Educators must ensure that students have ample opportunities to engage in collaborative, rigorous argumentation so they can develop the skills and dispositions to search for truth.
For its 2016 word of the year, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” (Wang, 2016), referring to the dangerous way in which many people have come to think about reality and the human capacity to know it. In a post-truth world, claims no longer need to be justified in the sense of being tested against the best available reasons and evidence. Knowledge is seen as entirely subjective, as if there are no established methods to judge the soundness of different arguments or to reconcile opposing opinions. In a post-truth world, people do not value the truth or have the skills to search for it.
Neil Postman, the late educator and cultural critic, once illustrated the dangers we face by abandoning our commitment to truth when he made an insightful comparison between the totalitarian societies imagined by George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance (Postman, 2005, pp. 237-240).
Postman warned that the U.S. is coming to resemble Huxley’s dystopia, a country in which people are conditioned to “take a holiday from reality.” But he also offered a way to preserve our participatory democracy: Citizens must acquire the will and the skill to engage in “continuous argumentation” (Postman, 1995). Describing argumentation “as a reason for schooling,” Postman urged educators to teach students “how to argue and to help them discover what questions are worth arguing about and, of course, to make sure they know what happens when arguments cease” (Postman, 1995, pp. 73-74).
Today, there is widespread agreement about the importance of teaching students how to think through complex problems in a deliberate, informed, and rational manner. Numerous scholarly publications and major policy documents call on educators to help students develop the ability to make better, more reasonable judgments (e.g., Lipman, 2003; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2012). The Common Core State Standards Initiative, for example, places a special emphasis on argumentation, considering it a fundamental life skill that is “broadly important for the literate, educated person living in the diverse, information-rich environment of the 21st century” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & The Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, p. 25).
There is also a growing consensus among educators that the development of argumentation and deep understanding of complex questions is best supported by dialogue-intensive approaches to instruction (Resnick, Asterhan, & Clarke, 2015). From a theoretical perspective, such approaches provide opportunities for students to participate in discussions during which they use argumentation to construct personally meaningful understandings about the world and each other. As students observe, practice, and gradually internalize new ways of talking and thinking, they are socialized into “an argument culture” (Graff, 2003), a system of norms, criteria, and practices by which people arrive at reasonable conclusions. Research on dialogue-intensive approaches, although still tentative, has corroborated this theory, demonstrating many positive results. Studies show that after engaging in argumentation during class discussions, students performed better on a variety of important learning outcomes, including argumentative writing, high-level comprehension of text, and deep understanding of disciplinary concepts and principles (e.g., Reznitskaya et al., 2009; Nussbaum & Sinatra, 2003; Murphy et al., 2009).
However, while contemporary theory and research support the use of dialogue-intensive approaches (e.g., Alexander, 2006; Resnick, Asterhan, & Clarke, 2015), schoolchildren today rarely participate in class discussions during which they ask challenging questions, justify their views, and evaluate the credibility of reasons and evidence (Applebee et al., 2003; Nystrand et al., 2003). Instead of inviting students to formulate their own views and critically respond to those of their peers, most teachers control classroom interactions and ask questions primarily to assess students’ recall of given answers. Moreover, studies show that teachers struggle when learning how to facilitate discussions and they lack research-based classroom resources to support their use of dialogue-intensive approaches (Juzwik et al., 2012).
In a recent three-year project, we partnered with elementary school teachers to better understand their learning and use of dialogue-intensive instruction in language arts classrooms (e.g., Wilkinson et al., 2016). Each year, we worked collaboratively with a new cohort of teachers from public schools in Ohio and New Jersey to design and evaluate a professional development program that enabled teachers to conduct classroom discussions about text to promote students’ engagement in argumentation. A total of 49 teachers and 935 students participated in this project. Our analysis of 196 videotaped discussions, collected as part of three separate iterations of our program, indicated that teachers and students who participated in the professional development greatly improved the argumentation quality of their interactions, both from the beginning to the end of the school year and in comparison to teachers and students who did not participate (Wilkinson et al., 2016).
Our partnership with teachers also helped us learn valuable lessons about what works (and what doesn’t work) in a classroom. We developed specific pedagogical principles, instructional strategies, lesson plans, and assessment tools that proved to be helpful to elementary school teachers as they began to learn about and engage in argumentation with students.
Argumentation through inquiry dialogue
Most classroom instruction happens through talk, and effective teachers have a repertoire of talk to draw from to achieve different instructional goals for students (Alexander 2006). To promote development of student reasoning and deep understanding, we emphasize the type of talk called “inquiry dialogue,” which is aimed at collaboratively searching for the most reasonable answer to a question (Walton, 1998).
In our language arts classrooms, inquiry dialogue starts with a big question that is contestable, relevant to students’ interests, and central to the major themes raised in a text previously read by the students. In fiction texts, big questions often focus on moral dilemmas faced by the characters (e.g., Should Rosara have gone to the party? Did the boy deserve a second chance?). In informational texts, the questions typically address policy decisions (e.g., Should students have the right to wear what they want to school? Should the rangers have killed the bear?). Big questions prompt students to examine complex concepts such as friendship, justice, individual freedom, and animal vs. human rights. They invite students to carefully study information in the text, or, in other words, to engage in close reading.
There is widespread agreement about the importance of teaching students how to think through complex problems in a deliberate, informed, and rational manner.
As students discuss big questions during inquiry dialogue, they take part in a genuine quest for truth and develop personally meaningful judgments. Such judgments are not simply based on the passive acceptance of the teacher’s authority. Instead, they result from a careful evaluation of various ideas offered by group members in response to the big question. For example, consider an excerpt from a discussion in a 5th-grade classroom in which a teacher explained the purpose of inquiry dialogue to students:
Our job is not just to get our ideas out so that everybody can hear them. It’s actually to offer ideas up in the hopes that the group can determine what the most reasonable answer is, the best answer, the most thought-through. So, our job is not just to share our answers but also to consider other people’s answers. And that means that we have to build on each other’s ideas and make connections. So the idea is to test each other’s ideas. As a group, we should be able to think better than we can by ourselves. Does that make sense? (Reznitskaya & Wilkinson, 2017, p. 72).
First, note how this teacher communicated to students the collaborative nature of inquiry dialogue, sharing the ownership of the discussion with students (e.g., “our job is . . .,” “as a group, we should . . .,” etc.). Consider also how he asked students to go beyond simply sharing opinions and pushed them to build on and test each other’s ideas. This implies that some ideas offered during the discussion will be expanded upon, and others will be discarded because they cannot survive the group’s scrutiny. The focus on building and testing ideas turns a directionless conversation into a methodical advancement toward the truth. Thus, inquiry dialogue is neither teacher-centered nor student-centered; rather, it is truth-centered (to paraphrase Gardner, 2015), with the teacher encouraging students to engage in collaborative and rigorous argumentation to support the group’s progress toward the most reasonable answer to the question at hand.
The truth-seeking orientation of inquiry dialogue helps evoke established norms, criteria, and practices of argumentation (Gardner, 2015). For example, to follow the teacher’s call to “test each other’s ideas,” discussion participants need to adhere to criteria for evaluating the quality of argumentation formulated by scholars of argumentation, logic, reasoning, and critical thinking (e.g., Govier, 2010). In our work, teachers learned how to engage students in assessing the strength and weaknesses of each other’s arguments based on four criteria:
#1. Diversity of perspectives: We explore different perspectives together.
#2. Clarity: We are clear in the language and structure of our arguments.
#3. Acceptability of reasons and evidence: We use reasons and evidence that are well-examined and accurate.
#4. Logical validity: We are logical in the way we connect our positions, reasons, and evidence (Reznitskaya & Wilkinson, 2017).
During inquiry dialogue, the teacher’s key responsibility is to support students in applying the above criteria, thus helping enhance the intellectual rigor of the discussion. This is a challenging task that requires sharp focus on the discussion content as well as the ability to analyze it and intervene when necessary. To help teachers with this task, we developed an instructional resource called the Argumentation Rating Tool (ART) (Reznitskaya & Wilkinson, 2017). The ART connects each of the four argumentation criteria shown above to a set of discussion practices and related “talk moves,” which include teacher questions and prompts that help attend to a given criterion. For example, suppose that, during a discussion, all students line up on the same side of the issue, thus not addressing the first criterion, which focuses on the diversity of perspectives. A teacher can step in and use a talk move, “If another 5th grader disagreed with you, what would be the smartest thing she could say?” This talk move prompts students to think about opposing views, making their arguments more comprehensive and nuanced. Note that students do not have to accept opposing views to think carefully about them and to explore whether they are overlooking relevant considerations.
Inquiry dialogue starts with a contestable, big question.
Importantly, stepping in to enhance the quality of discussion through strategic use of talk moves is not solely the teacher’s responsibility. In fact, students should eventually do most of the intellectual work during inquiry dialogue. This means the teacher should model appropriate moves and then step back to give students enough autonomy to express their thoughts, challenge each other’s ideas, add detail to given reasons, and find flaws in each other’s arguments. The multiplicity of voices encouraged during inquiry dialogue allows the group to self-correct. “The community itself acts as a safeguard against sloppy thinking and procedural mistakes. It is not that the group as a whole is incapable of making mistakes, nor that the majority opinion must rule, but that it is more likely that someone in the community will challenge what they deem to be unacceptable” (Splitter & Sharp, 1996, p. 296).
We began this article by stressing the importance of truth and the commitment to both recognizing its value and learning how to search for it. We want to conclude by noting that searching for truth does not guarantee finding it. Most of our current answers to complex questions are, at best, approximations in a long journey toward the truth. These answers will and should be revised as we learn new information and improve our understandings.
Yet, we must continue to strive toward the ideal of truth and, by doing so, find better, more reasonable answers and discard those that cannot be justified with reasons and evidence. Engaging in collaborative and rigorous argumentation is a reliable, albeit imperfect, means of searching for truth. It is the process used to generate knowledge in a variety of disciplines, from medicine to architecture to history, which has resulted in remarkable discoveries and improvements of human condition. It is also the process required to sustain the functioning of liberal democracies.
In our work, we chose to focus on elementary school students because they can benefit from participating in an “argument culture” from the very start of their formal education. Even children as young as preschool age can formulate arguments, giving reasons and considering counterarguments and rebuttals (Eisenberg & Garvey, 1981). Educational interventions that capitalize on these emerging capacities are shown to help students further develop their reasoning skills and enhance their conceptual understanding (e.g., Mercer, Wegerif, & Dawes, 1999). Elementary school students are capable of engaging in argumentation, and we need to offer them ample opportunities to acquire the necessary commitments, knowledge, and skills and continue on the path toward the truth.
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Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 33-38. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.