Today, my final year primary and middle years Education students had a brief taste of argumentation for the science classroom. They prepared for class with the pre-seminar reading I assigned, Argumentation in Primary and Middle Schools, and brought to class the arguments they had prepared back in their first year for another course I teach (essentially, science foundations for primary and middle years teachers).

We started class by revising and identifying the various elements of an argument (Toulmin, 1958), using their arguments from first year.

  • Claim: Position or stance on an issue; the central idea of the argument
  • Warrants: Reasons, assumptions, beliefs, values, principles; the link between the claim and the evidence
  • Data: Evidence, facts, information (sufficient, credible, accurate)
  • Backing: Explanations, theoretical assumptions
  • Counterargument: Opposing warrants
  • Qualifiers: Conditions of exception, modal terms used to express degree of certainty or strength

(The trickiest part is identifying exactly what data and evidence is. The really tricky part, once you’ve identified something as evidence, is figuring out how useful it is. But that’s something for another blog post.)

We touched briefly on faulty reasoning and logical fallacies, and I emphasised that just because you agree with a claim, or the claim agrees with the general views of science, that doesn’t mean that it’s well-reasoned!

We outlined some guidelines for argumentation:

  • Respect each other: argue against ideas, not the other person (this is called an ad hominem attack)
  • Avoid the strawman fallacy (misrepresenting someone’s ideas to make them easier to attack): if you’re unclear about someone’s argument, paraphrase and check or ask them to clarify
  • Ask questions
  • Share the floor
  • Be willing to change your mind!

Then we launched in to our argument. I asked “Is it healthier to be a vegetarian?”. The goal of the discussion was class consensus – not an easy thing to achieve! Students had only their personal views, experiences and any prior research they had done in their own time – not a great foundation for conducting a scientific argument. To help them broaden their understandings, I provided snatches of research, statements, evidence, and reasoning on little pieces of paper for them to consider.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Dietitians of Canada suggest that in all stages of life, a properly planned vegetarian diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” (American Dietetic Association, 2003).


For 2.3 million years, Humans have been eating meat, and this has been a driving force behind our evolution.


In 2010 President Bill Clinton adopted a vegan diet (no meat, eggs, or dairy) after his second heart surgery. In Aug. 2011, President Clinton stated, “my blood tests are good, and my vital signs are good, and I feel good, and I also have, believe it or not, more energy.”


Health disease and other problems are not caused by eating meat, they are caused by over-eating, and consuming excessive amounts of saturated fats, not lean meats in moderation.

and lastly

Studies have shown no significant differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, or prostate cancer (Key et al, 1999).

There were a wide variety of warrants, data and reasoning for students to draw on or rebut in their own comments. Some were of a quality considered more valuable in science (i.e. metastudies), others less so (i.e. Bill Clinton’s personal experiences). Some appeared to be pro-vegetarian, some not.

Given the limited time students had to explore the topic, and the limited information they had before them, this was not an ideal context for an argument. They started, as most arguments do, drawing on personal experiences, then moving on to the warrants, data and reasoning I had given to them. Students did not have much time to search the internet for more information for themselves, or even to think deeply about the snatches of information I had given them.

The hardest part of the activity for me was not participating, but it’s important that the teacher not interfere with or respond to students themselves for this activity. Doing so would construct a context in which students are “doing school” with the goal of pleasing the teacher, rather than “doing science” with the goal of finding a solution for themselves (Jimenez-Aleixandre, Rodriguez & Duschl, 2000).

While this experience is very close to the format for primary and middle years students to engage in dialogic argumentation in the science classroom, the pre-service teachers did not experience the ways in which we would scaffold and develop students’ knowledge and skills for participating in argumentation in the first place. This was an impediment to engaging deeply with the argument. 

So how would you prepare students to argue? There are plenty of resources out there to help teachers scaffold their students argumentation; the NSTA has a great number of books that provide ideas. I will also present my ideas and experience in how this can be achieved in a future blog post.

Tess asked me two great questions: what do you do when a student is particularly passionate about the topic? What if they end up crying?

Luckily, I’ve never had this happen to me, but I’ve only facilitated arguments a dozen or so times. I’d love to know your advice for Tess (and the other pre-service teachers). I suggested that the teacher interrupt only to paraphrase, objectively, the passionate student’s argument and the arguments of others. The quick summary aims to clarify communication between students, and bring everyone on to the same page with the discussion. It also gives the passionate person a chance to cool down a little.

With younger students (primary and to some middle years classes), giving a hypothetical scenario to discuss and assigning roles to students can help them take the personal aspect out of the argument. For example, in their research, Erduran, Osborne and Simon (2005) provide students with a fictional proposal to build a zoo in an area close to home. Students are assigned various community roles (zookeeper, local resident, environmental activist, town planner, large animal veterinarian, etc) to help them frame their arguments. For one of our classes, John, one of our pre-service teachers, presented a hypothetical scenario in which a wealthy local wants to build a hotel on the protected land around Moreton Bay, and each of us was assigned a role (hotelier, local resident, Indigenous peoples legal representative, environmentalist, local politician, etc) to participate in the argument.

I feel it’s important with the older grades to move into more personal and everyday scenarios for argumentation, because it may help students to see how science can be used in their everyday life, as well as in the classroom and in community issues. What do you think?


Oh, and what consensus did the fourth-years come to about vegetarianism? Well, they didn’t really answer the question directly, but they all agreed that the best diet is an informed and properly-planned one! Aren’t they clever?


American Dietetic Association, (2003). Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: vegetarian diets. Canadian journal of dietetic practice and research: a publication of Dietitians of Canada64(2), 62. Retrieved May 2014 from

Erduran, S., Osborne, J., & Simon, S. (2005). The role of argumentation in developing scientific literacy. In Research and the quality of science education (pp. 381-394). Springer Netherlands.

Jimenez-Aleixandre, M. P., Rodriguez, A. B., & Duschl, R. A. (2000). “Doing the lesson” or “doing science”: Argument in high school genetics. Science Education, 84(6), 757-792.

Key, T. J., Fraser, G. E., Thorogood, M., Appleby, P. N., Beral, V., Reeves, G., … & McPherson, K. (1999). Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 70(3), 516s-524s.

Toulmin, S. (2003). The Uses of Argument. 1958. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Wikipedia (2014). Vegetarianism. Retrieved May 2014 from