they have learned something which can actually be used.

4.) Analysis: the ability to separate material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood.
At this stage, learners have understood the individual parts of a concept, and are now able to understand how to put those ideas together, in such a way that they can now understand structures. At this level, things are starting to get difficult, because analysis requires the ability to understand abstract ideas – to work out how things function without necessarily having that function shown to them. So as an example, a pupil studying English might be able to look at the language in a poem, and explain how it’s being used to affect a reader’s emotions as a means to manipulating their thought processes. On the other hand, a pupil studying design and technology might be able to look at the component parts of a device and assemble it without being told what the device is.

5.) Synthesis: the ability to build a structure or pattern from diverse elements.
By this stage, a learner is not only capable of understanding the components and processes behind an idea or concept, they can actually start innovating using those same concepts as tools. They can put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. So an art student might, for example, be able to look at a pre-existing style of painting, the style of artwork from another culture, and a newly invented kind of paint, and combine those disparate elements to create something that is completely new, but which honours the inspirations the artist has drawn from.

6.) Evaluation: the ability to make judgments about the value of ideas or materials.
This is the final, most difficult stage of learning, because it involves understanding all the prexisting stages, and being able to compare them. Of course, it’s something we do every time we go shopping: which of these two seemingly identical products is the one I will buy? However, when dealing with a more difficult, abstract topic, this process can become incredibly difficult, especially when higher-level mathematical or scientific skills are involved, or when several complex ideas relating to cultural critique are interacting with each other all at once.

As I’m sure you can see, it’s the evaluation stage which is the most awkward when it comes to discussion online… mostly because it seems easy. After all, we do it all the time.

Except we don’t, and that appearance of familiarity can be deeply deceptive. Just because a person can compare oranges and apples doesn’t mean they can effectively compare three or four seemingly contradictory, high-level abstract concepts on any level beyond the most superficial. Knowing what those concepts are is simply not enough; one cannot evaluate just because one has knowledge of a topic. If all you have is knowledge, then you’re missing the comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis stages.

Put simply, Bloom’s argues that we have to know what a thing is, understand how it works, be able to use that thing ourselves, explain every aspect of it, and be able to use it in conjunction with other things before we can truly start comparing it to other, similar things. Without all those intermediate stages, we can try and evaluate, but the gaps in our intelligence will mean we make mistakes that someone without those gaps won’t.

Which means, stepping backwards from this, that if you want to truly teach someone else online (or anywhere) of the truth of a certain concept, you yourself need to appreciate all of those stages, and lead your ‘pupils’ up the mountain of knowledge one tentative step at a time.

So let’s see how this could be applied to a discussion about wargaming.

Nom Nom Lovely Crunch.

To start with, I want to look at how we might potentially use Bloom’s to present a discussion on a topic from the ‘crunch’ side of 40K. In this case, it’s going to be looking at the preponderance of 3+ saves, the ubiquitous feature that makes MEQ armies so very MEQ.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The arguments and discussion points I’m going to cover in this do not represent my own opinions on the topic; they are used for illustrative purposes only because the topic itself is one with which most gamers would be familiar.

So, we start at the beginning, with the Knowledge stage. Here, we just have a simple piece of data: Space Marines have a 3+ save.

So butch.

The next stage is where things gain a touch more complexity. The Comprehension stage requires us to understand, interpolate, and interpret that knowledge. In simple terms, for this argument, we’re going to state a problem in simple terms: Marine armies are ubiquitous, meaning 3+ saves are ubiquitous; as a result, if everyone has a 3+ save, then armies are all very similar, which makes games dull.

This is where a lot of arguments about Marines tend to begin – look at their similarity! They’re all the same! I’m sure you’ve gotten involved in arguments about strength 4, about armour penetration rules, all those things which could mitigate this (potentially) tedious similiarity. If so, you’ve reached the Application stage, you can use concepts you’ve learned to change, overcome or improve situations you find yourself in. In this example, the Application stage would be to point out that there are actually counters to 3+ save in the game already: it’s possible to counter 3+ saves through the careful use of AP3 weapons. So, to pick an example, a Deathwatch player – who has easy access to AP3 melee weaponry – might elect to give every model in their Deathwatch army power weapons. Boom! Problem solved forever, right?

Pictured: the artificer blade ‘Hard Counter’.

Obviously no. But someone who’s at the Analysis stage is capable of separating concepts into component parts and considering the organizational structure… which is a posh way of saying they can look at individual elements more closely. So, they see the problem of too much 3+ armour, and instead of offering a simple, blanket not-solution, they offer a slightly more refined solution. Our hypothetical player’s analysis point out that those AP3 power weapons are only useful in assault… which means that any model with a power weapon which doesn’t enter assault has had points wasted on them. Given that not every model is likely to enter assault, it would therefore be points-inefficient to equip the whole army, simply on the off-chance a random model might get the chance to smash face. However, our analyst offers a more refined solution to the issue of AP3: only equip models that they have specifically designed to enter assault with power weapons.

The next stage of this, Synthesis, involves building a structure from diverse elements. In simple terms, this would be where our hypothetical player starts putting disparate parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new, more effective structure. At this point of the argument, someone with a grasp of Synthesis will realise that the preponderance of 3+ saves cannot be dealt with by assault troops alone. So, in order to be able to tackle 3+ at both assault and range, they elect to equip some models with Plasma pistols, whose increased range will give them more ranged control of the battlefield.

Plus cook them alive in their own armour.

And here is where we reach the final Evaluation stage, making judgments about the value of things.

After a few games, out hypothetical player judges that the Plasma pistols are effective in assault, but less effective at range because their range is too short, meaning they aren’t actually any better than a simple power weapon… so giving them to troops who already have power weapons is overkill. Plus, the ‘Gets Hot’ rule has claimed important troops at the worst possible time. So, while they are happy with their use of the occasional power weapon to tackle 3+ saves, they still require a ranged hard counter. They have two real option: Plasma guns, which will leads to an overall drop in the assault effectiveness of their troops, due to the lost attack, or Grav weaponry. Grav weaponry will be less effective at wounding, but lacks the ‘Gets Hot’ rule. So, the options break down to:

– A plasma pistol: points expensive, short ranged, and has ‘Gets Hot’, but is super-killy.

– A plama gun: the same points and ‘Gets Hot’ problem of the plasma pistol, but with decreased assault effectiveness on top; however, all of which is compensated for by a good range.

– A grav pistol: short range and effective in assault; marginally less killy than a plasma weapon, but without ‘Gets Hot’.

– A grav gun: all the strengths of the grav pistol and the plasma gun, with the only downside being the decrease in assault effectiveness.

Looking through all these criteria, our player decides that the extra range the guns have over the pistols brings an additional advantage: the ability to control significantly more of the board, which not only makes their men more deadly, but also forces their opponent to think carefully about the risks of position their men too, allowing our player more board control. Having chosen to take the gun, they then have to decide which one, which will obviously depend on their local meta.

But who are we kidding, it’s going to be grav. No ‘Gets Hots’, and absolutely beast at getting rid of Monstrous Creature nonsense? Of course grav wins.

Now, for those of you going ‘Well all that stuff seems pretty bloody obvious to me’, well, yes. This is a very simple logical chain, used to illustrate the ways that each level of Bloom’s facilitates the next. For our next example, I’m going to take you through a cultural argument rather than a gameplay one.

Ooooh, Pretty Pretty Fluff!

For the example of Fluff analysis, I’m going to use the perennial topic of female space marines, firstly because it’s an argument that everyone is familiar with, but mostly because it’s an argument where I can clearly lay out my own thinking (because it’s an argument I’ve spent approaching three decades having).

Pictured: the worst thing that could ever happen to 40K, according to some.

The Knowledge stage of this argument begins even more simply than our last one. We start with the simple statement that all Space Marines are male.

The Comprehension stage is where we first express the problem. Games generally have players of both genders. Space Marines are the most popular 40K army; therefore, if all Space Marines are male, then female gamers are being treated unfairly.

Now, this is the stage that people’s rage kicks in, and turns the argument nasty. That’s because the Comprehension stage is simply the expression of a problem. We need to take the argument significantly further to reach a fully thought-out response, whether that argument be in favour of female Astartes or against. So, the hard work really begins at the Application stage, where we first start to think in abstractions. In this case, one Application would revolve around the abstract concept that Warhammer 40,000 isn’t real, and that therefore, Space Marines aren’t real. As a result, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ can be ignored if I, as a player, want to ignore it.

The Analysis stage, where we separate concepts into component parts so that we can understand the structures which justify the existence of the concept being discussed. For example, in following our argument, we can now look at the origins of the game: the people who created Warhammer 40,000 were males, working in the 1980’s, when society was undoubtedly a sexist one. The men responsible for the game probably didn’t expect that women would ever play their games; given the world they lived in, that belief was probably true. This means the in-universe ‘fact’ that all Space Marines are male… well, it exists as a logical response to the specific time, place, and people involved when the game was created. In the same way as novels from Victorian England contain horrifying racism that would be unacceptable in the modern world, Warhammer 40,000 comes with the legacy of the world that existed when it was created. It’s a product of its time.

Synthesis is where we begin to probe that concept even more deeply by pulling together various ideas from widely differing places, creating a new structure from pre-existing older ideas. Here, for example, we could create an argument that synthesises disparate ideas from the real world. If we accept that 40k’s roots were necessarily inadvertently sexist, we can also realise that the real world has moved on from there. Culture has changed. In computer games, another traditionally male-dominated domain, women now account for 54% of all gamers worldwide; female gaming has made those companies which embraced it huge profits. In comics, another bastion of one-time purely masculine culture, Marvel and DC comics have achieved financial success by overtly appealing to the female market (Kamala Khan, Harley Quinn). Those female readers have brought both companies mad money (not to mention providing comics which are equally enjoyed by all genders). Given that different areas of geek culture whose psychographic and demographic groups overlap with Games Workshop’s have achieved huge financial success, it therefore follows that by ignoring even the possibility that women might play tabletop miniature games, Games Workshop is missing out on huge money. When we then factor in several years of low profits for Games Workshop (combined with a global economic downturn, and the undoubted financial impact of Brexit on the primarily UK-based company), GW cannot afford to be sniffy about money which could just be lying there waiting to be made. Put simply, female marines make financial sense.

After all, people are already paying other companies for the bitz…

The Evaluation stage of the argument finishes the argument off. As established, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ is unfair to female gamers. As established, it is a byproduct of the era in which the game was released, and because the game is fictional, it is not a fact, but a choice regarding a piece of fiction, and therefore able to be changed. As established, changing this ‘fact’ to allow for female Space Marines would be likely to make Games Workshop money; morally, it would be fairer for all gamers. It would also be undeniably true that male gamers would lose nothing: any as established, any gamer can assemble any army they choose, including an all-male Space Marine army if they like. Now, should the change to fluff be made and female marines be embraced by GW as canonical, then there’s no doubt that GW would lose some customers. This is the same community which featured a member who infamously burned his entire army when WHFB became AoS. Some players would undoubtedly respond to such a change with such horror that they might leave the game, and badmouth the company. This would hurt profits, and so the question becomes: do GW stay the same, embracing these more conservative members of their community, or does GW embrace change, risk losing them and having them conduct what will undoubtedly be a loud and toxic campaign that could easily turn very nasty?

Looking at all the issues from a dispassionate place, the choice boils down to two core motivations: either profit or morality. From a profit standpoint, as established, female space marines represent a financial risk, but also a possibly huge financial gain. From a moral standpoint, to the traditionally-minded player, female marines represent an unthinkably appalling concept; to a progressive, the current fluff is equally despicable.

(From my own personal point of view, the choice to introduce female space marines seems obvious. If female marines exist, then I can get the girls who are currently playing Perudo, Ghost Castle and Poker at my school games club into 40K. I know this, because every discussion about 40K I’ve had with the girls always starts with them being amazed at how awesome the figures are, and ends with them being disappointed that there’s no women. So they keep playing the games that don’t exclude them, GW misses out on a school that would otherwise be entering its tournament scene, the school doesn’t give my club any more money to buy new stuff, and the three remaining 40K players are forced to keep using battered dictionaries as scenery instead of having actual scenery. Seems obvious to state it, but a rising tide lifts all boats…)

Caveat: Mister Garak’s ‘Misconception’

So, the two examples above hopefully demonstrate the way to best structure your own arguments, and have modelled a potentially useful way to order your thinking to better explain it to other gamers.

However, the thing to always remember is that encouraging higher-level thinking and intelligence isn’t necessarily going to encourage the result you expect. Just because you set up an activity using Bloom’s Taxonomy, don’t expect your truly clever students to necessarily reach the same conclusion you do. High-order thinking like Synthesis and Evaluation, by nature, isn’t learning by rote. Your pupils will take the pieces you give them and assemble them in ways which are logical to them… ways that may not have been obvious to you. After all, there exist genius-level scientists of equal intelligence who are Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Zoroastrians… all of them unable to convince the others to change their opinion. Intelligence doesn’t necessarily make a person better at seeing objective ‘truth’, but it definitely makes them better at defending emotionally-based positions.

In ‘Deep Space Nine’, Cardassian super-spy and sociopath Garak was told the story of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, and decreed that the moral was not ‘never tell lies’; it was ‘never tell the same lie twice’. So, you know, be prepared that if you’re teaching people to actually think, they may think some very unexpected things.

That’s all for this month; if you enjoyed it, why not head off to Amazon and buy a copy of my book?. It’s the best book about lesbians fighting cyborgs and ghosts you’ll ever read.

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