Academic journal article Science Scope

Argumentation and Explanation: Tools for Using While Keeping Them Separate

Academic journal article Science Scope

Argumentation and Explanation: Tools for Using While Keeping Them Separate

Article excerpt

When the National Research Council's A Framework for K--12 Science Education was published in 2012, questions were raised about the need to distinguish between two of the science and engineering practices: Engaging in Argument from Evidence and Constructing Explanations. On one side, Osborne and Patterson (2011) argued that the distinction was necessary, saying that "a lack of clarity of fundamental concepts" in the practices could lead to confusion among teachers and students alike.


On the other side, a rebuttal by Berland and McNeill (2012) countered that:

"... the jury is still out with respect to whether and how educators
should differentiate between the scientific practices of explanation
and argumentation in K--12 classrooms."


Since these papers were published, the lack of clarity and direction about how to use the two practices has created confusion among educators. Even though claims are a distinct feature of arguments (Osborne and Patterson 2011), it is not uncommon to find lessons promoted online where claims are equated with explanations in frameworks using claims, evidence, and reasoning (CER) (see Resources). One source of the confusion seems to stem from work by McNeill et al. (2006) in which they proposed using a framework called "scientific explanation" that purposely conflated the two practices of explanation and argumentation using CER. Later, McNeill explained the reasoning for conflating the practices this way:

"We saw the overarching structure of the framework (CER) as being an
argumentation structure, yet we wanted the students to use the
framework when explaining phenomena. We chose to refer to the
framework as scientific explanation instead of scientific
argumentation... " (2009).

Here, the two practices were muddled into one. This same scientific explanation framework that conflated explanation and argumentation using CER was also the subject of a book by McNeill and Krajcik, Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing (2012). The book gained popularity among educators as an NGSS lesson-planning guide for using argumentation and explanation.

Problems and solutions

The purposeful conflation of the two practices has resulted in several problems for science education:

* professional development (PD) providers often use the tools and words associated with argumentation or explanation for similar purposes;

* teachers are confused about how to meet the goals of the National Research Council (NRC) Framework because they don't understand the definitions of argumentation or explanation; and

* students are unsure about how real-world science is done when they don't understand how the practices are actually used (Osborne and Patterson 2012).

One way to help avoid the ongoing confusion is to develop a framework using graphic organizers and templates to separate the two practices, while still allowing them to serve one another. In this way, PD instructors can provide clear and useful tools for identifying and using the practices, teachers can design science lessons that align with the learning goals of the NRC Framework, and students can see how science is practiced while receiving valuable feedback about how they use argumentation and explanations, distinctly.

Argumentation and explanation work together but stay separate

In science, there are two ways that argumentation and explanation work together (Osborne and Patterson 2011). First, a question is asked in the form of "why" or "how," an explanation is proposed (hypothesis), and arguments are made (CER) about the strength or validity of information used to support the explanation. As the initial explanation gains acceptance, a clearer explanation can emerge (see Figure 1).

In the figure, notice that each CER is kept separate from the explanation. …

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