The Argument for Argumentation
As a society, we have a love-hate relationship with arguments.
On the minus side of the ledger, we tell our children—even adult members of our families—not to argue, implying that arguments are bad, disruptive to friendships, and to be avoided at all costs. And when we invite relatives (especially those who differ from us in political persuasion or religious beliefs) for a special holiday dinner, we pray that conversations will not break into open argumentation that sends aunts and uncles and cousins home early and angry!
On the plus side, we celebrate arguments in many of our institutions, including debate teams at the high school and college level, advanced placement courses for high school students, and even debates among political candidates. At a personal level, we feel smart, even smug, when we can poke holes in the argument presented by a political pundit on a talk show, a scam purveyor on a late-night channel or website, or even our least favorite cousin at a family dinner conversation about the latest social or political disaster. And any parent likes to hear a teacher say that their child really knows how to argue for their opinion.
During the early 2000s, when schools in the United States were driven by the federal No Child Left Behind program, we did not hear much about argumentation. Phonics first and fast, along with a lot of fluency, a touch of vocabulary, and a skirmish or two with comprehension were the order of the day.
But all that changed starting in 2010 when the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA) came along. When it comes to schools, we have experienced, in just the last decade, a genuine renaissance in argumentation as a key curricular goal in virtually all disciplines. Understanding, analyzing, and writing arguments are explicit standards in the CCSS-ELA, as well as in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
Even states that have opted out of the CCSS have their own standards that position argumentation as a high priority. In these standards, argumentation (how to comprehend, critique, and construct arguments) is recognized as a major outcome of K-12 schooling in order to ensure that students are ready for the rigors of a college education or the demands of a career in America’s workplace.
LDC has supported teachers in helping students with argumentation from its very first days as an important teacher collaboration in America. Many of our teaching tasks involve making an argument to support a claim, such as “the Industrial Revolution brought more disadvantages than advantages to the average citizen.” As important as these culminating activities is the sequence of skills and mini-tasks that lead students, step-by-step, up to that final essay. For without those scaffolded activities, during which students receive systematic help from the teacher (and peers) in—
finding candidate texts that contain information relevant to the issue,
- evaluating the relevance and validity of that information,
paraphrasing and summarizing key points of evidence for later use as they craft their essays,
organizing information to prepare for an outline of the essay
drafting the argument
using and benefiting from peer and teacher feedback—
they would not be ready to make a plausible argument to support the position they have taken on some consequential moral, ethical, scientific, or political issue, such as arguing that “the Industrial Revolution was worth the costs it incurred.”
The point is that the pedagogy of argumentation begins long before students set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in composing that final essay. That pedagogical journey begins at the outset of a unit of study as students scour written and digital texts, videos, photos, and other media sources for relevant and valid evidence.
The pedagogy of argumentation also begins early in the school careers of students (I would argue in the first days of formal schooling in kindergarten), long before we ask them to make anything resembling a formal argument. When a kindergarten student says, “character X is being really nice to character Y,” and we ask, “what makes you think so?,” we are taking an important first step in the journey to formal arguments.
Why? Because in asking that question we are demanding that students provide support for the claims they make. And we want them to do that for any and all opinion writing they do in the primary grades (which is what the CCSS demand in grades K-5), as well for the answers they provide in everyday conversations about texts or topics of interest. Helping even our youngest students realize that the credibility of their points of view depends on the evidence they provide to support them is an important educational, social, and political goal. It is, quite literally, the first step toward becoming a responsible citizen in a democratic society.
It is a privilege for me to be asked to provide this blog post to you as a way of introducing you to a new resource from LDC—a new essay and teaching resource, titled Argumentation Across the Disciplines, authored by myself (P. David Pearson) and colleagues Vicki Griffo, Catherine Miller, and Barrie Olson.
LDC gave us the opportunity to summarize research about and best practices in studying argumentation in social studies, science, and English Language Arts. It is our hope that this resource, along with all the embedded links to even more helpful pedagogical tools, will prove to be a lasting and ever-improving resource to the LDC community of educators.
We want a new generation of students who can comprehend, critique, and construct strong arguments about important issues. It’s a key component to an education that paves the way for students to become ready for college, career, and responsible citizenship. Enjoy!
This paper is the first in a series of LDC argumentation tools to come in 2018. Through practical resources such as disciplinary cheat sheets, argumentation module templates and collections, curriculum maps, and professional learning experiences, the LDC LEARN platform will bridge the insights of Dr. Pearson's research to practice, enabling you to do the work of teaching argumentation across the disciplines immediately and systematically. Contact LDC to schedule a meeting or demo.