Argument in Science Education

Submitted by Cadre-Admin on Tue, 03/21/2023 - 15:31

Jonathan Osborne, Kamalchari Professor of Science Education, Stanford Graduate School of Education

Argument is central to all reasoning. Life is a constant attempt to make sense of one event after another – whether it is why your football team lost, why Walt Whitman is considered a great poet, or whether you should buy an electric car. In all cases, arguments will be made for disparate views which will be supported by reasoning or evidence.

In the case of science, argument is central because science is fundamentally about developing explanatory models of the material and living world.  How good they are depends on making an argument for why one model is a better explanation than another.   Why, for instance, is the explanation that day and night is caused by a spinning Earth a better explanation than the idea that it is caused by a Sun which goes round the Earth every 24 hours?  Why do we believe that air has mass, that the Continents were once one, or that diseases are caused by tiny living micro-organisms floating around in the air?  All of these ideas had to be argued for with evidence.  Argument is thus central to science.

Students are only going to see this feature, however, if they are given an opportunity to argue themselves.  That is to explore whether a seed is alive, how we know that matter is made of atoms, or whether the Moon shines by its own light. 

Why bother, you might ask, when I can happily explain the answer to them quickly?  Because the overwhelming evidence is that if you were to do that, they are very likely to forget it very rapidly.  Only when they have a chance to discuss their thinking and explain their ideas to another does it make much sense.  After all, few of the ideas science offers are obvious. They took a long time to work out. Hence, it is only reasonable that students have some time to think and reflect on what is often a difficult and unnatural idea. Research shows that given the opportunity to develop their own understanding, they have much deeper foundation than trying struggling to remember it because it will be on the exam.

Giving students the time to discuss can be challenging.  It is best to start with small and limited discussions such as the use of ‘turn and talk’ before turning to the challenge of managing a whole class discussion. And such talk should be followed by the production of something by the student – even if it is only a summary of the pros and cons of each case. This helps students recall the ideas and the competing arguments.

There is a plethora of activities that can support talk – all it needs is a little thought for a good open-ended question.  In our own work we have had two projects (the PRACTISE project (… ) and Improving Practice Together) looking at how professional development can develop teachers’ capabilities to engage students in argumentation. Both have led to significant improvements in the kinds of questions asked and the classroom discourse.

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