Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

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  1. The Classical Curriculum spends grades 1-4 in the grammar stage, where kids learn the basic vocab and knowledge across the disciplines, then moves to the logic stage for grades 5-8, wherein kids deepen their knowledge and explore connections and analyze information. It is only after establishing this knowledge base that the rhetoric stage is reached, in the HS years. Here, deeper knowledge is developed and the emphasis is on argument (always supported by knowledge) and counter-argument. The knowledge base is essential to the rhetoric stage.

  2. “Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area…”

    Ummm… The University of Florida is in Gainesville (go Gators) and Florida State University is in Tallahassee. Not that it diminishes from the ideas in the study 🙂

  3. J.D. Salinger says:

    According to Sweller, Clark and Kirschner in their paper “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Doesn’t Work” they state that the rationale such as the one Pellegrino describes “makes no distinction between the behaviors and methods of a researcher who is
    an expert practicing a profession and those students who are new to the discipline and who are, thus, essentially novices. According to Kyle (1980), scientific inquiry is a systematic and investigative performance ability incorporating unrestrained thinking capabilities after a person has acquired a broad, critical knowledge of the particular subject matter through formal teaching processes. It may not be equated with investigative methods of science teaching, self-instructional
    teaching techniques, or open-ended teaching techniques.
    Educators who confuse the two are guilty of the improper
    use of inquiry as a paradigm on which to base an
    instructional strategy.”

    • Amen. However, while students are learning the content of a discipline, their interest can be stimulated if the teacher identifies the types of questions that can be addressed/investigated once that knowledge is attained. For example, my Botany professor (first-level Botany course) would note the need for good information on adaptability of plants to environmental conditions in order to figure out which plants might survive if transplanted to other nearby (but different) environments. He did not expect us to debate these decisions, or conduct experiments to solve the questions, because we were not yet ready.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      What Kirschner and gang were writing about in that paper is not what good modeling instructors do at all, so for all their expertise (and I do believe they know what they’re talking about) they totally miss the mark.

      If you want “broad, critical knowledge” direct instruction is the last place to look for it. The research in physics education (PER) demonstrates this clearly.

  4. The current educrats love the “think like an expert” , but ignore the fact that experts HAVE DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF THE FIELD, by definition. K-12 is not the place for it; as EB stated, intro college courses aren’t either. Teach content knowledge directly (which is both EFFECTIVE and EFFICIENT – not that educrats are aware of the latter) and leave discovery to the experts.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      momog4, here’s the thing. The kids aren’t ever going to have “deep knowledge of the field” if they are never given an opportunity to construct their own knowledge. I used to buy into what Sweller, et. al. were saying until I began really investigating what good inquiry instruction is all about. It’s not throwing the kids into a lab with a bunch of random equipment and hoping for the best. Both the cognitive studies they use and common sense would tell you that would be ineffective in nearly all cases. But guided inquiry is the only way to really change misconceptions. I finally tried it and it works! I will never go back to lecturing. Ever.

      Wanna know why I finally gave in and gave inquiry instruction a chance? Because, contrary to what you say, solid research shows that direct instruction is NOT effective or efficient. This is one of the clearest things I’ve ever seen in educational research and I could no longer afford to ignore it.

      • daveeckstrom says:

        Sorry, I meant “momof4”.

        Also, educrats may or may not be pushing inquiry at the moment, but its real driving force is teachers like me, who have seen its power and are spreading the word.

        • “solid research shows that direct instruction is NOT effective or efficient.”

          Please give links to back this up, and please be specific about defining “inquiry instruction”.

          One of the fundamental flaws of using class for discovery is that it takes too much time. One can always trade breadth for depth. In most cases, discovery is done in student-led groups. Only one or two might achieve the light-bulb effect and then proceed to directly teach the idea (perhaps wrong) to the rest. This is supposed to be better than having a trained teacher do the job?

          I have had many discovery moments while being directly taught. I have also taught programming classes with a directly-taught discovery process. The problem was that they didn’t have enough knowledge to follow my process. I could have let them use class time to do some of this discovery, but that’s what homework is for. Besides, the excitement of those who discover things hide all of the non-discovery that is going on.

          When most educators talk about discovery, what they really mean is what happens in class. To justify this, they have to denigrate any sort of individual discovery that happens at home with homework sets.

          We are not talking about the Moore Method here. At best, it’s a Harkness Table sort of approach. These approaches can work, but they require much higher expectations from the students for homework and class preparation. Teacher control also makes a huge difference in the process. I’ve seen student-led discussions that go quickly way off topic. It might be interesting, but not very effective for covering the required material.

          This is not a black and white issue. Often, when educators talk about discovery, it’s a cover for lower expectations, breadth, and rigor.

          • daveeckstrom says:

            The good stuff is all behind paywalls, because it’s been written in scholarly journals. One that gives the most information with the least reading was done by Hake and is here:
            but a lot of research has been done since then, including pre- and post- testing of students of excellent lecturers, like Mazur of Harvard and Lewin of MIT and the results have been very telling. Even though these professors are brilliant and engaging and students believe they are learning a lot, their conceptions about the physical world barely change at all during their classes.

            Both the Moore method and the Harkness Table approach miss the point. In teaching science, students learn best by building the actual models from investigations, then deploying them by making predictions and finally formalizing with reading and limited direct instruction. Traditional instruction, which includes Moore and Harkness, in my opinion, is backwards from that.

            I don’t talk about “discovery” in my classes. I do talk about inquiry. It is not a “cover” for lower breadth, it is a definite and deliberate trade-off of breadth for depth. The expectations and rigor are greater, not less, with properly done inquiry learning.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “Both the Moore method and the Harkness Table approach miss the point. Traditional instruction, which includes Moore …”


            Are we talking about the same Moore Method? This one:
            Instead of using a textbook, the students are given a list of definitions and theorems which they are to prove and present in class, leading them through the subject material.


            I’d be reluctant to call a math-teaching approach where the students themselves generated all the proofs from basic axioms “traditional” …

          • daveeckstrom says:

            “takes too much time…” for what? If the students aren’t learning, it doesn’t matter how little time it takes.

            “only one or two might achieve the light-bulb effect” No, that’s what happens in lecture. The lecturer speeds along at a pace that he or she and the few brightest members of the class can follow and the rest drift off, because the material is not connected to prior knowledge and they aren’t making the connections themselves at that rate.

            Even for the brighter ones, the explanation seems clear and they think they are understanding. Then they do practice problems 1-51 odd and think they’ve learned something, but when asked to apply the knowledge in a different context, it’s revealed that they haven’t learned a thing except how to do the homework problems. As a physics and chemistry teacher, I have seen this over and over again with students who are in pre-calculus or calculus, but still have no idea how to construct meaning from data. For example, at this point in their lives, they have received dozens of hours of direct instruction in solving equations and have graphed hundreds of lines, but they cannot–even the top students–design an investigation that will yield a workable model from two measurements that have a directly proportional relationship. I wish to avoid sending my students on to their next teacher with nothing but a meaningless skill set based on doing textbook problems, so I will continue asking far more questions than I answer in my classes.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          I think part of the problem is that a wide variety of teachers call what they do ‘project-based learning,’ and they’re all doing different things. So… the teacher who throws the kids in the room and says “go! Explore! Learn!” claims that she’s doing the same thing as my relative who painstaking crafts packets which lead the student incrementally through the unit, and then give them concrete ways to apply the knowledge in project form. Both say that they’re project based. However, the latter is very targeted and designed to provide appropriate challenge and feedback at each stage as students work at their own rate, while the former is wasting time.

          It’s hard to discuss these things when the terms are more catch-phrases than actual descriptors.