The Five Steps to Argumentalizing Instruction
One of the signature features of the services model developed and employed by Argument-Centered Education is its embeddedness. Not only is its teacher coaching embedded within schools and active classrooms, so that teachers get observation-based feedback and targeted modeling support, but its curriculum design and adaptation works from curriculum that its partner schools and teachers are currently working with and to which they are committed. Instead of importing argument-based curriculum from outside, we work to build argumentation from the inside of an individual teacher’s, or department’s, or school’s, or district’s in-place instructional content and methodology.
External curricular components can often feel like diversions from the trajectory of a course. They can be and often are tried a couple times then quietly dropped. They can generate understandable even unspoken resistance from educators who entered the profession in part because they have an intellectual passion for certain fields of learning, things they know, and have dedicated their professional lives to sharing with the next generations. And they can impair the effectiveness of an on-going and embedded professional development strategy because they restrict demonstration of the use of argumentation to an external curriculum.
We created our approach intentionally to overcome these limitations. Argument-Centered Education builds argument components into its partners’ curriculum in collaboration with its partners’ teachers. ACE makes existing curriculum argument-centered; it argumentalizes it. ‘To me it is a hugely important that ACE is working with the curriculum maps, units, and resources that we have in place at our school,’ one of our current partner school principals recently testified. ‘In addition to ensuring full buy-in among our teachers, this approach is helping them learn how to apply student argumentation and debating to all that they teach and whatever they teach, even when it changes from one year to the next.’
This article will identify and briefly describe the five standard steps to argumentalizing instruction. Becoming masterful using these steps enables educators to infuse rigorous and college-directed academic argument throughout their instruction.
1) Organize the Unit around a Debatable Issue or Problem
Argument-centered instruction takes the formulating of debatable issues or problems much more seriously than is often the case in 6th – 12th grade classrooms. Rather than coming up with a couple of essential questions that appear on a unit plan, and possibly on a final assessment, debatable issues or problems have an organizing influence over all of the teaching and learning in a unit.
In a recent Debatifier post, we identified the five criteria for an effectively formulated debatable issue:
Openness – the issue has to be an open question rather than a closed-ended or settled matter
Balance – the issue and its attendant evidence set is roughly balanced between two or more sides
Focus – the issue is limited enough to engender clashing points of view
Authenticity – the issue is discussed or debated in the real-world, either in or outside academics
Intellectual Interest – the issue is of interest to students or the teacher or (preferably) both
2) Teach Content in Relation to Arguments about the Debatable Issue or Problem
In saying that the debatable issue or problem organizes the entirety of a unit we do not mean to say that every activity revolves around argumentation about that issue. Instead what we mean is that there is a connection between all academic activities in a unit and the debatable issue(s) – that a line can be drawn from any particular task, assignment, even question back to the debatable issue.
When checking for understanding in the reading of a novel chapter, for instance, questions don’t all need to be variations on the debatable issue – e.g., ‘The Outsiders expresses the theme that individuals are more a product of their environmental influences than of their own internal character’ – but they should be posed in a deliberate relationship to the debatable issue – e.g., eliciting understanding of dialogue that demonstrates that Ponyboy is strongly influenced by Darry, in ways he isn’t fully aware of). Or in an economics class, for instance, a teacher’s PowerPoint slides on the federal government’s role in the economy can each have an ‘Implications for the DI’ entry, where matters of contention among economists relevant to the central question can be referenced. There is no limit to the ways to do this well; the essence of the guideline is to apply intentionality in thinking through the relevance of every portion of a unit to the organizing debatable issue.
3) Prioritize Two Skills: Use of Evidence and Engagement with Other Views
In the pedagogy of Argument-Centered Education, the two pillar standards for argument-centeredness in instruction are (1) all viewpoints, claims, or answers must be supported by evidence, and (2) all viewpoints, claims, or answers must be placed in engagement with other viewpoints, claims, or answers. Another way to put this is: in their writing and speaking students must use evidence and must refute others in an argument-centered classroom. So when argumentalizing instruction we apply these two standards throughout and elevate the academic processes they require.
In an argument-centered classroom, we should see ample instances of students identifying, supplying, and evaluating evidence in relation to arguments, ideas, and solutions. We should see ample instances of students engaging with other points of view (especially student-to-student), explaining how their answers or argumentative claims differ from others’, and refuting counter-arguments or contrary conclusions. And we should see these operations continuously throughout the school year, across units and content divisions.
4) Employ a Structured Argumentation Activity as Performance Assessment
In an argumentalized unit, the culminating or summative performance assessment is argument-based. Students are required to produce argumentative writing, to make arguments in a debate or other oral activity, or to incorporate argumentative justifications for their science conclusions or math solutions. Summative argumentation should encompass the content and skills objectives of the unit.
Structured argumentation activities and argument-constituent exercises should be included in the unit to prepare students for success on the summative assessment. This is another way in which a debatable issue or problem should organize the unit instruction.
There are instances in actual practice where the argumentalization that ACE has done has been limited to a performance assessment structured argumentation activity. This is often a sign of an educator transitioning into a condition of mastery or control over the use of argumentation in their classroom, and as such marks a waystation toward fuller and more cohesive argument-centered instruction.
5) Assess for Summary, Argumentative Claims, Evidence, Refutation, and Evaluation
There are five key components in argument-centered pedagogy: summary, argumentative claims, evidence, refutation, and evaluation. Each of these academic skills has a specific set of criteria for their performance. Consistent application of an assessment rubric that is built around these key components is the assessment-driver required for a coherent argument-centered approach. These key components have discipline-specific instantiations, and appear concretely in relation to particular unit content. They do not constrict instructional range when utilized consistently; instead, they ensure rigor and college-directedness in teaching and learning on literally any content.
We apply these five steps across disciplines as the sequential process of argumentalization. They are easier to name and briefly describe, though, than they are to fully assimilate and master. In future posts we will investigate each of them in greater detail and with examples from actual classrooms.
 ‘Debatable issue’ is the phrase in far more frequent use; it is the default term. But ‘debatable problem’ is often more apt in mathematics. Math classes will sometimes organize instructional units around a problem in the common sense of an especially challenging math question whose solution can call for differing or completing mathematical methods or processes. And they will sometimes organize units around a ‘problem’ in mathematics theory or in a real-world situation that calls for the application of the mathematics studied in the unit.
 Some units can be organized around two or three debatable issues. If the content covered is more complex; if the academic objectives of the course require multiple angles in on the content; if students are older or more advanced – these are factors that militate for multiple debatable issues. Generally we think that three important, substantive debatable issues, taken seriously as guideposts for the unit’s organization, is an upper limit. For the sake of fluency I will elide the parenthetical ‘(s)’ from here on in this article, but it should be assumed that more than one debatable issue is always an option.