Argumentation, Critique & other Discursive STEM Practices

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of practices in the Math, Science and ELA standards, you would see that several discursive practices overlap (right image). Math, science, and engineering all require the ability to support an argument from evidence, critique the reasoning of others, and clearly communicate conclusions.

This Spotlight highlights DR K-12 STEM resourcescurriculum, professional development, as well as articles, books & papersthat support argumentation, critique, and discourse in the classroom, and in research and development.

Curriculum Section

Graphing Research on Inquiry with Data in Science (GRIDS) Curricular Units
Middle School  | Science 
  • Genetics
    In this unit, students explore and critique explanations about mutations, probability, and simple inheritance in order to construct stronger and more coherent scientific arguments. Students use Punnett squares and interactive models to explore the basics of genetic material, allele dominance, and trait inheritance and expression. They analyze the expression of some personal traits such as ear lobes. Students construct graphs showing probabilities of getting certain genotypes in different model-organism crosses. They use evidence from these graphs to draw conclusions about patterns of inheritance.
  • Ocean Biodiversity & Discourse
    In this unit, students collaboratively learn about the main ideas of evolution (mutations and variation, environmental pressures, natural selection, phenotype versus genotype plasticity, heredity and biodiversity, speed of evolution) through a sequence of interactive activities. These include graph-based analysis of a model simulating natural selection. To develop scientific discourse capabilities, students are guided to share ideas and arguments regarding the simulation, and collaboratively discuss science and graphing.
  • Solar Ovens & Design Critiques
    In this unit, students design, build, and test solar ovens. They critique and refine their own oven, as well as their peers' designs. Students learn about how energy is transformed from solar radiation to heat and infrared radiation. They use an interactive simulation to extend the design process. They test their ovens using heat lamps, and use a budget to constrain their design. The budgeting activity helps students consider trade-offs in the design. They evaluate each material they use with regard to their goal. Students go through two iterations of designing, building, and testing. Between the two iterations, student groups critique each other's ovens. During the second iteration, students engage in self-critique of their ovens prior to re-design.

Learn more in this video. Funded by NSF Project: GRIDS: Graphing Research on Inquiry with Data in Science

Professional Development Section

The Argumentation Toolkit
Middle School  | Science 
The Argumentation Toolkit is an online collection of free resources designed to help teachers understand and teach four elements of argumentation that students need extra support around: 1) evidence, 2) reasoning, 3) student interaction and 4) competing claims.

The resources include:

  • Videos of middle school classrooms engaged in argumentation,
  • Sample student activities, such as evidence card sorts, a reasoning tool, and Science Seminars,
  • 45-minute teacher learning modules (complete with agendas, presentation slides and other resources) to use with preservice or inservice teachers as part of professional development or other teacher learning experiences. 

Funded by NSF Project: Constructing and Critiquing Arguments in Middle School Science Classrooms


Elementary Science Video Series
Elementary School  | Science
This video series highlights key principles and strategies for engaging K-2 students in the practice of scientific argumentation with explanatory models as they explore an authentic question: What caused the town of Moncton to flood? The practices of scientific argumentation and modeling involve using evidence and reasoning to create and evaluate claims about how or why something happens in the world. For example, why did a town flood in 1915 when a dam was built nearby? Scientists and science learners develop an understanding of the world through constructing arguments and models and determining which best account for observations at a given time. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) invite all students — including primary students — to engage in argumentation and modeling as interconnected practices. Learn more about the project in this video.

Funded by NSF Project: Learning Labs: Using Videos, Exemplary STEM Instruction and Online Teacher Collaboration to Enhance K-2 Mathematics and Science Practice and Classroom Discourse


Quality Talk Science (QTs)
High School  | Science
Quality Talk Science (QTs) is an innovative, scalable, teacher-facilitated discourse model. QTs can be used as a tool to promote students’ critical-analytic thinking and reasoning in physics and chemistry, as well as to analyze Quality Talk discourse. QTs ensures active learning that fosters conceptual understanding and real-world application through increased productive and engaging student-led class discussions. Learn more in this video.

Funded by NSF Project: Integrating Quality Talk Professional Development to Enhance Professional Vision and Leadership for STEM Teachers in High-Need School


The Leaders Handbook for the Practicum Academy to Improve Science Education (PRACTISE): A Professional Learning Program to Support Scientific Argumentation in Grades 3-5
Elementary School  | Science
This guide provides detailed information on how to conduct a series of research-based professional learning sessions focused on helping elementary classroom teachers to facilitate science argumentation with their students. Each session is 2-3 hours long and focuses on topics such as:

  • An Introduction to Argumentation,
  • Argumentation in the Next Generation Science Standards,
  • Strategies for Establishing a Culture of Talk,
  • Discourse and Learning,
  • Argumentation for English Learners,
  • Making Thinking Visible with Models,
  • Using the Argumentation Continuum,
  • etc.

Funded by NSF Projects: Researching the Efficacy of the Science and Literacy Academy Model (PI: Strang and PI: Osborne)

Articles, Papers & Books Section

A Synthesis of Mathematics Writing: Assessments, Interventions, and Surveys
K-12  | Mathematics
This paper reports on a synthesis of empirical research published between 1991 and 2015 about mathematics writing, a form of discourse, in grades 1-12. 

Types of and Purposes for Elementary Mathematical Writing: Task Force Recommendations
Elementary School  | Mathematics
The Elementary Mathematical Writing Task Force, made up of practitioners and researchers, was charged with proposing the types of and purposes for mathematical writing. The task force recommends four different types of mathematical writing driven by numerous purposes that position students to reason. Providing a framework for the types of and purposes for mathematical writing enables elementary teachers to leverage writing for students’ learning of mathematics and lays the foundation for future reasoning and proof writing. Learn more in this video.

Why Should Students Write in Math Class?
Elementary School  | Mathematics 
This article distinguished between “writing about mathematics” and “mathematical writing,” with the latter positioning students to reason mathematically. It presents exploratory, informative/explanatory, argumentative, and mathematically creative writing along with key questions to consider to help teachers make instructional decisions to help students engage in this form of discourse.

Funded by NSF Project: A Task Force on Conceptualizing Elementary Mathematical Writing: Implications for Mathematics Education Stakeholders.


Mathematical Argumentation in Middle School—The What, Why and How
Middle School Mathematics
A step-by-step guide to mathematical argumentation in middle school classrooms, with activities, games, and lesson planning tools. The book presents a four part model for argumentation, provides tasks conducive to argumentation, and presents teaching moves that can be used in each part.

Based on research and development done in NSF Project: Preparing Urban Middle Grades Mathematics Teachers to Teach Argumentation Throughout the School Year.


Launching a Discourse-rich Mathematics Lesson
Elementary School  | Mathematics 
Facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse is dependent on the launch of the lesson where teachers prepare their students to work on the task. This article discusses the use of the Think Aloud strategy at the beginning of a lesson to model to students both the type of thinking that develops conceptual understanding, as well as how to share one’s thinking.  The Think Aloud strategy is one of a number of discourse strategies introduced in Project AIM (All Included in Mathematics), a 40 hour professional development program focused on promoting meaningful mathematical discourse in elementary classrooms. The article provides examples of teachers’ experiences using the Think Aloud in their classrooms to support discourse, and highlights some of the successes and challenges that come with implementation.

Supporting Sense-making with Mathematical Bet Lines
Elementary School  Mathematics 
This article presents an instructional strategy called Mathematical Bet Lines that was designed to promote classroom discourse and sense-making for all students, in particular English Language Learners.  Introduced in Project AIM (All Included in Mathematics), a 40 hour professional development program focused promoting meaningful mathematical discourse, the Mathematical Bet Lines strategy supports comprehension of story problems by having students articulate to themselves and others their predictions regarding what is happening in the problem as it is revealed one sentence at a time.  With Mathematical Bet Lines, as students make bets, the teacher facilitates students’ reflections on their own sense making of the story problem by asking follow-up questions.  After describing the strategy, the article illustrates one teacher’s implementation of a lesson where she used the strategy with her second grade students. It concludes with other teachers’ reflections on using Mathematical Bet Lines in their instruction and helpful tips for classroom implementation.

Funded by NSF Project: Project Aim: All Included in Mathematics.