What If We Taught Argument in Every Class? by Kristy Louden

What If We Taught Argument in Every Class?


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Sometimes when scrolling through Facebook, I click on an article that looks interesting. And sometimes I keep scrolling past the article into the comments.

Why? Why would I torture myself like this? It’s like a compulsion, I can’t look away. I’m sucked into the mire that is the comment section and I sink quickly into the dark underbelly of the Internet. And while there, I start to question humanity.

What has the world come to? Who is reading this stuff? (Oh crap. I am. I am reading this stuff). What is wrong with these people? Where do their facts come from? Wait, just kidding, these aren’t facts, they’re mindless opinions of the staggering hoards of people writing mean, baseless comments on the Internet. Get out! Get out!

And you know what I realize after all of this? I realize I must, absolutely must, teach my students how to argue. And how to think. I cannot allow them to go into the world as Internet trolls. I know I’m guilty of assuming my kids already know how to argue. I mistakenly believe it’s an inherent skill, that thinking logically is natural.

Of course, this is not the case.

And now, potentially more than ever, our students must learn to think logically, present rational conclusions, see through faulty logic, and share their opinions in a convincing way.

Here to help: Erik Palmer.

In his book, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning, Palmer shows us how to teach our students to wade through the deluge of arguments they face on a daily basis, to discern the good from the bad, and to know when they’re being duped by persuasive tricks. He offers solutions that can be put into action tomorrow, strategies we can use throughout the year to develop students’ reasoning skills. And most of these strategies are surprisingly simple. “By making small adjustments to what we already do,” Palmer says, “we can develop better thinking in all students.”



Big Ideas

We work hard to help our students read, write, and speak, but how much do we actually teach them to think? Palmer believes we’re not doing this enough, and he advocates we do much more by using argument, reasoning, and persuasion. Our reasoning skills, Palmer says, are used all the time: “We analyze the messages we receive. We reason with with others. We even reason with ourselves.” If we can help students see the argument in a variety of situations, in and out of the classroom, we can help them better understand how to construct and deliver their own thoughts.

Start with a shared language. Palmer suggests beginning by defining the words students need to know: argument, conclusion, premise (or statement for younger students), and evidence. Again, we think kids know these terms, but all too often, they don’t. The most important thing is to keep the language consistent across classes, subjects, and grades.

Honestly, to me this is probably the most difficult idea proposed in the whole book. It’s hard enough for just my department to be consistent with things, much less our faculty of 250! However, I can see his point. If every teacher uses this language in their classrooms, won’t students become experts?

Incorporate argument all year in every classroom. By spreading argument throughout the year, we can help students become familiar with all of the elements, work it into more of their practice and assignments, and encourage them to find arguments everywhere. If the goal is to create young people who can hold their own in the real world, then we need to bring the real world in for inspection. Once kids are attuned to the parts of an argument, they will begin to find them everywhere. With that, they will hopefully begin to question them as well.

Demand evidence for every argument. Raise your hand if you’ve said to your students “Make sure you support your point with evidence.” Both of my hands are up. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I won’t accept a response unless you can back it up.

Except oftentimes they can’t. Why not?

Because, once again, I am assuming they know what I mean by evidence. Just because evidence and information are common words, doesn’t mean the kids know what we mean when we use them. Teachers should help students identify types of evidence and should never allow students to make a statement without using evidence to support it.

Add persuasive techniques. Palmer spends one chapter discussing how to move from argument to persuasion. He uses the words cold and hot to explain the difference: “An argument is cold: it is made up of passionless sentences that lead us to a passionless conclusion. Persuasion is hot: it consists of tricks we use to make others care about that cold argument.” In this chapter he illustrates common persuasive techniques with examples.

Activities Across the Curriculum

Palmer presents myriad activities for identifying, creating, and strengthening arguments, many that can be applied in different subject areas, even social-emotional learning. In addition to the activities presented at the end of each chapter, an additional chapter lists potential problems with teaching argument and offers actionable solutions. Another presents eighteen additional activities that can be used in almost any grade or subject to develop reasoning skills. As I read through the activities, I found several that could be used throughout the year, not just in specific units.

  • Find Hidden Arguments: Periodically present conversation snippets to students and have them put together the argument hidden in the seemingly everyday conversation. These could be collected by the teacher and the students and shared throughout the year.
  • Categorize Vocabulary Words: After being presented with a list of vocabulary words (at once or over time), students categorize the words and then build arguments to justify their choices. This would allow them to work with words while also building their reasoning skills.
  • Artwork as Argument: Students study a piece of art (Picasso’s Guernica, for example). From the work, they write a conclusion, and then students can use details and choices in the art to write statements and find evidence to back up their conclusion.
  • Commercials as Persuasive Practice: I am so excited about this idea! After students have become very familiar with argument and have studied persuasion, have each student create a commercial for any product they want (real or fake). The requirements would include using identifiable persuasive techniques. Students can record commercials or give them live. Here’s the fun part: Use them as brain breaks. When we’re transitioning from notebook prompts to reading The Great Gatsby, say “Before we begin, let’s pause for a message from our sponsors” or something, and then a student (who knew they’d be going this week), shares their commercial. Isn’t that fun!?!

How This Book is Impacting My Teaching

I started reading this book just three weeks before my students began their argument essay unit. Talk about perfect timing! This week, as a matter of fact, my students and I have defined the terms as Palmer suggests, then we looked at and created syllogisms, expanded those to larger arguments including evidence, and identified faulty logic. There is so much more to be done, but as an intro to argument and a base for their essay, it will do for now. Here are some other ways Good Thinking has impacted my teaching:

  • Evidence charts: In the past I just called evidence “support” and usually meant quotes, but after reading Palmer’s book I see how vague that was. When kids are researching and writing an argument essay, just finding “quotes” isn’t really useful. Instead, I’m requiring students to find evidence in the five categories Palmer describes (analogies, examples, quotes, facts, and numbers). Students collect their resources in Google Docs (one per article/source) and then use the Highlight Tool add-on to identify the different types of evidence in their chosen articles. I’m excited to see how this requirement will improve their arguments.
  • Listening for arguments: Already, in just three days, my students and I have started to apply Palmer’s suggested language in all kinds of situations. Yesterday a student made a claim about writing, and I pointed to him and said, “tell me your premises.” When he couldn’t come up with any, we both laughed and agreed that he had mistakenly reached a very weak conclusion. I even heard some students saying similar things to each other in their groups. Score!!
  • Argue Early and Often: Next year I plan to start right away teaching (and displaying on the wall) the terms we will be referring to all year. And to keep the ideas going, I would like to dedicate one of my three bulletin boards to collecting arguments. Perhaps we will divide the board into strong and weak arguments, and as students find them out in the “real world,” we can spend some time in class discussing them and then put them on the board. We can refer to those throughout the year. I want arguments to be in front of their faces all the time.

Final Thoughts

Good Thinking is a great read. In addition to being easy to digest, it’s also immediately usable. I read this book and took away several ideas to use right away. This book is written for classroom teachers who are strapped for time but want to help their students be successful human beings.

We teachers are constantly bombarded with new ways to use technology, ideas to introduce to our students, or updated requirements for testing, but ultimately, aren’t we always wondering what really matters the most? As Palmer suggests in the book’s afterword, my students probably won’t remember that Daisy ran over Myrtle or that Modernist authors wanted to “make it new.”

But no matter what students do remember in 5, 10, or 30 years, they will always need to know how to argue. How to reason. How to thinkGood Thinking can help us prepare our students for the things that really do matter most. ♦


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Kristy Louden

Kristy Louden

Teacher and Blogger at Midwestern Heart in Dixie
Kristy Louden has been in the classroom for ten years, happily teaching high school English in Hoover, Alabama. As a member of her school's Literacy Team, Writing Team, and Technology Facilitators, Kristy’s classroom is infused with her passion for all of these things, and her students know that her goal is to have them “real-life ready” for the challenges they will soon face. When she isn’t at school, she is probably at the barn riding her horse, or relaxing with her husband and two Puggles.

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