Go Big on Argument

November 2, 2015 Les Lynn The Debatifier

by Dave Stuart Jr.

When I tell students and parents that we’ll be arguing a lot this year, I quickly need to stress that the kind of argument I’m talking about is beautiful. It is deep, critical, collaborative cognition. I pray all my students – and all humans, really — become adept at it because it makes us better people.

If any of that seems strong to you, it’s likely because you and I carry different definitions of “argument” in our heads. In Teaching the Argument in Writing, Richard Fulkerson puts it in a way that has stuck with me:

The goal [of argument] is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own.

In other words, argument allows us to:

  • make better decisions and
  • practice virtues like open-mindedness (“takes seriously”), fairness, and humility (“at risk of needing to alter their views”).

Argument, too, has proven an awfully more adept way of teaching critical thinking. Jerry Graff (author of Clueless in Academe and co-author of They Say, I Say) and Mike Schmoker (author of Focus) give us another valuable angle on argument; they describe it as

the ability to analyze and assess facts and evidence, support our solutions, and defend our interpretations and recommendations with clarity and precision — in every subject area.

To me and, likely, to many of the readers of The Debatifier, the term argument is superior in its utility to the term critical thinking, namely because critical thinking has suffered a death-by-linguistic-extension (AKA buzzwordification) similar to close reading.

In my own classroom, I teach only four parts of argument. This is perhaps a gross over-simplification; forgive a fellow his vices, please (see following figure).

In class, we cultivate a familiarity with these argumentative building blocks through activities like reading for argument, writing arguments, and engaging in pop-up debates.

A classroom example of how argument can be woven into reading, writing, and speaking

Argument, like instruction in character, ought to be more than an activity or an isolated united; it is a way of being, a lens through which to view the world and grow within it.

In the following video, you’ll see an example of how argument might be woven throughout a lesson. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, and I’m in no way proposing that this is the only way to do it.

In the video,

  • Students are reading a visual text (Picasso’s Guernica),
  • They’re writing in preparation for an argumentative discussion, and
  • They’re speaking about what they’ve read and written in the debate.

Here it is.

Several things to notice

  • The most compelling speakers refer to readings beyond the painting.
  • Simply sitting and listening to this pop-up discuss provides me with rich formative data. I know some academic vocabulary terms that deserve reviewing (suffrage; impressionism), and I see potential next mini-lessons on speaking (e.g., organizing one’s speech with a clear beginning, middle, and end; avoiding distracting fillers such as “like”)
  • My students mock me (the kid with the coffee mug – my coffee mug – is totally mocking me)
  • Argument isn’t antagonism – when it’s at its best, it’s collaboration.

Moving forward

One of the benefits of the Non-Freaked Out (NFO) framework I’ve been developing as a teacher and writer over the past few years is that it limits me to five sandboxes within which to play as a practitioner. There are a million directions in which we can expend our energies as teachers, but if our aim is to maximize the positive impacts of our careers then focus is not optional.

Keep in mind that I’ve only been pursuing an argument-rich classroom for three years now – and, in that time, I’ve operated with a heavy bias toward simplicity. This is fairly obvious in the above video. While I hope I won’t lose that bias any time soon, I do see some of its drawbacks – for example, too many of my students still end the year deficient in argumentative skill. And yet, it’s a start.

And by the end of this year, it will be better than it’s ever been because I’ll be learning from great blogs like The Debatifier as I continue to teach, observe, and tweak.


Dave Stuart Jr. writes at DaveStuartJr.com, where he shares research-based ideas for teaching literacy and character. To get strategies for boosting the quality of both your work and your life, join his free newsletter. This article is an excerpt from Dave’s free ebook, These Five Things, All Year Long.