Put argument at the core

Common Core Standards need More Argument, Fewer Standards, argue Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff in Ed Week.

Argument . . .  includes the ability to analyze and assess our facts and evidence, support our solutions, and defend our interpretations and recommendations with clarity and precision in every subject area. Argument is the primary skill essential to our success as citizens, students, and workers.

Many educators don’t realize the importance of argument or the research showing that students learn more — and earn higher test scores — when they have “in-school opportunities to argue and debate about current issues, literary characters, and the pros and cons of a math solution.”

Argument not only makes subject matter more interesting; it also dramatically increases our ability to retain, retrieve, apply, and synthesize knowledge. It works for all students—from lowest- to highest-achieving.

The new standards affirm the importance of argument, but ask teachers to do too many other things too, they argue.  “For all their merits, these standards are still overlong, redundant, and often confusing.”

All standards are not created equal. We believe it is far more critical for teachers to help students to analyze, evaluate, and support their conclusions with evidence than it is for them to spend precious time on puzzling standards like these:

“Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style”; or

“Analyze different points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) creating such effects as suspense or humor.”

In addition, there are too many “foundations” standards with “long lists of mechanical skills well into the later grades,” they argue.

When I was in high school, we didn’t write journals, much less design posters. It was all expository writing all the time. Make an argument. Support it.  The dread 3-3-3 paragraph consisted of a thesis statement supported by three topic sentences, each supported by three subtopic sentences, each supported by three “concrete and specific” details. I never used the 3-3-3 in college. I didn’t need to.

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  1. The 3-3-3 thing, like the “chunk” method, is worthless. Nothing kills interest in writing ideas more quickly. But writing ideas, as opposed to those god-awful posters and journals, is a big step up.

    But given the absurd liberal bias of english and history teachers, there’s no point in emphasizing “argument”. Students know full well they can’t write what they really think.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Indeed… the student risks not only his or her grade, but suspension if he or she writes the wrong thing in some cases.

  3. A correct thesis is an argument. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with politics. In fact, the most entertaining argument in all of literature is Tennyson vs. Byron.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m not entirely certain what you mean, LS. What do you mean by “a correct thesis”?

    I guess I’m confused on two fronts. First, I tend to think of theses as more akin to conclusions than arguments. Second, I’m not sure what you mean by “correct” — do you just mean true? Because truth is no guarantee of a good argument….

    If you could clarify, ‘twould be appreciated.

  5. It’s the main argument of the paper. Usually found as the last sentence in the introduction, but it doesn’t have to be there. A correct thesis can be argued. As I tell the kids, the other person might be wrong, but he can make a legitimate argument. Bad thesis: Byron and Tennyson share some similarities but are also quite different. Good thesis: The thematic and structural differences between Byron and Tennyson are significant enough to symbolize the transition from Victorian values to those of the modernists.

    See, no politics involved. I actually do have my kids debate this (but they’re not allowed to get in a fistfight like Stephen).

    Doesn’t have to be true, but one would hope the writer thinks so.

    I might be able to help you improve your writing, Michael. It *is* what I do (if teachers can be said to do anything at all). Christo Anesti :).

  6. Byron died thirteen years before the reign of Queen Victoria began. Victoria herself was five at the time of his death. I assume that you are implying that Victorian values predate the Victorian era. If that is your point, how does Byron’s work exemplify Victorian values?

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Improving students’ writing is actually what I do, too (with the same caveat).

    I was just confused by a bit of equivocation, and thank you for clearing it up. You meant “argument” as in the thing to be argued (e.g., when you said it’s “the main argument”). I usually reserve the word for the actual process of supporting through argument (e.g., when you said “a correct thesis can be argued”).

    I take it, though, that the article being referenced above is concerned with the latter.

    Christo Iterum Venebit 🙂

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Upon reflection, I’m still confused about some terminology — namely “correct” as used in the term “correct thesis”.

    In this brief paper I will defend the thesis that Byron and Tennyson share some similarities but are also quite different.

    First, it’s clear that Byron and Tennyson share a number of similarities. Both were male human beings born before 1900. Both were born in England, sharing that Isle’s characteristic pallor, and both were prolific writers. Both also have a “y” in their last name — something that is shared by remarkably few people. Both were also dark-haired, though Tennyson was bearded — and shared a distinctively English nose.

    Yet at the same time it seems that Byron and Tennyson were remarkably different people. For one, they had separate bodies: there was never a single reported instance of Byron and Tennyson sharing an arm, a leg, or even so much as a liver. Neither was ever found to be occupying the same spatio-temporal location as the other, and indeed their birthdays were quite distinct: Tennyson was born when Byron was in his early twenties. And while Byron lived a scant third of a century, Tennyson enjoyed over eighty years of life.

    Thus we can see that, while Tennyson and Byron were much more similar to each other than the average similitude of two people picked at random from the globe, they were nonetheless distinct in a way that assures us that they were quite different.

    Thesis successfully argued, no? I don’t see why it’s not a “correct” thesis, though I do obviously see why it’s uninteresting, even silly. But that’s not what you seemed to be getting at when you said that a “correct thesis can be argued.”

    I’m still confused.

  9. Wow. You HAVE read “same but different” essays! Ha. Maybe correct is the wrong word if it is confusing you. Proper? Useful? Likely to lead to a successful essay? Really, that’s all I mean.

    Diana: symbolize, not exemplify.

  10. cranberry says:

    OK, that was fun.

    Meanwhile, if argument radically improves education, one would expect the study of rhetoric and debate to improve student performance. Does it?