Techniques for Encouraging a Culture of Argumentation in Your Classroom

During our annual National Science Education Leadership Development Forum in Alexandria, VA, Professor Lisa Kenyon talked about creating a culture of argumentation in a science classroom. We talked about why you might want a culture of argumentation in your classroom in our previous post. This week, we will discuss what teachers can do to create this culture in their classrooms.

Students of this 1846 textbook would have learned about a planet called Vulcan, believed to have been between Mercury and the Sun. There was good evidence to suspect its existence at the time, but better measurements and models improved our understanding. Higher resolution care of Library of Congress.

A plan or map of the solar system

Start with Yourself

To create a culture of argumentation, lead by example. Be the one to show students what it sounds like to critique an idea, respectfully. Show students how you evaluate evidence and explanations. Defend your ideas. Most importantly, show students that you can and do change your own mind when appropriate given the evidence. Maybe you can start by telling students about how you made peace with Pluto!

Avoid I.R.E.

Professor Kenyon talked about how classroom dialogue frequently falls into the I.R.E. model, where IRE stands for Initiate, Respond, and Evaluate:

  • Initiate: The teacher initiates a question, " What causes a rainbow?"
  • Respond: The student knows all he needs to do is respond, "Light being bent on its way through water particles."
  • Evaluate: The teacher gives a brief evaluation of the student's response, "Good job."

...and then the conversation ends. But these are students. They love to talk. When we bring argumentation into the classroom, kids learn that it is OK to talk--about science of course--and they are in their element!

 The I.R.E. model trains students to give a brief response, knowing they will receive a brief evaluation.  When students are trained in this type of discourse, it squelches opportunities for critique, defense and evaluation of ideas.

Above: Sharing stories from the history of science is  one way to demonstrate the tradition of argumentation in science.

Formulate Rich, Meaningful Questions

We should avoid asking kids questions that are factoids, such as the sample question above. Instead, think about how to challenge students to offer unique explanations that might not be spelled out in the textbook. For instance, ask a child, "What would happen if you only shine red light through water particles?"

Support Agreement and Disagreement

If you ask students to draw a model explaining a phenomenon, select multiple students with very different drawings. Ask them to explain their models and be transparent about the fact that they were chosen because of these differences. Demonstrate to students right away that your science classroom is a place where it is OK to disagree and that disagreement is expected.

Keep Your Class Focused on the End Goal: Consensus

When scientists communicate, they explain what they think is going on in the natural and designed world.  They disagree, they challenge one another, they evaluate each other's work. They understand that this discourse is vital to the end goal, which is some sort of consensus. That consensus, of course, is always tentative because new evidence, challenging data, and better explanations are just around the corner.

By creating a culture of argumentation in the classroom, we demonstrate to our students that it is up to them  to formulate the new explanations, discover new evidence and challenge the old models with new data.

Inviting Children into a Tradition of Inquiry

Scientific argumentation is a conversation that has been going on for centuries. Today's fifth grader can answer a question posed by the sages of centuries past and create avenues of discovery for the children of the year 4013. When we create a culture of argumentation in our science classrooms, we invite our students into a conversation that transcends school walls and bell schedules.

...and we show them that we find their ideas and thoughts insightful and important enough to be part of this conversation.

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About the Author

Marjee Chmiel, PhD

Marjee is the Director of Evaluation and Editorial Development at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Marjee previous worked at the Smithsonian Science Education Center as the Division Director of Curriculum and Communications. Marjee has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's degree in curriculum design, both from Marquette University. Her PhD is from George Mason University in Educational Research and Evaluation Methods.