Blogstitute 2016: Elements of a good argument

What is an argument? Do your students know how to make one, or are they just reciting their opinions? In this post Erik Palmer, author of Good Thinking, breaks down what makes a good argument and how to teach your students the critical thinking skills they will benefit from for the rest of their lives.

ErikPalmer-Jan2016Elements of a good argument
Erik Palmer

Here’s an example of a fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but, unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking: the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed-upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting . . .,” but they really don’t. Ask students to define the word argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book:

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, or from grade to grade, is not okay. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach argument. Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade-appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day of their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion?

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements, but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.

Better:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sorts of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we are clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) teach specific lessons on each of those pieces. We teach sentence structure and given students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We teach topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one here is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie-burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

We can use a graphic organizer such as the one that follows. Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of handguns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments, checking to see if statements are missing and if all statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported, so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence, and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence, and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “. . . causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “Find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “What statements lead to that conclusion?”]

Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of our class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy. Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

4 comments July 7th, 2016

Now Online: Good Thinking

Good Thinking“Once you start looking, you’ll see arguments everywhere,” Erik Palmer writes in his new book, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. “All of them are opportunities to teach good thinking.”

A large part of our everyday communication involves argumentation and reasoning—for example, when we want to persuade others, make good purchasing decisions, or analyze the messages we receive from advertisers and politicians. But how well do we prepare students for these tasks?

In Good Thinking, Palmer shows teachers of all subjects how to transform the activities they already use into openings for improving student thinking. Building on his previous work in Well Spoken and Digitally Speaking, he reveals how all students—not just those in advanced classes—can begin developing sophisticated reasoning skills that will improve their oral and written communications.

Blending theory with practice, Palmer shares a wide range of classroom-tested lessons and explains complex concepts in simple, practical language that gives teachers a deft understanding of the principles of good arguments, proper use of evidence, persuasive techniques, and rhetorical tricks.

Preview the entire book online now!

Add comment April 13th, 2016

Can you, like, speak well?

The same skills that we use for public speaking also apply to a wide range of oral communication—interviews, discussions, meetings, and presentations. So why is the teaching of speaking skills often limited to public speaking class?

In this short video, Erik Palmer, author of the new book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, explains why speaking skills are so important, both academically and in life, and introduces six essential skills using the mnemonic PVLEGS:

1 comment April 20th, 2011


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