I wrote in an earlier post that I felt my first conference presentation wasn’t up to the standard I had hoped for. Anyway, here’s my presentation and some of my notes for each slide.


Why does argumentation matter?

  • Argumentation and decision-making are very similar processes, and…
  • Decisions based on scientific evidence and considering scientific explanation are more robust, and…
  • Decisions must be made by non-scientists about everyday socioscientific issues (individual, social, political issues i.e. to vaccinate children or ourselves, to visit the homeopath or the general practictioner, what should I/my community/my country do about climate change), therefore…
  • Students must learn how to use science to make decisions – true scientific literacy!
  • OECD PISA has defined scientific literacy as “the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions (investigate) and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity” (1999, p60).
  • Teachers must know how to use science to make decisions in order to model it with students (Simon,Erduran & Osborne, 2006), but also…
  • Decisions must be made by teachers about everyday teaching strategies:
  • Should I include argumentation in my science lessons? What does the research say?
  • Should I practice Brain Gym techniques with my students?
  • Should I sort my students according to their learning styles, or brain laterality?


1.  Construction and coherence:

  • Some arguments were quite sophisticated; some students were able to identify appropriate data or evidence, give clear and concise explanations to back up warrants, and made effective arguments to support their claims.
  • This can be improved with explicit instruction and scaffolding in construction and coherence.

2.  Alignment with scientific consensus

  • This is more of a worry…
  • Identifying strong scientific evidence and explanation requires scientific literacy (an ability to use and construct scientific ideas and texts) incorporating a good understanding of the nature of science and especially the nature of scientific evidence.
  • Choosing the “right” side of the controversy is not necessarily evidence of scientific literacy or the nature of science; influence of context, social groups, valuing of various types of evidence, personal experience.


Often, didactic arguments are the product of classroom activities; these are made from a single perspective[12] – and thus susceptible to confirmation bias. Sophisticated scientific argumentation is a process of examining multiple perspectives, with the purpose of reaching a conclusion on acceptable claims or a course of action (dialogic argumentation)[11]. This involves evaluating alternatives[2]. Habits of mind developed by this practice include:

  • adopting a critical stance
  • willingness to ask questions and seek help
  • developing appropriate trust
  • scientific scepticism[13]


One of the assessments in our first year course, EDUC1706, an introduction to science, is for our students to write a 1000 word argument. We model argumentation, including holding dialogic sessions in which we ask them to come to a consensus on an issue, i.e. “Should we become vegetarian?” We also model and scaffold the structure of an argument with them. We talk a lot about how argumentation is used to defend ideas in science.

What’s different about this study?

1.  Adults as the sample population:

  • Largely recent high school graduates, so recently experienced Australian curricula/science teachers – graduates of a curriculum that purports that learning science helps people to make better decisions
  • Pre-service teachers – if they can’t argue effectively, how can they teach it?

2.  Student-selected, personally relevant socioscientific issue as the topic:

  • Higher interest in defending claim
  • Socioscientific issues generally relevant to everyday contexts
  • Some pre-existing knowledge?

3.  Written dialogic argument as the format:

  • Requirement to evaluate alternatives, consider counterarguments – other people’s points of view – and rebut them.

4.  Peer-review process as feedback to argument.


Peer review assisted participants in two ways:

1.  Participants received feedback from their peers about:

  • the coherence of their argument,
  • the support for the conclusion,
  • the use of data and objectivity, and
  • the consistency and connections between data and warrants

2.  Participants participants used the process of reviewing others’ arguments to reflect on these aspects of their own arguments.

This approach needs further investigation to identify any impacts on the quality of student arguments.


Structure: Toulmin’s Argument Pattern (Toulmin, 1958)

Quality of the elements:

  • Claims: clarity, connection to problem statement, qualifiers, alignment to scientific consensus
  • Warrants: implicit or explicit, relevance, tautology or other rationales
  • Data: qualitative or quantitative, relevance, types of sources
  • Backing: relevance, credibility, accuracy, sufficiency, logical fallacy
  • Counterarguments: absent, explicit, implicit, connected
  • Rebuttals assessed as warrants
  • Qualifiers: presence, relevance

Coherence: Structure of Observed Learning Outcome (Biggs & Collis, 1982)

  • 5 stages of increasing coherence and consistency
  • Prestructural: no relevance or coherence between elements
  • Unistructural: single relevant idea leads to claim
  • Multistructural: multiple relevant ideas add to claim
  • Relational: multiple related ideas lead to claim
  • Extended Abstract: multiple related ideas extend to claim(s), which are qualified to allow logical alternatives


1 contradiction to scientific consensus: Fluoride should not be added to the water (3rd paragraph)

  • Unistructural – single warrant: fluoride is toxic leading to significant health problems including cancer
  • Data largely irrelevant; evidence regarding negative health effects presented without discussion of level of toxicity
  • 11 sources included 3 online information sheets, 3 anti-fluoride campaign websites, 1 toxicology report (animal subjects), 2 news articles, 1 legal finding, 1 online petition
  • Only information sheets and toxicology reports deemed credible; statements and findings from these sources were cherry-picked
  • Appeal to authority of university professor
  • Conclusion not wholly supported by data and backing


25 claims aligned with the scientific consensus… however these were generally no different in the quality of sources and forms of evidence and backing given to support claims.





[Before revealing my own suggestions I called for contributions from the audience… There were some great suggestions, including that we implement a long-term program of professional development including support for inservice teachers. This is something I would love and plan to do. Then the argument about climate change began and I ran out of time. I whizzed through the next few slides – literally, click click click – and said thank you.]


1.  Learning science: Does it develop scientific literacy? Understanding of the nature of science?

2.  Scientific argumentation: If it does develop scientific literacy and understanding of the nature of science and evidence, does it also help people to make better decisions?

3.  What are the knowledge and skill issues that interfere with constructing a strong, coherent argument?