School & District Management

Researchers Try to Promote Students’ Ability to Argue

By Debra Viadero — September 14, 2009 7 min read
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In a back-to-school commentary published this month in The New York Times, Gerald Graff, the well-known University of Chicago scholar, offered some advice to college students. “Recognize that knowing a lot of stuff won’t do you much good,” he wrote, “unless you can do something with what you know by turning it into an argument.”

Indeed, researchers say, the ability to argue is getting fresh recognition as a skill that is vital to success in college and the workplace.

That students need to learn how to argue may come as a surprise to parents of strong-willed children. More than ever, administrators and educational technology leaders need reliable information and resources to guide the technology decision making process. But logical arguments differ from the kinds of emotional arguments families experience, experts say, and most students possess only weak knowledge of how to recognize, understand, and construct one.

A small spate of studies—13 financed since 2002 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, or IES—is beginning to offer some clues, though, on how students’ argumentation skills can be improved in the right kind of educational setting.

“The good news is that a little bit of instruction seems to help,” said M. Anne Britt, an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb. “It’s not like the problem is so bad that you need drastic measures.”

Avoiding Conflict

When asked what to do when they and a peer had a disagreement over a project, 6th graders replied:


SOURCE: Deanna Kuhn

While educators have espoused the virtues of skilled argumentation at least as far back as Socrates, schools typically don’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to make a reasoned case for or against a particular position.

Scholars say that relatively few studies, even now, examine ways to improve students’ skills in that area, focusing instead on developing problem-solving skills or improving subject-matter knowledge.

No one in the scholarly community suggests, though, that students don’t need a little extra help in making a good argument.

On the last National Assessment of Educational Progress in writing, given in 2007, only 26 percent of 12th graders were judged to be “excellent” or “skillful” at persuasive writing, which may or may not entail making an argument. Another 34 percent were rated “sufficient,” and 27 percent generated “uneven” performances. Test-scorers rated the rest as either “insufficient” or “unsatisfactory.”

‘My Side’ Bias

Ms. Britt, in her own studies of high school and college students, has found that they were able to identify the main claims and reasons in an argument only 30 percent of the time. In 16 percent of the errors, students mistakenly identified the counterclaim as the main argument.

Students have an even harder time when it comes to identifying the perspective of the other side and marshaling evidence to weaken that opposing argument, according to Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has been studying the development of children’s argumentation skills since the 1980s. More often, she said, students exhibit what researchers call the “my-side bias” in their arguments.

“What they tend to do is give all the reasons supporting their side and absolutely ignore the alternative,” Ms. Kuhn said. “They say what they have to say, and then say it louder, and hope the other side will go away.”

Some research also suggests that, for the most part, students don’t get a lot better at argumentation as they grow older, Ms. Kuhn has written.

Another hurdle in improving such skills, Ms. Kuhn wrote in her 2005 book Education for Thinking, is that students aren’t necessarily disposed to see the value in arguing, especially as they reach adolescence. She wrote that teenagers will say, “There’s no point because you’re not going to get anywhere,” or “Everyone has a right to think what they want to.” Faced with a practical dilemma, they also tend to favor solutions that incorporate both sides, compromise, or defer to the opposing side.

“Children need to learn that argument is more than something to be avoided,” she wrote in a paper published last year on the project. “This understanding is not intuitively given.”

‘Showdown’ Debates

To strengthen students’ skills in making an argument, Ms. Kuhn and Teachers College colleagues developed a stand-alone philosophy course that is being taught and studied at Columbia Secondary School, a public middle school near the university’s campus in New York City.

As part of the course, students pair up for electronic dialogues, using instant-messaging software, with other classmates on questions such as whether a misbehaving child should be expelled from school or whether China’s one-child policy is a good idea. They also analyze and map out printed versions of the dialogues, work together to prepare for a final whole-class “showdown” debate, which they later study as an “argument map,” and write a final position paper. The teachers offer little direct instruction on how to argue effectively, serving mostly as coaches or mentors to the students.

Studies of the program have shown that, compared with peers in a traditional philosophy class in the same school, the program’s 6th graders become much better at argument discourse over the course of the year. More than the students in the comparison group, they challenge opponents to support their claims and make counterarguments against them.

By the end of 7th grade, Ms. Kuhn said, when students have been in the experimental class for two years, they begin producing better-written arguments on final topics that neither group has studied before.

At Northern Illinois University, Ms. Britt is having success with a short, Web-based tutorial aimed at teaching the anatomy of an argument to students in high school and college. After the hour long class, one such study found, high school psychology students were more adept than peers from another psychology class taught by the same teacher at picking out flawed arguments and unsupported claims. Success rates are even higher, those studies have found, when students get immediate feedback during the tutorial process.

“On the other hand,” Ms. Britt said, “we still have work to do in testing students a month later” to see if they sustain their new found skills.

Working with students in upper elementary school, Richard C. Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that leading students in classroom discussions about moral, practical, or social dilemmas can foster better argumentation skills.

In one such dilemma, students read about “Kelley,” who enters a painting contest at her school and is generally favored to come in second. As rain begins to fall, Kelley notices that the school’s best artist has left her painting on the playground. The question for students to debate is: Should she tell her?

Teachers Letting Go

Mr. Anderson’s program, known as “collaborative reasoning,” is now being tested in an IES-funded study involving 36 classrooms in Illinois. But smaller-scale studies of the approach, which have been conducted so far in rural and urban schools in China and South Korea as well as Illinois, point to promising results.

For example, after a month of the twice-a-week, small-group discussions, Spanish-speaking students in one disadvantaged urban school in Illinois wrote essays that were longer and incorporated more counterarguments, evidence, reasons, and diverse vocabulary words than those written by Spanish-speaking peers in other classrooms—and with minimal teacher direction. They also made greater strides in improving their listening and reading comprehension, according to that study.

“I think people are surprised. Children have precious few opportunities to show what they can do,” said Mr. Anderson. “We get a particularly good response from children for whom the opportunties in the normal school day are most limited. If you go to an elite private school, there are more opportunities for thinking.”

Also, he said, children sharpen their ability to make an argument with little direction from teachers beyond basic debate etiquette.

“Coaches can prepare the players, and they can have a session after the game,” Mr. Anderson said, “but the players have to play the game.”

Letting go of the debate was difficult for Theresa Scott, a head teacher and teacher-trainer at the Benchmark School, an independent school serving grades 1-8 in Media, Pa. Because many of her students had learning disabilities and read below grade level, Ms. Scott invented games to teach them argumentation skills during “morning meeting” time. Now, they lead and evaluate their own discussions, she said.

“Eventually, the kids could even generate their own questions to discuss,” said Ms. Scott, who is starting her third year of using the approach.

Elizabeth Albro, the associate commissioner of the teaching and learning division of the IES’ National Center for Education Research, said other studies being financed by the federal research agency are exploring the development of students’ argumentation skills in mathematics, science, and educational technology.

“More people are getting things from the Web, and you have to be able to evaluate information—especially when it comes to the environment or medicine or scientific topics,” Ms. Britt said. “If you can’t understand the importance of experiments and the role of theory, then everything is all the same to you. It’s equally credible and believable.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Researchers Try to Promote Students’ Ability to Argue


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