Voices in Education

Teaching Students How to Think and Argue Together
Fake news, alternative facts, post-truth—we live in a time when people find it hard to agree on what to believe or do about many important societal problems, including climate change, gun violence, immigration, and health care. Moreover, we seem to be losing the ability to discuss complex questions in a rational, evidence-based, and respectful manner. Perhaps, we never learned how to do it in the first place.

Studies from the past several decades consistently show that students in most classrooms rarely have the opportunity to participate in an open, extended, and intellectually rigorous exchange of ideas, during which they get to formulate and defend their own opinions, and consider alternative propositions offered by their peers. Instead, in many classrooms, teachers talk and students listen, and when students speak, they are often required to simply restate answers that will please their teachers. Such a classroom culture hardly prepares students to become active participants in today’s information-rich, globalized, and rapidly-changing society, in which multiple, competing, and, often, false claims to knowledge abound.

But there is hope. There is an emerging consensus among educators that engaging students in a productive dialogue helps them learn how to argue well and to acquire deep conceptual understanding of complex issues. Learning is increasingly seen as an active process of internalization of cultural tools, or ways of talking, thinking, and acting. When students participate in a classroom dialogue, where they ask challenging questions, justify their views, and evaluate the credibility of reasons and evidence, they get to observe, try out, and eventually adopt argumentation skills needed to develop robust understandings.

Not surprisingly, facilitating dialogue focused on argumentation presents a challenge for teachers. For many, it involves a major transformation in their use of classroom language—from being the “sage on the stage” with all the right answers to being a facilitator who skillfully scaffolds students’ interactions to enhance the quality of their arguments. Learning how to become an effective facilitator is further complicated by the fact that there are few research-based curriculum materials to help teachers reflect on and expand their talk repertoires. Especially lacking are materials designed for upper elementary classrooms. This is unfortunate considering that these students are developmentally poised to engage in argumentation. The lack of quality resources is also problematic given that teachers are now tasked with implementing major educational reforms, including the Common Core State Standards, which stress the importance of arguments and expect students to engage in argumentation at every grade level.

As researchers and teacher educators, we set out to address this gap by partnering with upper elementary school teachers in language arts classrooms to design curriculum materials and activities that support involving students in productive argumentation. Over four years, a total of 49 teachers and 935 students from public schools in Ohio and New Jersey worked with us to help develop these classroom resources. Teachers came from urban and suburban school districts, including schools with a high percentage of minority and economically disadvantaged students. Our collaboration produced encouraging results: by the end of each school year, teachers and students learned how to address complex questions raised in their readings by participating in collaborative and rigorous argumentation.

Our work with teachers focused on the use of a particular type of talk, called inquiry dialogue. The goal of inquiry dialogue is to find the most reasonable answer to a contestable question. Inquiry dialogue is both cooperative in nature and aimed at discovering (or advancing toward) the truth of the matter being discussed based on well-examined reasons and evidence. The purpose is not to convince others, but to use the best existing reasons and evidence to decide what is most reasonable to believe.

Inquiry dialogue follows a trajectory. It begins with a big, contestable question that invites multiple interpretations and elicits reasoning, and it ends with a possible answer to the question, or at least a greater understanding of the arguments that have survived the group’s critique. Along the way, students take positions, support them with reasons and evidence, clarify their understanding of different arguments proposed by their peers, and, most importantly, test these arguments against each other to see which ones are stronger or better supported.

During inquiry dialogue, teachers have an important role to play in helping students to engage in collaborative and intellectually rigorous argumentation. Instead of leading students to a predetermined right answer, teachers facilitate talk so students can move toward the most reasonable conclusion. To do this, teachers have to develop an ear for quality argumentation and step into the discussion as needed to highlight the strengths and weaknesses in students’ arguments with carefully chosen talk moves. When deciding when to step in and what to say, teachers need to keep in mind the criteria for quality argumentation. The table below shows these criteria and illustrates the talk moves teachers can use during a discussion to scaffold students’ engagement and learning.
Criteria for good argumentation Typical talk moves
1. Students explore different perspectives together. If someone disagreed with you, what would they say? Is this the only explanation?
2. Students are clear in the language and structure of their arguments. So are you saying that …? How does this relate to what Kim said? Is this a reason for or against …?
3. Students use reasons and evidence that are well examined and accurate. How do we know this? Is that always true? Is [value] more important than [value]?
4. Students are logical in the way they connect their positions, reasons, and evidence. Does this follow from what Jim said? What’s the link between this reason and your position?

This work with upper elementary school teachers helped us discover effective ways of promoting argumentation in the classroom.We developed a comprehensive professional development program, including curriculum materials, instructional activities, student texts, teacher videos, and assessment tools, to support teacher growth. We are excited to share these resources with practitioners who are interested in promoting the development of their students’ critical thinking skills. As a society facing serious political, economic, and scientific challenges, we cannot afford to have disengaged students who passively accept ready-made, uncontroversial “right answers.” Instead, we need to offer students multiple opportunities to experience the challenges and joys of engaging in a civil, rigorous, and collaborative dialogue with others so that they can learn how to think together and develop a deep understanding of the world around them.


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About the Author: Alina Reznitskaya is a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University.Ian A. G. Wilkinson is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. They are the authors of The Most Reasonable Answer: Helping Students Build Better Arguments Together (Harvard Education Press, 2017).