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Monday, 24 July 2017

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Preparing Students to Argue Effectively

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist


This article follows from the one I wrote for the October edition of The International Educator on collaborative argumentation as a learning strategy. In that piece, I enumerated the learning benefits of having students engage in constructing arguments and, in particular, collaborative argumentation. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the process of argumentation can lead to deeper understanding, largely because it requires students to evaluate the strength of different arguments and the quality of the evidence used to support those arguments.

It is not necessarily the case, however, that all students are ready to engage in this kind of argumentation, no matter what its potential benefits might be. Not all students have developed the necessary skill set, for starters. Beyond this, however, Kuhn argues that students must be willing to engage in argumentative reasoning (2001), citing two prerequisites: appropriate epistemological beliefs and intellectual values.

Firstly, students must have beliefs about knowledge which Kuhn describes as an evaluatist epistemological understanding. By this, he means that students must view knowledge as a matter of judgment, where some claims are viewed as more valid than others based on an evaluation of the evidence on which each claim is built. Kuhn finds that students move through three stages of development towards achieving an evaluatist understanding, though not everyone ultimately reaches this stage.

The first stage, which he labels absolutist, sees claims as facts, that is as being either correct or incorrect. Once students move beyond this into the second stage, they often replace objectivity with subjectivity and tend to see most claims as freely chosen opinion, which Kuhn labels the multiplist level. Students with this epistemological outlook tend to see argumentative reasoning as irrelevant. Those students who reach the final, evaluatist level, however, see argumentation as a reasonable pathway towards building understanding and in this way these beliefs may facilitate their willingness to engage in argumentation.

The second prerequisite for a willingness to engage in argumentation is what Kuhn calls intellectual values. Basically, students must value the kind of intellectual activity embodied by argumentative reasoning. He sees these values largely as growing out of an evaluatist epistemological stance.

Researchers from four different universities across Germany decided to see if they could design a short-term intervention that would foster at least the beginnings of both an evaluatist epistemological understanding and intellectual values. The intervention consisted of participants in the experimental group:

1. receiving learning goals related to developing an understanding of the nature of knowledge;

2. receiving instruction on the meaning of Kuhn’s three levels of epistemological understanding;

3. watching videos of experts discussing controversial scientific topics with novices;

4. giving self-explanations relating to the epistemological stances of the variety of novices who were engaged in discussing controversial science topics with experts in the video series.

The control group watched the same series of videos, but the learning goal they were given related to e-learning rather than the nature of knowledge; the self-explanation prompts they received related to the scientific content of the videos rather than to the nature of the epistemological stances of the novices in the videos.

What were the results?

• There were no differences between the two groups with respect to pre-assessments of their epistemological understanding or intellectual values.

• The experimental group scored higher on a measure of evaluatist epistemological understanding, both immediately after the training and one week later.

• A significantly higher number of the participants in the experimental group showed evidence of applying an evaluatist stance in the self-regulated construction of an argument on a scientific issue unrelated to those in the videos. In order to demonstrate this they not only had to mention more than one position on the issue, but show that they understood that some positions are better justified by the evidence than others.

• There were no differences between the two groups on measures of intellectual values immediately after the training. However, one week later the experimental group showed a significantly higher level of intellectual values.

• The experimental group showed a significantly higher level of understanding with respect to the nature of knowledge.

• The quality of self-explanations among participants in the experimental group mediated their eventual level of understanding of the nature of knowledge; the higher the quality of the self-explanation, the greater the final understanding of the nature of knowledge.

• The extent to which participants in the experimental group achieved an evaluatist stance on knowledge mediated their results on the measure of intellectual values. The closer to an evaluatist stance the participants became, the higher value they placed on reasoning and argumentation as a pathway to understanding.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

We obviously want to move our students towards a more evaluatist stance on knowledge. Based on this research, it would seem there are a few things that might both speed up the process and increase the odds that more students will achieve this stance. It seems it might help if we:

• make an understanding of how knowledge is constructed an explicit goal for our students, one that we also share with them;

• give some direct instruction on the varying epistemological stances;

• give students the opportunity to explicitly notice, name, and discuss the beliefs about knowledge they encounter as people engage in academic discussion, as well as the consequences of those beliefs.

Together, the combination of these factors in the study seemed to move students closer to a more desirable stance on knowledge and its construction. These researchers caution about assuming that a one-off intervention alone can be relied upon to achieve this, however.
It is interesting to note that the change in intellectual values was only apparent a week after the intervention. The researchers feel this delayed change may have been supported by intellectual activities occurring in school during that week. Beliefs and values do not change overnight, but it does seem that working with them more explicitly can have a positive effect.

Hefter, M., Renkl, A., Riess, W., Schmid, S., Fries, S. & Berthold, K. (2015) “Effects of a Training Intervention to Foster Precursors of Evaluativist Epistemological Understanding and Intellectual Values." Learning and Instruction 39, pp. 11–22.
Kuhn, D. (2001) How Do People Know? Psychological Science, 12 (1) pp. 1–8.

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