Dare to Disagree, as Scientists: Argumentation Is Common Practice in One Fourth-Grade Classroom

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Despite my presence, the students argue, seemingly unaware of me as I meander, throwing out an occasional question or asking for evidence to support an opinion. Yet even as they argue, students show respect and consideration for each other. Argumentation in my fourth-grade classroom is common practice, and students have become adept at stating opinions, supporting answers, and taking risks in speaking their minds. In this article, I highlight the effective methods I have used to guide my students: questioning, research, and inquiry.

Prerequisites to Success

A prerequisite to successful argumentation is exposure to a risk-free environment. If students do not feel safe engaging in discussion and banter with the instructor and their peers, they will hesitate to share their ideas and will be even more hesitant to support them with their reasoning. They must feel free to question, debate, and change their minds without repercussion. I establish this atmosphere at the beginning of the year by engaging students in open-ended activities using scientific words. I start by putting a set of vocabulary cards on the board. Each term is a synonym for small. We read the words together and I ask what they all mean. Once it is established that they all mean small, I ask for volunteers to determine which would be the smallest. As soon as students offer suggestions, others begin to raise their hands in disagreement. At this point, I ask students how they can argue with each other respectfully. They are quick to point out important concepts, as demonstrated in this exchange:

"What are the methods for arguing with people respectfully?"

"No matter what, you respect the other people and don't argue in a bad way."

"Does anyone want to add to that?"

"Treat people how you want to be treated."

"You can say, 'I still don't agree with you, but that's okay.'"

"What is the appropriate way to state your opinion about something?"

"You could say 'I believe it's small because it sounds right, but I could be wrong.'"

A second essential prerequisite is the need for students to support their opinions and statements. Teacher modeling and guided practice is imperative so that students see practical applications of argumentation in scientific situations. Students should always be asked to explain their reasoning and use evidence to support their conclusions. Last, students must be taught to accept others' ideas in an analytical manner. In one of the debates on the vocabulary lists, I explained how to state an opinion and support it with reasoning. This was followed by teacher modeling. I invited another teacher in the room to assist me in modeling. She explained why she thought dense would be harder than rigid because she thinks of dense as being packed and solid, whereas rigid makes her think of something stiff. I disagreed by explaining that the other teacher's descriptions made sense, but that rigid makes me think of something umoving, whereas dense could be softer, as in the case of a dense bread. Students then began to explain their thoughts behind why they felt the way they did about a word.

Once students understand these tactics, they can respectfully question others' ideas and reasoning and change their own opinion based on new evidence. During a word debate, one student asked if she could change her mind. I explained that you can change your mind at any time based on new evidence. I also wrote this statement on the board and we repeated it chorally, "You can change your mind at any time based on new evidence!"

Effective argumentation begins with instruction. As the instructor models questioning, restates opposing ideas, supports arguments with evidence, and carefully considers students' ideas, students will begin to follow the same practice.

Begin With Questions

Questioning has long been an ideal tool for developing a wide variety of skills and understandings in all areas of the curriculum. …