Thursday, May 17, 2012

Claim Evidence Reasoning - Argumentation

Theoretical in part 1. Practical in part 2.

In Making sense of argumentation and explanation by Berland and Reiser, the authors argue that scientific explanations have three purposes: 1. sensemaking, 2. articulating, 3. persuading.

They summarize these nicely as constructing arguments, presenting arguments, and debating arguments.

I like these. A lot. The authors don't treat these three purposes as separate domains but argue that each of these serve to strengthen the other.

Other than being really interesting, why is this relevant? From page 31:
We suggest that viewing student work in terms of these three instructional goals can clarify students' successes and challenges in constructing and defining scientific explanations and consequently inform the design of supports for this practice......we suggest that each aspect of the practice may require different types of support for students.
This has very broad implications about everything from assessment to scaffolds to how to structure the entire class. The authors studied the CER framework and decided it was good for purpose 1 and 2 but not so much for 3. My personal experience backs that up. From the abstract:
Through this analysis, we find that students consistently use evidence to make sense of phenomenon and articulate those understandings but they do not consistently attend to the third goal of persuading others of their understandings. Examining the third goal more closely reveals that persuading others of an understanding requires social interactions that are often inhibited by traditional classroom interactions.

If someone were to ask me what the three legged stool of science education is, as of May 2012 at least, I'd say content knowledge, inquiry, and argument.  You can't have a complete science education without all three.

In science education, argument is our weakest area. I know for me, it wasn't even something I thought about until last year.

This is my way of qualifying any suggestions I have. I'm still new at this. I don't have a lot to offer.

What I can tell you is that if you want students to engage in argumentation, you need to give them something to argue about. Sounds obvious right? But if I explain a topic, then we do a confirmation lab, and then I expect students to engage in argument about that topic, I'm setting myself up for all sorts of disappointment. I haven't given them anything to argue about. I've just given them an opportunity to show me how well they've memorized what I've said.

I've got three other suggestions which I'll break into the next post.


  1. Interesting- I'm not familiar with this breakdown, and I love it. It's making me think of the Mathematical Quality of Instruction codes of description (student recounts the plot or restates the facts of what happened, e.g. "I added 6 + 0 and that gave me 6"), explanation (student provides reasoning, e.g. "I added 6 + 0 and since adding zero doesn't change the value, that gave me 6"), and justification (student provides generalization, e.g. "I added 6 + 0 and since zero is the additive identity, it doesn't change the value and I got 6")*.

    This doesn't quite get to argumentation-- or does it, given that while there's much to argue about methods in math, there's much less to argue about results/outcomes/theorems/truth?

    Anyway, thinking just about the difference between describing and explaining helped a group of our teachers realized they weren't asking questions worth answering, so I think there's a lot of potential down this path. Eager to see what you come up with next!

    *Disclaimer: these codes are relatively new to me and I'm only partway through the training, so I'm not sure if these are the best examples.

    1. I think justification is different. In your example it falls more clearly into what we'd traditionally define as an explanation. It's just a better explanation than the "explanation" category. The student was able to put labels on things.

      I'll need to think more about argument in math but I think part of the problem is the directionality that math is taught. If you're always given the conclusion first, there's no argument to construct. (I can throw out easy examples - why certain methods are superior - but I don't know enough about math teaching to generalize).

    2. I'm not thinking this through. Aren't mathematical proofs a form of argument? I might have to spin the argument vs. explanation distinction into a new post in order to sort things out in my head.

    3. Damn it Grace. Now I've been thinking about this all night. :) It seems to me that when I think of the richer problems I come across, like the ones James Tanton sends out (sample: those are far more argument based. You're being asked to justify a shaky conclusion (Yes its possible. No its not) with strong premises (whatever math you have to back it up) vs your example where the conclusion was certain (6+0 does equal 0) and the premises were in question (using additive identity vs something else).