We Spend Too Much Time Teaching Students to Argue
Focusing on proving a point sends a dangerous hidden message
Anyone who has been around American public schools recently has probably noticed that our kids spend a lot of time learning to argue. First graders practice by writing claims about the Big Bad Wolf; they might misspell "evidence," but they learn if they are going to call the wolf big and bad, they better be able to back it up. Third graders construct arguments about whether it is harder to be an older or a younger sibling. High school students write persuasive essays on the same topics their parents argue about online.
Argumentation is a focus of the Common Core State Standards for English. The Next Generation Science Standards and many social studies standards also emphasize argument. When you add it all together, it yields a curriculum that pushes students to frequently frame their work in terms of claims, evidence, and reasoning. In my work with teachers across New England, I have watched this emphasis expand over the past decade.
For years, I was passionate about teaching these skills to the high school students in my own English classes. I had read the research cited in the common core, which indicates that argumentation skills will help students advance and excel in any career path. I wanted my students to be the most powerful thinkers and communicators in any room.
As the years went by, however, a problem became clear: Too many students seemed to be learning that the first step to crafting an argument is finding evidence to support a pre-formed opinion. As the internet became ubiquitous, this instinct became more and more dangerous.
There are few things more perilous than an inability to perceive reality. For his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales analyzed accident reports from fatal incidents and found that disaster follows when people look at the world, and, instead of seeing what is there, see what they expect to see. Hikers leave the trail because a break in the trees looks like a turn that they were expecting, and end up helplessly lost. Rafters who have run a river in low water fail to notice that the water is high this year, because they are "seeing" the river of their memory, until the current sucks them into violent rapids. Expectations skew their view of reality, with terrible results.
Was I teaching argumentation to empower my students? Of course. But by teaching them to focus on finding evidence to support claims, I was achieving the opposite effect. I was making them susceptible to an epidemic of our time: the tendency to select facts that support a certain perception of reality, rather than discerning what reality is by analyzing observations and facts.
With this in mind, I shifted my focus to the work that needs to happen before one makes an argument—the work of looking at the world. I designed projects that would allow students to look deeply at an issue. They would gather data for a long time, researching in academic or professional journals, conducting interviews, making observations. Once a wealth of information had been gathered, they would examine it by asking two questions: What do I see here? What is this telling me? Only after looking at patterns in the data would they begin to craft an argument.
In this approach to teaching, the skill my students practiced most was not cobbling together arguments intended to support their assumptions, but rather seeing reality as accurately as possible. I didn't stop teaching my students to express their views with evidence, clarity, and eloquence. But the skill I wanted them to master was looking at texts or data or the world itself with keen powers of observation and listing their observations before asking, "What does this all mean?"
Now it is 2018, and not a day goes by without a chorus of lamentation about the fracturing of our society, the evaporation of our sense of shared reality. I don't know all the answers, but I do know that one thing teachers can do is to ensure that the time students spend in school is spent practicing, over and over, the components of problem-solving: gathering and analyzing information, making observations, defining problems, collaborating with others, testing possible solutions, and learning from failure.
If we are to survive as a nation, then our students must learn that the goal is not to win an argument. The goal is not to define reality according to the terms of one's beliefs. The goal is to see what is around us and respond wisely.
Students shine when they work this way. I've seen teenagers in Vermont, after analyzing student data from their school, define the most critical problem not as "too many students use drugs," but as "it is almost impossible for people in our rural area to access psychiatric care." I've seen students argue for novel ways to prevent bullying, to increase attendance at girls' sports events, to slow the spread of Lyme disease, to route traffic more safely in the school parking lot. Although all these students made powerful arguments, their goal was not to argue; their goal was to solve problems.
Teachers can drive this change, and parents can play a role, too. At back-to-school night this fall, parents all over America can ask their children's teachers these questions: What kinds of problems will my child work on in this class? Will my child have opportunities to define problems that need solving?
The more that our classrooms are set up with this focus, the more hope there is that our students will come to regard themselves as American innovators working together to overcome challenges, partners in the face of a reality that we all perceive together, rather than as members of rival factions trying to score points in an endless argument.
If we can succeed in this, then perhaps our children can teach us to follow their lead.
Vol. 38, Issue 07, Page 20Published in Print: October 3, 2018, as Are We Making Students Argue Too Much?