Students love to argue - with each other, with me, with ideas. The art of argument seems to ignite a primal fire within people that feeds on passionate opinion, being heard and, in many cases, competition. Despite the love of argumentation that occurs in classrooms, students often struggle with putting their thoughts on paper in an organized way, which deflates the original intrinsic motivation. Erwin Schrodinger (Nobel Prize winner in physics) tells us, "If you cannot - in the long run - tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless." This lesson attempts to give students a method to follow that helps them make their telling worthwhile and decrease the struggle that often tags along with writing about technical subjects.
Teaching Note: For a related lesson, check out: Communicating Scientifically: Writing a RECALL Lab Conclusion.
Designing arguments that rely on clearly defined claims, evidence and reasoning is a science practice (SP7) that links directly to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Science and Technical Subjects. We use the acronym "PACER" (Professional Arguments = Claim + Evidence + Reasoning) as a catchy way to remember these academic terms. I teach this lesson early in the year in order to inject scientific writing as an expectation that will travel with us throughout the year. In order to continue to promote organized argumentation. I keep a stack of copies of the Argument from Evidence Graphic Organizer readily available until students are able to write complete arguments.
In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I ask the following question:
What makes a good argument?
Students generate criteria that we list on the board. Inevitably, students will suggest the main components of good arguments: persuasive, organized, supported by facts and easy to understand are some of the components. It is important to think ahead of time, as I have here, about what criteria students need to “discover” in our discussion. That way you are prepared to facilitate the desired outcome. At times, I may have to prod students in a specific direction so that they can uncover a criteria, and it is critical that it is their “discovery”.
As students make suggestions, I restate their comments using these academic terms: argument, claim, evidence and reasoning in order to introduce and start building meaning for the terms we will use in the lesson and all future analytic writing.
The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore the topic of constructing arguments from evidence, I create an opportunity for them to collect or observe data that can be used in building their argument. A few ideas for data sets includes:
1) Use data collected during a recent lab.
2) Find a data set online that is fairly simple and engaging: Example Data Set.
3) Perform a discrepant event (an event that provides a surprising outcome) demonstration or watch a discrepant event video related to your content area: Floating Eggs Demonstration
4) Use an Observation and Inference Activity such as:
5) Provide a text that is debatable: Save the Northwest Tree Octopus
Since this lesson occurs early in the year, I prefer to analyze the data set together asking the following questions:
1) What are some claims (conclusions) you can make about the data set?
2) What evidence (data) supports your claim?
3) How does the evidence prove your claim (reasoning)?
During this sequence, there are several important teaching points. It is important to further student understanding of the terms "claim", "evidence" and "reasoning" by linking them as synonyms to other terms.
Since the EXPLAIN stage of the lesson provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means, this is a critical point for probing student understanding of the importance of explaining how the evidence supports their claim and offering support to students as they make attempts to reason. Some examples of probing questions are:
How do you know this?
Why do you think…?
What is the evidence that explains ….?
What would happen if...
What is the relationship between….. and ……?
The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is working with students to translate their verbal arguments into written arguments. This stage includes an "I - We - You" progression in which I model the process, we complete the process together, and gradually release control to students working individually (or in small groups) to complete the process independently.
1) "I" - I work through the graphic organizer while students follow along during the modelling stage of the progression using their Argument from Evidence Graphic Organizer.
I start by sharing with students two acronyms: PACER and TAGS. These acronyms represent important parts of the writing process and let students know that if they become a PACER, they will be out in front of the race when it comes to writing arguments (like a pacer in a ski race sets the first time on the course). The acronym stands for:
Professional Arguments = Claim + Evidence + Reasoning
TAGS is a way to check a final argument for completion and stands for:
Translate Answer, Give Details/Evidence and Generate Reasoning and Spell Correctly using Specific Vocabulary and Sentences that are complete.
Using the data that we had talked about during the previous stage of the lesson, I work through the graphic organizer being sure to use specific vocabulary and the "strategic thinking" strategy where I share out loud my mental processes while I write. It is important to explicitly explain each step and its importance as the modelling process progresses.
2) "We" - Together as a class, we complete a second graphic organizer with the challenge of making a new claim based on the evidence. This looks the same as the "I" stage except student voice takes over in terms of offering ideas and providing rationale.
3) "You" - Students take the challenge of completing their own graphic organizer with a new claim based on the data set. As students work, I often set up a "conference table" with the invitation that anyone who knows they need help now, should come work with me. In this way, the lesson is differentiated for students who need more support. Also, students will conference with me before moving on to finalize their arguments. As students write final drafts, I instruct them to use the TAGS Argument from Evidence Writing Checklists to make sure their work is complete.
Teaching Note: I find it helpful to provide students with a copy of my example graphic organizer, since they are not required to take notes during the "I" or "We" stages of the process.
The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. I prefer to finalize evaluation a day or two after the initial writing session takes place. The reason is that analytic writing can be very frustrating for students and some "time to let it breathe" helps the process from becoming too overwhelming.
For evaluation, students work with a peer and the Argument from Evidence Rubric or PACER Rubric to assess each other's work. Encouraging feedback rather than concentrating on the grade is an important facet of this process. Providing time to revise their arguments is also very helpful when endeavoring to build confidence and promote the ethic of presenting their "best work". Rather than giving a grade on the first attempt, I will also provide feedback using the rubric and work with the student to set a writing goal for the next attempt. I've found that students will stop writing if they receive too much perceived negative feedback (like a low grade) early in the year. This also helps encourage a "growth mindset" in which students are motivated to make progress rather than peg themselves to a standard. By promoting growth mindset and confidence, students will have a better opportunity to reach the standard: PACER Argument Proficient Exemplar or move beyond the standard: PACER Argument Advanced Exemplar.
An example of how to conference with students using positive feedback is shown here:
Additional discussion of Conferencing with Students to Promote Growth can be found in this section's reflection.