May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Should We Teach Our Students to Argue?

Posted: Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

by Grahme Smith

We all love to get the correct answer. It feels great to be “right.”  As soon as we learn how to point, we are cheered for being able to identify the correct color of our toys, and to accurately count the number of peas on our plate. For toddlers, there are correct answers. They learn that adults know the answers and praise children for saying the “right” thing. This idea often is reinforced in school through testing and teacher directed learning. Students learn that the teacher or the textbook or the Internet has the right answer, and that the job of students is simply to find and regurgitate information. In Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse, Jonathan Osborne notes that “deep within our educational fabric, education is still seen simplistically as a process of transmission where knowledge is presented as a set of unequivocal and uncontested facts, transferred from expert to novice.” However, the goal of education is to help students learn to think rationally and independently, to problem solve, and to make informed decisions. Osborne explains that the goal of science is not just to understand the things we’ve already learned but also “to produce new knowledge of the natural world.” If we’re sending the message to students that their role is simply to regurgitate preexisting information, how will they ever develop into independent thinkers and science innovators?

Many in the educational community feel that taking a constructivist approach is the best method to support students in formulating their own ideas and in fostering independent thought. The hope is that when students generate their own understanding, they have more ownership of the concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the material. The argument against constructivism is that it can perpetuate misconceptions and it does not push forward our collective thinking.  For example, if a student constructs their own understanding of why there are phases of the moon, they might mistakenly think that the Earth’s shadow causes the moon’s phases. On the other hand, if a student is simply told the cause of the moon’s phases, they will likely not internalize nor have ownership over the information, and it will be quickly forgotten.

Osborne’s answer to this conundrum is to have students do what actual scientists do; argue. “Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas.” From informal discussions in laboratories to formal peer reviews, new ideas are validated and broken down based on feedback and scrutiny from colleagues. “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.”  He cites a study indicating the most learning gains come when students participate in activities that are interactive and require collaborative discourse and collaboration.  This discourse forces students to defend their ideas and helps them develop an understanding of how we know what we know about science instead of just an understanding what we know. With this methodology students are encouraged to construct their own ideas, then defend and justify their thinking against another student’s ideas and the literature. This ensures that students are learning accurate information, gives space for students to learn from each other, and helps to collectively move group thought forward.

My questions for the CSTA community this month are how can we channel the energy and enthusiasm students put into being “right” into having a critical discourse with their peers? Can we de-program students into believing that it is ok to be wrong and that understanding why they’re wrong is more important than simply being right? Can we have students argue in class without causing chaos? Have you been able to do this in your classroom or informal learning center? As a professional science educator, do you engage in this type of discourse with your colleagues? Please share your thoughts about the importance or effectiveness of argumentation in enhancing student’s conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning and let us know how you have supported this with students and peers.

All quotes are from Arguing to Learn in Science: the Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse written by Jonathan Osborne and published in Science in April, 2010. Click here to read the abstract:

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director.


Written by Grahme Smith

Grahme Smith is manager at the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences and CSTA’s informal science director (2011-2013.

Leave a Reply


CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.