In Elementary School Science, What’s at Stake When We Call an ‘Argument’ an ‘Opinion’?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 25, 2017 8 min read
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As more teachers are using both the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, they will increasingly be confronted with a challenge: The standards in literacy and science—and the research literature in the two fields—disagree about when and how students learn to form arguments.

In a new article for Educational Researcher, Okhee Lee, a professor of education at New York University, suggests that standards writers and researchers need to consider the confusing and mostly unexamined situation teachers are in and figure out how to change it.

“The standards writers meant to help by making connections between science, ELA, and math, but the bodies of literature aren’t saying the same thing” about how students learn to form arguments, she said in an interview. “The foundational work hasn’t been done ... Teachers, especially in K-5, must be very confused.”

Teachers in the middle

Lee was clued into the discrepancy as she watched an experienced 2nd grade teacher demonstrate a lesson to a group of expert observers.

After a well-thought-out lesson on states of matter, the teacher’s sample writing assignment began with the following prompt: “Write your opinion on ... .”

In Lee’s experience in teaching science, it seemed clear that a scientific writing assignment shouldn’t involve opinion, even in early elementary school. Opinions, she said, don’t require any evidence, and in a science class, students should be making arguments and backing them up with evidence. That’s the language used in the Next Generation Science Standards, which were in use in this teacher’s state.

But it turns out that the teacher’s writing assignment was perfectly in tune with the common core, which guides teachers to instruct their students in writing about opinions—but not arguments—in elementary school. In the common core’s standards for English/language arts, students aren’t asked to form arguments until middle school.

Lee writes that the two disciplines generally agree on the structure of argument. But, she writes, that “scholars across disciplines have yet to arrive at a common understanding of how ELA/literacy and science functionally interrelate with respect to argument.”

The NGSS specifically says that the standards should be interpreted so that they don’t misalign with or outpace the core. That leads to situations like the one Lee observed, where an elementary teacher asked students to write opinions, rather than arguments, about content in science class

Differences in the Research

A literature review revealed to Lee a consensus among science educators that even very young students can form arguments based on facts and data if given effective instruction.

The Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, reflect this approach: The standards say that “young students can begin by constructing an argument or their own interpretation of the phenomena they observe and of any data they collect.” Young students are also expected to learn to distinguish evidence from opinion. Standards for students as young as kindergarten involve constructing arguments based on evidence.

From the NGSS:

A review of literacy research, on the other hand, revealed a general agreement that young children initially can’t form arguments from evidence and gradually develop the ability over time. But there is much less research on the subject of argument in literacy than in science, partly because literacy instruction before the common core was much more likely to focus on narrative writing than on arguments in the younger grades, Lee said. Some newer research bucks that trend and indicates that young students can form arguments with the support of effective instruction.

The common core lines up with the older consensus: In an appendix, the standards’ authors write that “young children are not able to produce fully developed logical arguments.” The standards don’t ask students to form arguments until 6th grade. And they use the word “opinion” in elementary writing standards that are preparing students to learn to construct arguments, without explaining why this is so. The appendix simply states: “In grades K-5, the term ‘opinion’ is used to refer to this developing form of argument.”

Lee writes that although the reading standards are said to be research-based, “they provide no studies or research literature to support developmental progressions of argument in ELA/literacy (i.e., no references are provided in the CCSS Appendix A). Further, no research is called on to justify specific grade-level decisions (e.g., withholding the expectation of argument until Grade 6).”

In the common core, words like evidence, claim, and reason are also used throughout the writing and English/language arts standards but are not clearly defined. Lee is concerned about that lack of clarity. “I’d love the standards to unpack those key terms and constructs,” she said.

Silos With Consequences

Lee said that in her research, it became apparent that many science education experts were relatively unfamiliar with literacy research and standards and that literacy educators were equally unfamiliar with science education literature.

Lee writes that that lack of familiarity results in a challenge for classrooms, and that “teachers need informed guidance about how to go about resolving these discrepancies.”

Lee suggests that there may be a need for a forum or other research effort on the topic aimed at uncovering and resolving convergences and divergences in how educators think about argument, and for further research on how evidence-based argument can be promoted in elementary literacy and science classes. Her hope is that the standards can be seen as a “living document,” able to be updated when evidence from the field suggests that it’s necessary.

Writers Respond

Susan Pimentel, the lead writer of the common core literacy standards, said she thought Lee made “an important point.”

“When we wrote the common core, we were basing it on the best evidence we could find,” Pimentel said. But, she said, there simply wasn’t a lot of research in the literacy field on young children and argument writing.

“Our desire to write about literacy in the disciplines was never meant to supplant a specific set of content standards in any discipline.” She said that she would defer to research in science indicating that young children could form arguments.

“As states are revising standards, they should take into consideration new research that’s out there,” Pimentel said. She said this was an “important point.”

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which helped develop the common core and consults with individual states on their academic standards, said he was less concerned about the language difference in the standards. He pointed out that the anchor standard from which the elementary writing standards are derived uses the word argument and that the basic idea—using evidence to bolster a claim—is similar. In science, he said, “for a 1st grader, you’re not talking to someone who’s finished completing a randomized controlled experiment, you’re talking to someone who observes something and can point to something about why they’ve come to a certain conclusion...that’s pretty much what the common core asks a 1st grader to do.”

Cohen said that his first takeaway from the teacher anecdote in Lee’s paper was that science was being taught in elementary school—something he said is too rare.

He supported Lee’s suggestions that researchers and practitioners probe the differences in language and approach to argument. “There seems to be a solid research base in science about how kids learn this than there is about ELA, so when confronting the tension between the two I’d go with the stronger research base,” he said. “Maybe in the early grades in ELA, they’re aiming a bit too low, though, if you listen to the debate about common core, I don’t think they say we’re aiming too low.”

He said that at this point, no one organization would revise the common core itself and share that as a directive with states. He said individual states revise and review standards on their own.

Making it work

In practice, the difference in what the standards expect of elementary schoolers has been noted by practitioners, but they seem to be navigating the differences. Joanna Hawkins, an education consultant with the Vermont Writing Collective, said that “everything [Lee] said in here, in terms of differences in the term ‘argument’ in science and English language arts, jumped out immediately when we first started working with the science standards.”

She said in her work in literacy, it is clear that young students can form and write arguments, especially if they know the content they are writing about. She said she thinks that teachers would benefit most from concrete examples of student work and assignments that show what argument writing looks like.

Allison Hintz, an assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of Washington Bothell, said that she, too, had noticed the discrepancy in the language used to talk about argument in the standards. She said that in practice, she and the teachers she works with focus on finding the connections between the standards — even keeping track of differences and similarities using a Venn diagram.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.