By Gerald Graff
Our trouble with schools may start much higher up—in an ivory tower. According to a recent report by some researchers at Stanford University, high school students with college aspirations “often lack crucial information on applying to college and on succeeding academically once they get there.”
That the intellectual world of colleges and universities is incomprehensible to those who are not already at home in it has long been a common joke. It shouldn’t take a Stanford research team to tell us that when it comes to “succeeding academically,” many students don’t have a clue.
It may seem like a settled question now, but in the early 1960s there was a fervent rhetorical struggle within the Civil Rights movement between advocates for non-violent strategy of civil disobedience (led of course by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and those for a black nationalist, radical militancy strategy of “any means necessary”(led until his shortly before his death in 1965 by Malcolm X). And of course the strategic directions of social movements and their progeny can change — there have been signs in the past few years (some in cultural expressions like hip-hop) that not all leading African-American voices are unquestioningly and immutably committed to non-violence. But even if there has emerged an unassailable consensus in favor of non-violent strategies to protest racial and social injustice, that doesn’t by itself mean that radical militancy would not have been more effective or productive in advancing the objectives of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s (in argumentation theory, this idea is described by the fallacy argumentum ad populum).
In structured argumentation activities and classroom debating formats, tracking arguments on a graphic organizer — called a “flow sheet,” in competitive debate parlance — is essential. “Flowing” both enables and enforces refutation, and it makes the process of argumentation, and the unfolding of a debate, traceable and more objective. It may be the single most important way we have in argument-centered instructional work of de-mystifying — and therefore teaching — the process of academic argumentation.
But flowing is a complex and difficult activity — actually series of activities — involving critical listening, summary, and refutation itself. So it is important that the teacher model flowing; we are proponents of extensive modeling, and even when you’re requiring that students be flowing independently, you can be flowing for students as a model, and so that they can consult your flow when they (almost inevitably) lose track or get lost during the debate.
Peirce International School humanities teacher Tiffany Brugman and Argument-Centered Education have collaborated on the argumentalization of the school’s Opening the American West unit. We wished to share it out as another demonstration of the argumentalization process and the ways that it can generate student inquiry, critical thinking, college-directed argumentation skills, and communications exercise and growth.
It starts, as regular readers of The Debatifier know, with the formulation of the debatable issue(s). For this unit, the issue is formulated as a question:
What was the most important factor in the opening of the American West?
One of Argument-Centered Education’s high school partners’ 10th grade U.S. history classes are immersed right now in preparing students for their U.S. Constitution exam. “Time to take a break from our argument-centered projects,” a teacher opined. “Our Constitution exam curriculum is dry and content-heavy. We just to have to fill the kids with the facts about the articles, sections, and amendments, then they reproduce what they’ve learned. We’ll get back to debatification in February.”
Understood, was our first word. Our next two: But wait. We’d like the chance to work with your U.S. history teachers and classes to demonstrate a way of understanding an argument-based pedagogy that applies to contexts in which objectives are information-heavy and seek to instill in students the foundations of knowledge that will enable them later to engage in substantive academic or public debates.