Turn minds over to teach argument

A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”

hourglass with all sand in bottom
The sand has settled into inactivity.

Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.

What argument means

An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:

    • the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
    • the opposition’s evidence for its position,
    • the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.

To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.

hourglass with sand in top half
This has the sand moving again.

Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.

Force a change of perspective

Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.

Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.

After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.

If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.

Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Images’ value, an ELA writing prompt

couple in cafe having respectful argument
An argument is supposed to result in better understanding of a topic and the participants.

Since it’s officially summer, I’m sure all my blog readers are busy preparing new materials for fall term. (Cue uproarious laughter.)

Today I’m going to give you the nub of a writing prompt about communication that (a) you could use in an ELA course and (b) is relevant to a wide range of other subjects and in many careers.

If you are not busy preparing materials for fall, you can tuck it away for August.

Here’s the prompt:

Do people learn better from images?

If you can believe what you read on the Internet, people learn better from images, especially video, than from print.

Do some research: Is that assertion true? What evidence is there to support it? What does learning mean in this context? Does the assertion apply to all kinds of learning, or are there only certain things that people learn well from images? You need not limit yourself to information from published sources; you may do original research.

Write an argument in which discuss the value of images for teaching. You may limit your discussion to either video or to non-moving images if you wish.  In fact, your writing will probably be stronger and more interesting if you can include some of your personal observations.  You can include your personal experience as a portion, no more than a quarter, of your evidence.

Remember that you don’t need to disagree totally with someone else’s opinion. You can agree partially. You can argue that the other guy’s evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant his conclusion. You can show that the other guy misunderstood what he presented as evidence.

Remember, too, that in an argument you must accurately and respectfully present the opinion with which you disagree. An argument is supposed to be an exploration of a topic so all parties come away feeling they were understood and respected. If your argument reads like an attack by a thug in a dark alley, you’ve totally missed the point.

Argument texts are fine; argumentative texts are not

I thought a million years of teaching freshman composition had inured me to people using the wrong word, but I was wrong.

Lately I’ve seen the word argumentative used in place of argument all over my Twitter feed, and the mistake is being made by English teachers.

Argument means polite discussion

An argument is a discussion in which differing perspectives are offered on a single topic and discussed within certain rules of logic and civility that are traditionally referred to as argumentation.

Traditionally, English teachers spoke about argument essays, which meant a text in which the writer was expected to know what people who disagreed with her position believed and, whenever possible, to show that the opposition’s logic or was flawed or its evidence inadequate to support the opposition’s position.

Argument is a forensic activity

When I was a teenager, the organization that’s now known as the National Speech and Debate Association was the National Forensic League.  Forensics in that context meant the study of the formal art of argumentation. In other contexts, forensics is the use of science and technology to investigate and establish facts in, for example, an accident or legal proceeding.

Arguments are supposed to be forensic activities.  Their goal is to establish facts upon which people can agree.

That means arguments are not argumentative. 

Argumentativeness is a negative quality

Being argumentative is anything but civil. All the meanings of argumentative are negative. It means, according the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed., "contentious, disputatious, quarrelsome, scrappy."

The American Heritage Dictionary gives these examples of how argumentative is used: "an argumentative child; a contentious mood; a disputatious scholar; a quarrelsome drinker; a scrappy exchange."

When English teachers use the term argumentative writing, they suggest to their students raised voices, slammed doors, and hurled insults.

Let’s not give that impression.

Twentieth century society is uncivil enough without teachers implying argumentative behavior belongs in academic classrooms.

Exemplary Argument Essay on WiFi Access in Schools

Icon representing WiFi accessA good example of an argument essay that’s relevant to school settings is Paul Barrette’s 2013 blog post “Schools are NOT coffee shops.”

Barrette, who tweets as @head_geek, uses comparison to develop his argument. He writes in first person, using personal experience to illustrate his points.

The kind of argument Barrette provides is the sort students need to be able to read by high school graduation and write by their sophomore year of college.

You could use Barrette’s piece for teaching reading comprehension, vocabulary, thesis statement, outlining/planning, fluency, etc. You could also assign argument essays in which students show why some comparison commonly used in English class or in a school setting doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Working Thesis Key to Planning Good Arguments

The most difficult part of writing nonfiction for most students is coming up with a good working thesis to control their planning efforts. With Common Core State Standards putting increased emphasis on argument, it’s useful to look at the role a good working thesis plays in planning an argument.

A first year college student wrote she was having problems writing an argument about holistic health care. She shared the thesis she had already written:

While conventional medicine is science based and has proven it’s place in life threatening illnesses and emergency situations, holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the whole body, using natural therapies that have been used successfully for hundreds of years.

The student said she feared her thesis was too broad. She also said she didn’t know how to incorporate rebuttal and wasn’t entirely sure her paper was an argument. Her analysis wasn’t far from the mark.

If we strip all the extraneous language from the student’s thesis, we’re left with this as a working thesis:

Holistic health care is a less invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

What is the exact opposite to that position? It’s this:

Holistic health care is a more invasive way of healing the body than conventional medicine.

Would anyone seriously argue that such things as nutrition and de-stressing are more invasive than brain surgery, for example?

No way.

That’s the student’s problem: An argument essay for training purposes needs a debatable working thesis, one that people can argue both for or against using facts and logic. A real-life argument need not be so black-and-white, but students need clear-cut propositions to debate in order to learn the process.

The student’s work contains a nugget that has potential for an argument essay that she might already have research to support:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations.

To see if there are arguments for that thesis, the student could use a writing skeleton™ following this model:

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 1].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 2].

Holistic care should be used by health care providers in all but life threatening and emergency situations because [reason 3].

If the writer can make a case for that position, she still needs to explore the opposition’s argument so she knows what she must refute. To explore the opposition, she can use the writing skeleton™ again like this:

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 1].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 2].

Holistic care should not be used by health care providers in all situations that are not life threatening or emergencies because [reason 3].

The process I outlined here makes the process of planning an argument easy enough that average students can muddle through it. Muddling through may not sound like much, but students who don’t get through the process the first time rarely try it a second time.

Argument values students’ unique contributions

One of the tenets of American education is that every child’s ideas are valuable. That tenet has oozed into a practice of treating all ideas as equally valuable on the theory that Josh shouldn’t be made to feel his idea is not as good as Caitlin’s.

The truth is that some ideas are better than others.

In a piece for fastcodesign, Daniel Sobol, a design strategist at Continuum, writes about how the company encourages innovation. By deliberate choice, Continuum has rejected brainstorming, which is about getting lots of ideas from everyone, in favor of deliberative discourse.

Deliberative discourse has been used to solve problems from the time of Aristotle. Such discourse is both deliberate in the sense of focusing on a shared purpose. It is also deliberative in the sense of being evaluative.  You and I probably call it argument. That’s what the Common Core State Standards call it. Sobol says, “It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication.”

The deliberative discourse process is not argumentative; it does not make personal attacks or spout off illogically. Disagreements have to be supported by evidence.

When argument is enlisted to solve problems, some important shifts occur.

First, the focus shifts from the quantity of the ideas students generate to the quality of ideas they generate.  We’re deluding ourselves if we think Josh won’t notice that Caitlin had five ideas for every one of his. In true collaborative work, the person whose argument leads to rejection of a weak idea is at least as valuable as the person who generates lots of ideas.

Secondly, the ability to articulate a position clearly—which implies having evidence to support it—becomes extremely important. That’s an educational reason for using argument.

Finally, the uniqueness of each individual’s perspectives, experience, and skills takes on greater significance. In a world that increasingly relies on collaboration, workers will be selected for their unique skills. It seems only sensible that in our classrooms, we teach collaborative processes like argument in which all are accorded respect for the unique value of their contributions rather  allowing  the individual’s contributions to be melted into the group’s work.

[Updated link to Sobol article content 2016-01-22.]