Argument-Centered Content Delivery

November 24, 2015 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Argument and Math, Argument and Science, Professional Capacity Development, The Debatifier


Posters have gone out to schools and districts near and far identifying the five universal steps to argumentalzing instruction — though some posters remain, if you haven’t gotten yours. Previous articles in The Debatifier have (in parts 1 and 2) described criteria and analyzed the process for effectively formulating a debatable issue: the first step in the five-step argumentalization process.

It’s time to take a closer look at the second step to argumentalizing instruction: teaching content through arguments.  Students’ obtaining content knowledge and understanding is not only required to meet specific academic objectives across disciplines, it is also (as we see time and again) essential to their ability to make convincing, college-directed academic arguments. 

As Gerald Graff via Christopher Lasch recently argued in this very same blog, framing content instruction with a debatable issue helps students understand the relevance and contextual significance of information, terms, discoveries, and the like. When content is taught in relation to debates, this content is activated in arguments whose purpose is to advance knowledge on questions fundamental to the discipline.  This debate-driven instruction helps students more readily assimilate and lastingly retain this subject-area information. Argument-centered content delivery, in other words, is a more germane, more coherent, more effective way of teaching content than the alternatives – for example, teaching to academic objectives or standards abstracted from the questions, inquiries, and conversations which make them meaningful.

But this raises the practical question (and practical questions are given their due weight in The Debatifier) : how does argument-centered content delivery work in practice, in actual 6th – 12th grade classrooms?  Let’s look at a few different ways that teaching content through arguments is currently being successfully implemented.


Several Varieties

There are actually a great many specific ways that argument-centered content delivery has been enacted, though they can be clustered in such a way that several strategical varieties emerge.

Readings, Media Lists, and Data Sets

In almost every argument-centered unit and project, content instruction is organized around assigned readings (or an assigned extended text, such as a novel); the assemblage of a media list, made up of textual and visual sources, often on line and accessed through annotated links; or the collation of a data set in the sciences. Teaching and learning of subject-specific academic information is driven by these selections, as are the processes of identifying and analyzing evidence used to build arguments and counter-arguments on debatable issues or questions. These source lists or sets are put together in alignment with the debatable issues that organize the unit as a whole.

To cite one example of the way that argument-determined source lists drive content instruction, Argument-Centered Education has produced a full instructional unit on the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 for the Department of Literacy of Chicago Public Schools, housed currently in our resources library.  This unit features a set of readings, videos, and an even an annotated collection of news photographs, a list divided into headings for each of the three debatable issues that organize the unit: whether the Chinese value democracy, whether the protesters had any responsibility for the government crackdown, and whether Tiananmen Square 1989 has had long-term impact on China. Content learning and understanding come through study and discussion of sources under each of the debate headings.

Problems and Activities

Argument-centered projects can also deliver content understanding by incorporating problems or activities that serve both to advance the readiness to make arguments on key topics, and to advance content understanding. The Debatifier featured a recent post on algebraic number series and sequences in which students learn to intentionally apply deductive and inductive forms of argumentative reasoning to a set of problems on the unit’s content focus. This unit is a paradigmatic example of teaching mathematics content through the frame of academic argument. In another example, Argument-Centered Education has developed an argument-based seminar project for a biology unit on marine fishery ecologies. Students conduct activities in which they work with and analyze sets of raw data so that they can clarify what is happening in the fisheries related to key terms in the unit, such as ‘food web,’ ‘commensualism,’ and ‘biome.’  And students complete these biology learning activities within an argument-based structure in which they are working to build strong scientific arguments and critiques of others’ arguments on the question of the ecological health of these fisheries.

Close Readings and Explications

Frequently in the high school and middle school classroom, source material under study is intellectually large enough that it could take a unit in an explosion of many directions. There are moments when that kind of open energy works, but often it is useful to keep instruction on rails aimed at certain objectives, questions collectively considered, enabling the classroom to maintain focus. Debatable issues offer this kind of instructional guidestar, so that we know when an element or incident in a text merits zooming in with explication and close reading, and when we should maintain a much higher altitude over swaths of the textual terrain.

Guidance like this is probably most often useful in an English language arts class. Shakespeare offers us paradigmatic instances, several of which are present in the Argument-Centered Education resource library. The plays offer an almost limitless opportunity for close reading and fecund interpretive micro-study; but ACE’s Clash of Interpretation projects (see the COI on Macbeth, for instance) enable a class to know how to apportion its special, time-limited, and most concentrated attention — i.e., when the text is most relevant to arguments that can be made on the debatable issues.  The use of ‘selected passages’ — pre-selected textual evidence sets — further hones a classroom’s zoomed attention within coherent parameters that themselves facilitate student comprehension of the difficult language.

Arguments as Instructional Platforms

Another methodological category used by teachers to deliver content through argumentation is organizing instructional platforms around particular arguments.  ACE partner-teachers have designed and delivered Powerpoints, Google Slides, Prezi’s, and other presentational platforms around arguments that have been or can be made on a debatable issue. One such example organizing instructional platforms in this way is in Argument-Centered Education’s Micro/Macro Debates on U.S. income inequality, a project built for economics, sociology, or modern U.S. history courses. The debatable issue in this project is:

Income and wealth inequality is the most important economic problem facing the United States today.

This is the ‘macro’ contestable claim.  The Micro/Macro Debates format identifies the chief argumentative claims that are made on both sides of the debatable issue, and establishes a list of five on each side, e.g., ‘Income inequality impedes American economic growth,’ and ‘Income inequality is inevitable in a capitalist economy and isn’t by itself a bad thing.’  These are the ‘micro’ contestable claims.  To cover the great breadth of content on this very rich debatable issue, our partner-teachers have developed annotated and link-replete presentations that are organized by the ten argumentative claims that students will later themselves be fleshing out and utilizing both in classroom debating and in argument writing to follow. This is one of the many examples of teachers delivering content through making, explaining, and dissecting arguments in their prepared lessons.

Evidence Standards

Establishing specialized evidence standards is another way to deliver specific content coverage in the context of an argument-centered unit. By ‘evidence standards’ we here mean rules or restrictions for identifying and using evidence to support argumentative claims. So, for example, in an All-In Classroom Debate recently conducted on the Civil War by an ACE partner middle school, students on both sides of the question of whether Abraham Lincoln deserves the title ‘The Great Emancipator’ had to use and analyze two pieces of evidence from the Emancipation Proclamation and two pieces of evidence from the Lincoln – Douglas Debates, thereby ensuring that they have worked to comprehend and analyze both of these primary sources. In another middle school’s Intelligence Squared Debates on whether Pluto should be restored as a planet, students had to include in their argumentative claims the terms ‘orbital path,’ ‘dwarf planet,’ ‘International Astronomical Union,’ and ‘New Horizons.’ These types of specialized evidence standards can ensure specific content assimilation.

Content-Determined Debatable Issues

Perhaps the most direct line between argumentation and content delivery is drawn when the debatable issue itself is carved straight from the content objectives. To illustrate, yet another partner middle school recently conducted an argument-based Socratic seminar on this debatable issue: Which literary device is most important to creating suspense in George Toudouze’s short story, ‘Three Skeleton Key’ — setting, foreshadowing, plot, characterization, personification, or diction? The unit’s academic content revolved around the literary use and effect of these six narrative elements, and in the formulation of this debatable issue their use and effect in a given work became the argumentational focus as well.


Moderation in All Things

In saying that the debatable issue or problem should organize a unit, and that thus content should be delivered through argument, we do not mean to say that every activity in a unit must refer directly back to the debatable issue. Instead there should be an articulable connection between all academic activities in a unit and the debatable issue – that a line, even if sometimes circuitous, can be drawn back from any particular task, assignment, even question back to the debatable issue. The varieties laid out above offer the categories within which many particular strategies are currently being implemented to do just that, and thereby to make the teaching and learning of content more coherent, motivated, and lasting for students.