September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5977/463.short.

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.

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Written by Peter AHearn

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