Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Truth Matters: Teaching Young Students to Search for the Most Reasonable Answer: Educators Must Ensure That Students Have Ample Opportunities to Engage in Collaborative, Rigorous Argumentation So They Can Develop the Skills and Dispositions to Search for Truth

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Truth Matters: Teaching Young Students to Search for the Most Reasonable Answer: Educators Must Ensure That Students Have Ample Opportunities to Engage in Collaborative, Rigorous Argumentation So They Can Develop the Skills and Dispositions to Search for Truth

Article excerpt

For its 2016 word of the year, Oxford Dictionaries selected "post-truth" (Wang, 2016), referring to the dangerous way in which many people have come to think about reality and the human capacity to know it. In a post-truth world, claims no longer need to be justified in the sense of being tested against the best available reasons and evidence. Knowledge is seen as entirely subjective, as if there are no established methods to judge the soundness of different arguments or to reconcile opposing opinions. In a post-truth world, people do not value the truth or have the skills to search for it.

Neil Postman, the late educator and cultural critic, once illustrated the dangers we face by abandoning our commitment to truth when he made an insightful comparison between the totalitarian societies imagined by George Orwell in 1984 and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance (Postman, 2005, pp. 237-240).

Postman warned that the U.S. is coming to resemble Huxley's dystopia, a country in which people are conditioned to "take a holiday from reality." But he also offered a way to preserve our participatory democracy: Citizens must acquire the will and the skill to engage in "continuous argumentation" (Postman, 1995). Describing argumentation "as a reason for schooling," Postman urged educators to teach students "how to argue and to help them discover what questions are worth arguing about and, of course, to make sure they know what happens when arguments cease" (Postman, 1995, pp. 73-74).

Today, there is widespread agreement about the importance of teaching students how to think through complex problems in a deliberate, informed, and rational manner. Numerous scholarly publications and major policy documents call on educators to help students develop the ability to make better, more reasonable judgments (e.g., Lipman, 2003; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2012). The Common Core State Standards Initiative, for example, places a special emphasis on argumentation, considering it a fundamental life skill that is "broadly important for the literate, educated person living in the diverse, information-rich environment of the 21st century" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & The Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, p. 25).

There is also a growing consensus among educators that the development of argumentation and deep understanding of complex questions is best supported by dialogue-intensive approaches to instruction (Resnick, Asterhan, & Clarke, 2015). From a theoretical perspective, such approaches provide opportunities for students to participate in discussions during which they use argumentation to construct personally meaningful understandings about the world and each other. As students observe, practice, and gradually internalize new ways of talking and thinking, they are socialized into "an argument culture" (Graff, 2003), a system of norms, criteria, and practices by which people arrive at reasonable conclusions. Research on dialogue-intensive approaches, although still tentative, has corroborated this theory, demonstrating many positive results. Studies show that after engaging in argumentation during class discussions, students performed better on a variety of important learning outcomes, including argumentative writing, high-level comprehension of text, and deep understanding of disciplinary concepts and principles (e.g., Reznitskaya et al., 2009; Nussbaum & Sinatra, 2003; Murphy et al., 2009).

However, while contemporary theory and research support the use of dialogue-intensive approaches (e. …

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