Argumentation is a form of discourse in which individuals take a position, justify that position with claims and evidence, and address possible counterarguments. In school settings, argumentation may involve contrasting alternative hypotheses in a lab, questioning the sources used to construct an historical account, or revising a literary analysis to include more textual support. In each of these activities, students engage in dialogue with a peer, an author, or themselves to evaluate claims and evidence. Whether it occurs socially, as it would in conversation or debate, or privately, as in writing or thought, argumentation involves building knowledge by considering claims in a framework of alternatives. Seen in this light, argumentation holds at least two important benefits for classroom learning: First, it can be used as an instructional tool to enhance learning. The process of argumentation can be used to prompt students to build and test the explanatory foundations of their knowledge. Second, argumentation can serve as a context for developing students' disciplinary thinking skills. Argumentation lies at the heart of all academic discourse, and when students learn to argue in the classroom, they learn to adopt the language, standards, and procedures for building knowledge in that discourse community.
Argumentation can help students develop a strong base of content knowledge in a number of ways. First, it provides a context within which students can elaborate their knowledge. When students engage in elaborative processing, they seek to understand the reasons why something is the case, rather than simply accepting that it is the case. They go beyond what is explicitly stated in a text or conversation to produce knowledge that is more complex, integrated, and, ultimately, more meaningful to them. This deeper processing of information, in turn, promotes memory and comprehension of the material to be learned. When students argue, they engage in a form of elaborative questioning in which they ask partners to clarify statements, justify claims, and respond to counterarguments (Kuhn, 2005). In these argumentative exchanges, students must move beyond accepting or advancing a simple assertion to questioning, critiquing, or establishing the grounds on which the assertion rests (Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2000). This process of argumentation, in turn, allows students to fill in gaps in their understanding, examine claims and evidence, and consider alternative perspectives. Students can gain similar benefits from the elaborative effects of writing arguments. For example, when students write arguments to link information in the texts they read, they are more likely to grasp the underlying causal relationships between events described in the text than when they write narratives, summaries, or explanations (Wiley & Voss, 1999). Thus, engaging in argumentation, whether collab-oratively or on one's own, prompts students to make sense of content knowledge in a way that other more processes do not.
Argumentation can also be used to address student misconceptions in content knowledge. Science educators,
for example, have long struggled with the problem of how to promote conceptual change when students hold misconceptions that interfere with learning. Challenging students to confront misconceptions can be exceedingly difficult because students may ignore conflicting information, misinterpret it, or, in some cases, even accept incompatible beliefs as true without realizing. Early research in promoting conceptual change yielded mixed results in part because confronting students with an experience that contradicts their beliefs does not prove to be enough to advance their understanding (Limón, 2001). Several studies have explored the effects of argumentation as an intervention for helping students to address prior misconceptions. When students argue with peers about the meaning and implication of conflicting data, they can prompt one another to re-examine their beliefs and assumptions (Bell & Linn, 2000), reconcile discrepancies in their collective understanding (Nussbaum & Sinatra, 2003), and fortify their conceptual knowledge (Zohar & Nemet, 2002). Studies such as these suggest that argumentation encourages conceptual change by making students' beliefs explicit and open to evaluation (Kuhn, 2005).
Of course, not all argumentation is conducive to learning. Social psychologists have long been aware of the potential in argumentation for polarizing people, making individuals resistant to examining or revising their beliefs (Lord, Ross & Lepper, 1979). These negative effects are heightened by a phenomenon called confirmation bias, or the tendency for individuals to seek out evidence that supports their beliefs, while overlooking, ignoring, or undervaluing evidence that contradicts their beliefs (Wason, 1960).
Here it is useful to distinguish two overlapping activities: dispute and deliberation. These kinds of discourse involve contrasting alternative claims, but they can be distinguished by their goals. In dispute the goal is to win the argument, whereas in deliberation the goal is to choose a best explanation or course of action. These divergent goals affect how individuals respond to alternative claims and evidence. In dispute, alternatives must be effectively eliminated, neutralized, or ignored. In deliberation, alternatives may be rebutted, but they may also be adopted, integrated, or change through compromise. However individuals choose to respond to them, alternatives are addressed in such a way that avoids bias and seeks coalescence of the arguments and evidence (Gilbert, 1997).
In the classroom context, students may have difficulty grasping the deliberative goals of argumentation. Many students have little experience with deliberation before they enter school, and by habit they follow the goals and structure of dispute. But in many ways, the classroom is the ideal context in which to introduce older children and adolescents to deliberation. Because it is so rare in everyday argument and because it goes against certain mental habits, students need to have deliberation taught in school where teachers can assist them in the process.
Learning how to argue begins in the home and on the playground long before children come to school (Eisenberg & Garvey, 1981). Typically, by age five, when most children enter formal schooling, they have had extensive experience with argumentation in their everyday dialogue with adults, siblings, and peers. Whether fighting with a playmate over a toy or pleading with parents to stay up a little later, children come to understand that people can hold conflicting goals and desires. At some time during preschool, they realize that they must be able to produce reasons and evidence to substantiate their requests in response to the questions and claims of others. In these early conflicts, children often invoke personal preferences and motives to justify their assertions (e.g., “I want to play with the truck now because it's fun for me”). But as they develop, they come to recognize that arguments must be won not only by asserting a position, but also by addressing the legitimacy of that position in light of alternatives. They realize that they must appeal to mutually acceptable justifications to prevail and they must demonstrate that one position is better substantiated than others (e.g., “I want to play with the truck now, because you've had a turn with it and we all have to share.”) This advance marks a critical turning point in two-sided thinking and lays the foundation for academic forms of argumentation in two ways: children begin to recognize the need for evidence to support their claims, and they recognize the need to address alternatives.
By middle school, most adolescents have learned to advance, contrast, and reconcile perspectives, pushing themselves and their peers to strengthen arguments by asking questions, requesting evidence, or proposing counterclaims in conversational contexts (Felton & Kuhn, 2001). In dialogue, young adolescents demonstrate a clear competence in producing the basic elements of argument as they respond to their peers' claims, questions, and challenges. But these sophisticated skills of argument are often limited to the highly supportive context of dialogue on familiar and generally non-academic topics (Stein & Miller, 1991). Despite the growing consensus that students come to school with the basic skills in argumentation intact, in academic contexts, they nonetheless produce simple, unsubstantiated claims that fail to address alternative claims and evidence. This gap seems to result from the unique demands that academic argumentation places on learners. Ultimately, students must learn how to adapt their basic skills of argument to meet the academic demands of classroom argumentation.
Due to differences in content knowledge, some students are better prepared than others to argue in academic contexts. When two children argue about who is the best pitcher in a baseball league, the quality of their discourse will depend on their knowledge of performance statistics and the qualities of good pitching. Similarly, to argue well in school, students need ready access to disciplinary knowledge in order to construct valid and effective arguments (Stein & Miller, 1991). For this reason, teachers should embed argumentation in units that offer students direct access to information and evidence in classroom discussions.
Limited content knowledge can also have a negative effect on students' ability to process and recall arguments that contradict their own views. More knowledgeable students have extensive resources to support the processes of encoding, retrieving, and reconstructing opposing side arguments, while less knowledgeable students are left to rely only on their position. As a result, less knowledgeable students are less likely to represent two-sided arguments in memory. However, presenting students with alternative arguments, especially when they are juxtaposed on point-counterpoint fashion, can reverse the biasing effects of limited content knowledge on memory (Wiley, 2005). Therefore, teachers should take care that students have direct access not only to information and evidence when they argue, but also to claims and counter-claims. Over time, with access to claims and evidence, students will be equipped to engage in effective argumentation and gain access to its beneficial effects on knowledge building.
Successful students produce better arguments because they are more familiar with content knowledge and because they understand how to use evidence to advance and evaluate claims in a discipline. In history class, for example, students must learn to cite primary and secondary sources while taking the biases of these sources into account. They also learn to draw legitimate cause-and-effect relationships and to argue effectively from historical precedent. Argumentative dialogue in the classroom creates a context for students to develop these skills. In the process of arguing with peers, students discover what questions need to be asked, what claims need to be proven, and what evidence might be used to prove it (King, 1990). They have evidence-use modeled for them by peers, and they also have the opportunity to make judgments about the legitimate use of evidence to support a claim. A history student, for example, might cite a textual source to prove a point, only to have a partner question the reliability of that source. A science student might cite data to support a hypothesis, only to have a peer use the same data to support an alternative hypothesis. Such exchanges provide more than a forum for testing understanding: They offer an opportunity for students to explore questions about why, when, and how evidence can be used to advance claims in a discipline.
But argumentative dialogue in this case is only the impetus for learning about evidence use. Teachers must follow up peer dialogues with discussions about disciplinary sources of evidence and standards of evaluation as students discover a need for them. In the history example above, teachers might follow up an argument about source bias with samples of two conflicting accounts and a discussion about detecting bias. The science teacher in the example above might prompt students to argue alternative hypotheses and then discuss the experimental control of variables. In short, argumentation can enhance the existing curriculum by providing anchor experiences that illustrate the essential role that evidence and its analysis play in knowledge construction. It gives students a concrete and immediate context in which to learn about evidence. Coordination of peer-dialogue and teacher-led discussion is essential for advances in the use of evidence. Without the addition of teacher-guided reflection, argumentative dialogue among peers runs the risk of perpetuating low standards and misconceptions about the appropriate use of evidence (Anderson, Howe, Soden, Halliday, & Low, 2001).
To be successful in academic tasks, students must also learn to transfer the skills of argument from collaborative to independent settings. Whether they are writing an essay, taking a test, or preparing a report, students must be able to produce claims, evidence, counterarguments, and rebuttals without relying on their peers to prompt them. They must internalize the dialectical process, so that they can independently advance and critique opposing perspectives. Argumentative dialogue offers an excellent opportunity for students to discover that they already produce the elements of argument spontaneously. This discovery, in turn, can serve as a point of entry for developing a model of what complete arguments must include. To harness these skills of argument, teachers must introduce students to the vocabulary and structure of argument, helping them to see beyond the content of dialogue to its underlying structure.
In his seminal work “The Uses of Argument” (1958) Stephen Toulmin offers a useful framework for describing the elements of argument that has been adapted for use in a variety of instructional contexts and disciplines. Simplified versions like the one in Table 1 have been effective in introducing students to the basic elements of argument. But it is essential to introduce these elements in the context of real argumentation—either in dialogue or in written materials. Without reference to concrete argumentation, terms such as these are vague and offer few benefits to students. In a single introductory lesson, teachers can introduce students to these elements by helping them apply them to a brief conversation. With practice applying these terms to their dialogues (Felton, 2004; Osborne, Erduran & Simon, 2004), as well as prompts from teachers to include these elements during whole-group discussions (Reznitskaya et al., 2001) students can learn to produce the elements of argument more consistently on their own. The combination of firsthand experience in argumentation, and critical reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments they produce, sets the stage for internalizing dialectal reasoning.
Once teachers have introduced students to a vocabulary for describing argument and modeled its application to dialogue, they can then scaffold the transfer to writing. There are a number of reasons why argumentative writing is particularly challenging for students. First, novice writers often have difficulty discerning the underlying goals and purposes of writing tasks. Without direct instruction embedded in content, they misrepresent the purpose of writing, or more often, they write without elaborated goals to guide the planning and composing process. However, with explicit directives in goal setting, students can write more complete arguments (Graham, MacArthur, & Schwatz, 1995). In addition, students often have difficulty with the structure of genre-specific writing. Argumentative writing calls for new text structures that require greater organizational and linguistic processing than is required from genres emphasized earlier in the school curriculum (Coirier, Andreissen, & Chanquoy, 1999). Therefore, most students need support in developing the text structures that allow them to organize and examine their writing. This can be accomplished with the use of question stems, graphic organizers, or mnemonic cues (King, 1990; Osborne, Erduran, & Simon, 2004). Whatever the method, teachers should provide support to help students structure their essays. With consistent exposure to scaffolds like these, students learn to produce written arguments that acknowledge alternative viewpoints, cite and rebut counterarguments, and provide evidence to support their claims.
To optimize its effects on student learning, teachers must make argumentation an integral part of the classroom experience. The questions teachers pose and the conversations that ensue have a direct impact on what students see as the purpose and form of academic work in general and argumentation in particular (Halldén, 1994). Through classroom discourse, teachers communicate their assumptions about the degree to which students must draw on evidence and justification to undergird their knowledge of the content. They also set implicit expectations on what it means to know or understand the content. Studies suggest that when readings, writing, and classroom discourse align regarding the goals of argumentation, students show measurable improvements in their ability to produce elaborated arguments (Nystrand, 1997). Conversely, when there is a lack of alignment in the curriculum, students do not show comparable improvements. Direct instruction in argumentative text structures and the goals of argumentative writing are insufficient in promoting change when classroom discourse lacks opportunities for authentic argumentative discourse.
Unfortunately, all too often, classroom discourse is dominated by direct instruction or recitation with few opportunities for students to engage in the meaningful examination of knowledge (Nystrand, 1997). Driven by the demands of a dense curriculum and high-stakes testing many teachers may feel that they cannot afford the time to teach thinking skills. Nonetheless, when compared to traditional recitation-based lessons, student-centered argumentative discourse is more effective in promoting student engagement and deeper cognitive processing of the content (Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2001). When students have the opportunity to collaborate in constructing arguments and examining evidence, they are more likely to find meaning in the content. A growing body of research suggests that while argumentation may take time away from coverage in the curriculum, it may also promote lasting effects in both content knowledge and disciplinary thinking.
Anderson, T., Howe, C., Soden, R., Halliday, J., & Low, J. (2001). Peer interaction and the learning of critical thinking skills in further education students. Instructional Science, 29(1), 1–32.
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Graham, S., MacArthur, C. A., & Schwartz, S. S. (1995). The effects of goal setting and procedural facilitation on the revising behavior and writing performance of students with writing and learning problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 230–240.
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King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Research Association Journal, 27(4), 664–687.
Kuhn, D. (2005). Education for thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Limón, M. (2001) On the cognitive conflict as an instructional strategy for conceptual change: a critical appraisal. Learning and Instruction, 11, 357–380.
Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(11), 2098–2109.
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Nussbaum, E. M., & Sinatra, D. (2003). Argument and conceptual engagement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 384–395.
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Wason, P.C. (1960). On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129-140.
Wiley, J. (2005). A fair and balanced look at the news: What affects memory for controversial arguments? Journal of Memory and Language, 53(1), 95–109.
Wiley, J., & Voss, J. (1999). Constructing arguments from multiple sources: Tasks that promote understanding and not just memory for text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 1–11.
Wood, T. (1999). Creating a context for argument in mathematics class. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(2), 171–191.
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