Learn By Arguing

We don’t argue enough in our classes here in India.

That is obviously a blanket statement, not backed by data, and I’m sure that there are exceptions to what I have stated is the norm. But all that being said, I am very much willing to defend the idea that our classes are more about listening than they are about conversing, let along arguing.

Which is a pity, because nothing helps you learn better than arguing. Not arguing for the sake of arguing, but arguing in order for all parties involved in the argument to walk away with a better understanding of the issue at hand. If your side of the argument “wins”, good for you. But don’t enter into debates in order to win them – enter into debates in order to sharpen your thinking, and in order to build better defenses for your claims. Also enter into debates to appreciate better the opinions of “the other side”, and learn what is best about their arguments.

When this process works well, much learning can ensue.

One limitation of my classes at the Gokhale Institute this year is the fact that I’m teaching one hundred and fifty (give or take) students at the same time. As with everything else in life, this comes with pros and cons.

  1. I save on time, because I don’t have to teach two divisions (or sections, if you prefer) separately.
  2. I don’t have to teach the same thing again, so I get bored lesser.
  3. I don’t get to teach the same thing again, so I don’t get to practice more as a teacher
  4. But by far and the most important factor: students don’t get as much time to ask questions.

A “lecture” to a hundred and fifty students isn’t a lecture. It is a speech. That’s the only way a one hour session with an audience that large will ever work. You can answer the odd question here and there, but a detailed back and forth between any one student and the professor leaves the other hundred and forty nine students twiddling their thumbs, and so in-depth back-and-forth dialog is pretty much out of the question. I hate myself for it, but I often have to cut off students from asking a follow-up question, or ask them to make their questions shorter. Whatay tragedy, if you ask me.

I can understand why colleges would want to do this from the point of view of finance, sure. When colleges choose to combine divisions, they’re giving a very clear answer to the question “What are you optimizing for?” They’re minimizing expenditure, instead of maximizing learning. Smaller classes work better for learning, larger classes work better for minimizing expenditure.

And if that is what they’re optimizing for, they should follow through on their chosen path and outsource the learning to the internet altogether. But there are elements of such an equilibrium that are worrisome for a college to think about, and so we will continue to have ever larger classes, more’s the pity.

But students can outsource the having an argument bit to the internet if the college can’t oblige! We live in the age of ChatGPT, and whatever topic you would like to have an argument about, ChatGPT will happily play along.

How about an argument about the usefulness of supply and demand diagrams, for example? If your professor cannot spare the time for an argument in class about this, ring up your always available arguer online, and have some fun:

You can read the rest of this debate here, if you’re interested. But please figure out how to put me out of a job, by getting ChatGPT to argue with you more often about issues in economics (and other subjects, naturally).

Arguments really and truly are a great way to learn, and have fun going up against ChatGPT. I wish you all the very best 🙂