First Things First (and Last): Formulating Debatable Issues (Pt. 2)

September 28, 2015 Les Lynn Professional Capacity Development, The Debatifier

In The Debatifier’s previous post we examined the ways in which debatable issues are like and unlike framing moves and essential questions, and we identified the five key criteria for the effective formulation of debatable issues:

  • Openness
  • Balance
  • Focus
  • Authenticity
  • Intellectual Interest

In this post we will explore how debatable issues organize the structure and influence the full trajectory of a unit in an argument-centered classroom.

Not to pre-empt the inquiry, but the sum of it really is this: all the elements in a unit should be connectable to the debatable issue(s) in argument-centered instruction. A line should be traceable from the debatable issue(s) out to all of the activities, assignments, projects, and assessments in a unit. Debatable issues give units their thematic coherence. They give context for tasks and exercises conducted a unit, and they allow for the gradual building of understanding in a unit to then have full expression in culminating performance task assessments.

When students are making arguments and responding to counter-arguments in a performance task they should be drawing from all of the task completion, problem-solving, turn and talk, read and respond, and whatever else the unit has included, because those activities have equipped students with content understanding, and because they have fostered in students critical questioning and reasoning about constituent elements of the issues that need to be brought together in the summative learning product. At the risk of triggering the Lakoffian pejorative, educators should view debatable issues as the framing device for the structuring of their curricular units of study.

Some of the teachers I’ve worked with began at the opposite end of this spectrum, as it relates to the use of debatable issues. They included essential or driving questions on curriculum forms – but only to satisfy a paperwork requirement. Until we worked together for awhile, planned, designed debatable issues did not have a guiding influence on their classrooms at all. To me, these teachers exemplify the risks of administrative over-reach: the paperwork that teachers are now required to do is too often not carefully edited and streamlined, and it can breed a cynicism in teachers who then lump what’s actually useful and essential in with what is extraneous and bureaucratic, devaluing classroom planning in the process. Well-intentioned as they may be, administrative regulations on curricular preparation must be finely etched, not broad-stroked or blunt-instrumented.

More common than demonstrations of this kind of backlash, though, are teachers who use debatable issues or essential questions in a way that restricts them to one of the major assessments in a unit, commonly in a unit exam or summative project. Maybe the teacher will mention the issue when introducing the unit, but then it will get set aside until final assessment time. In an argument-centered classroom, debatable issues inject a through-line connecting the entire unit. This doesn’t mean that every activity is one in which students are arguing and reasoning about the debatable issue; it does mean that those activities have a deliberate relationship with, and are generally preparation for, students grappling with the deeper inquiry posed by the debatable issue.

Let me provide a concrete example of how this can look in practice. With one of Argument-Centered Education’s middle school partners, a pair of excellent 7th grade English language arts teachers were collaborating with us on the design of their unit on S. E. Hinton’s young adult classic, The Outsiders. First off, we tightened the focus of the debatable issue that this unit would be built around. The teachers started with ‘How does environment and relationships impact identity?’ Through discussion of the key criteria for an effective debatable issue, we arrived at this binary formulation: ‘According to The Outsiders, are our environment and personal relationships the dominant influence over our identity, or is identify more a matter of who we are inside?’

We then examined each day’s lesson for its relationship to the debatable issue. These teachers had a series of local interpretive activities – several having to do with their teaching of certain literary devices – that made up the majority of days in this four-week unit. We revised and re-oriented these activities so that students could see how identifying literary devices, and making local interpretive readings of incidents and chapters, would ultimately produce literary evidence to bear on the larger, thematic debatable issue.

So, for example, on Day 10 of the initial version of the unit, students were to do a ‘write and share’ activity in which they were to interpret Johnny’s killing of a ‘soc’ as either a fundamental change in his character, or something consistent with his earlier characterization, using references to tone and imagery in their evidence. We tweaked this activity to ask students to do the same ‘write and share,’ on the same incident, requiring the same reference to tone and imagery, but addressing the question: ‘Does Johnny’s murder of a “soc” reflect the influence of his surroundings and “greaser” peers, or is it an act that expresses something essential to Johnny’s unique, personal identify?’ The activity then will generate student’s critical thought, and further their compiling of evidence, related to the overall debatable issue in the unit.

Sometimes connections can be less on the nose than in this example; how supple or tight the coherence of an instructional unit should be is a ‘decision of art’ made by the professional leading a classroom. The test here though is this: if a student pressed her, can the teacher make a meaningful and comprehensible connection between a piece of the curriculum and the debatable issues that frame a unit.

Debatable issues help teachers draw boundaries around what content to cover, and give students a conceptual context within which content coverage is given meaning and purpose. To offer up another concrete example, a high school partner of ours was argumentalizing a unit on income inequality in an AP Economics course. The unit culminated in Micro/Macro Debates, where a set of 9 debatable claims form the basis of micro-argumentation rounds, all circling around the larger debatable issue: Is income inequality the largest economic problem facing the United States? Two examples of the 9 claims to generate micro-argumentation rounds in this unit are:

  • The focus of efforts to improve economic justice should be on economic opportunity, not on income inequality.
  • Income and wealth inequality stifles American economic growth.

The economics instructor taught content in this unit over a two-week period, in which each day for 9 days was devoted to coverage of one of these micro-argumentation debatable claims, with readings, a Powerpoint presentation, and student-guided discussion. The 10th day was a formative assessment. This process demonstrates that choices in content, and how that content was taught, are influenced in this classroom by the arguments that can be and are being made on each of these subsidiary aspects of the larger income inequality debate.

There are objectives in every classroom that most teachers don’t naturally categorize as ‘argumentational’ – writing mechanics, mathematical algorithms, elemental properties on the periodic table, for example. If it feels dogmatic to say that this factual knowledge must be learned in order to be able to reason and argue more effectively about the bigger questions in our discipline, by all means teachers should not feel obligated to do so. In other words, there are moments in all but the most argument-centric classroom when academic objectives are pursued outside the argumentational frame. Nevertheless, debatable issues can and should supply both a pedagogical consistency and an intellectual coherence to an argument-centered classroom. And students should themselves be able to trace lines back and forth from the big questions being inquired and argued about, and each of the specific daily lessons in which they are learners.

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