“Thinking as argument is implicated in all of the beliefs people hold, the judgments they make, and the conclusions they come to; it arises every time a significant decision must be made. Hence, argumentative thinking lies at the heart of what we should be concerned about in examining how, and how well, people think” (Kuhn, 1992, p155).
Argumentation is a sophisticated practice in which people use higher-order thinking and reasoning to move toward a decision or stance on an issue. It is central to the practice of science, as scientists present scientific ideas that are defended with evidence and reasoning to each other, and examine the arguments of others for their validity and robustness (Driver, Newton & Osborne, 2000; Kuhn, 1993; Osborne, 2010). The processes of peer review, and presenting findings and interpretations (observations and inferences) at conferences and meetings, both involve argumentation. In the classroom, just as in the scientific community, argumentation can serve to expose and address inconsistencies between ideas and evidence (Berland & Hammer, 2012).
Recent research has identified argumentation as a necessary aspect of any science curriculum that aims to develop students’ scientific literacy (Driver, Newton & Osborne, 2000; McDonald, 2010; McDonald & McRobbie, 2012; Tytler, 2007).
In science, different types of evidence are given greater value than others. This is because some evidence is considered valid and reliable, while others less so. For example, double blind random control studies are more highly valued than epidemiological studies as evidence that a new pharmaceutical drug works, and both of these are considered far more valuable than a single anecdote. There are many types of evidence, acquired from a variety of means, but only some of these are valued in science (McRae, 2011).
In order to argue effectively in science students must understand and appreciate the differences between different types of evidence. They must also have some understanding of the explanations, theories and relationships between different ideas that make sense of the evidence and support their argument. Students must be able to see ideas and issues from other points of view, and consider that their own point of view might be wrong. They have to be open-minded and willing to change their mind if their evidence is counter-argued by a strong rebuttal; likewise, they should consider rebuttals to the counter-arguments of others.
Formats for Arguments
Two forms of argumentation are common in the classroom: didactic and dialogic.
Didactic argumentation is used to inform others of a claim and attempt to persuade them of its reasonableness. This form of argumentation is commonly used by teachers to teach science, who draw on their authority rather than evidence and explanation to support a claim (Jimenez-Aleixandre, Rodriguez & Duschl, 2000; Russell, 1983).
Dialogic argumentation is a process of examining multiple perspectives. The main purpose of dialogic argumentation is to reach agreement on acceptable claims or decide on a course of action. Dialogic argumentation involves evaluating alternative positions, which requires participants to construct and revise their own and others’ claims, evidence and reasoning; to make sense of events and ideas, articulate their understandings, and persuade others to commit to their position (Driver, Newton & Osborne, 2000). Habits of mind that may be developed by participation in this form of argumentation include adopting a critical stance, willingness to ask questions and seek help, developing appropriate trust, and scientific scepticism (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007).
Structure of an Argument
There are six common elements to arguments (Toulmin, 2003).
The fundamental elements of an argument are claims; data (facts, evidence); warrants (premises); backing (explanation, reasoning); counterarguments (refutations). A sixth element, qualifiers, describes the use of modal terms and statements. Claims, warrants and data are considered essential to an argument, while backing, rebuttals and qualifiers may not always be needed. Arguments can also be hierarchical, in that the backing for one claim can be considered a new claim requiring its own data and warrants, etc.
Counterarguments may not describe conditions or circumstances of exception, but may be direct arguments in themselves that present reasoning or evidence counter to the claims of the main argument. The inclusion of counterarguments in a rhetorical argument demonstrates that the author is able to consider other points of view. Rebuttals are warrants that debunk, dismiss or defuse the counterarguments. The main argument can best be preserved by the presentation of data or backing that rebuts the counterarguments.
It is also important to identify faulty arguments. Often we use short cuts to make decisions, such as relying on authority, following the decisions of others, or using our judgment of some other aspect rather than the credibility of the claim and its supporting evidence itself, such as whether or not we like someone. An extensive list of these logical fallacies is available at http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com.
Supporting students to identify fallacies and faulty reasoning can help students to construct better arguments, and evaluate the claims of others.
Argumentation in the Curriculum
Many topics in the Australian Curriculum: Science provide teachers and students with an opportunity to engage in argumentation. Discussions around theories of evolution, of the origins of our universe, are topics ripe for facilitated argumentation in grades 9 – 12. Socioscientific issues relating to scientific topics taught in the curriculum around health and wellbeing may be introduced for argumentation, for example vaccination, water fluoridation, and various diets and exercise programs. Environmental issues of interest, such as climate change, sources of power, and pollution, are commonly argued in the middle years of schooling. Strong scientific evidence should be emphasised as most valued in the science classroom, and in all these examples of argument.
Student understandings of the content descriptions presented in the Science as a Human Endeavour strand of the Australian Curriculum: Science can be learned through argumentation activities as one component of instruction in the nature of science.
In the primary years, inquiry questions such as “how do we know if something is alive?”, “what happens to the water when the sun comes out?”, and “how can we tell that the Earth revolves around the sun?” can give students an opportunity to share their ideas and support them with evidence and explanation. Further, hypothetical scenarios in which students must reach a consensus decision about an issue can facilitate the development of argumentative skill. For example, students might explore a proposal to build a zoo or community garden in a local area, or to send a probe or robot to Venus to collect information.
Students’ arguments reveal their views of the world, and also their understandings of the nature of science, scientific methodologies, scientific knowledge, and ability to interpret scientific and non-scientific texts. Adults commonly use the skills of argumentation when making decisions in their everyday lives. The quality of their decisions – and thus the outcomes – may correlate with their ability to make effective arguments.
Pre-service primary teachers require skills and understandings to critically examine socioscientific claims if they are to model them in the classroom. A sophisticated understanding of the nature of science and scientific ideas are also required for the effective teaching of argumentation and about science to their future students (Zohar, 2007). Without such understanding, the risk is that pre-service primary teachers become teachers who continue to frame science as a subject in which there are clear, unambiguous “correct” answers and data lead uncontroversially to constructed conclusions. It is not a great surprise that this positivist view is held by many teachers themselves, suggesting that the remediation of this problem lies in part with teachers and their beliefs and values (Driver, Newton and Osborne, 2000; Osborne, 2007). Further, pre-service primary teachers require skills of argumentation not only for application in everyday contexts and for personal purposes but to evaluate teaching programs, pedagogical research and science curriculums (Pezaro, 2014).
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