Posted by: Mary Anna Thornton | April 1, 2014

Conserve Students Practice the Art of Scientific Argumentation

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Recently students worked in groups with Conserve School Science Teacher Robert Eady to develop detailed arguments on controversial environmental topics like alternative fuels and genetically modified grains. Following a standard debate format, students presented in teams, with one pair of students making a pro argument and the other making a con argument on the same topic. Each side presented rebuttals and asked questions intended to reveal weak areas in the opposing viewpoint. At the end of the presentations, students in the audience, who had been taking notes all along, were responsible for asking the presenters thoughtful questions that revealed more insights into the dilemmas at hand.

Although students followed the debate format, Robert had from the beginning of this unit asked students to frame the activity as collaborative rather than competitive, emphasizing that the object of the exercise was not to win the argument but rather to advance knowledge, just as professional scientists do. Robert specifically asked students to focus on the question: “Does the evidence presented support the claim being made?” (You can read more about the “Model-Evidence-Link” educational method that Robert used during this unit here.)

The skills involved in constructing, analyzing, refuting, and modifying logical arguments are central to the scientific method; they therefore take center stage in environmental science classes at Conserve School. Students usually have limited skills in this area, in part because of lack of exposure. Thinking through arguments and evidence is challenging and time-consuming, and the concentrated instruction and practice necessary to address this topic in a meaningful way is difficult to find time for within a standard high school schedule. In addition, our popular culture glorifies superficial sound-bites over lengthy, sensitive analyses, so, unfortunately, most high school students have no idea of the complexity and uncertainty underlying environmental issues. This curricular area is therefore critical for us to address at Conserve School, since we are committed to teaching students how to be well-informed environmental stewards.

With the small class sizes, longer class periods, and highly-motivated students at Conserve School, we can give the important skills of constructing, analyzing, and revising arguments the time and thought they deserve. I visited class as students made presentations last week on Friday, and I was delighted to observe how well-prepared, courteous, and articulate students were. When Robert asked students if they would be interested in looking at some of the presentation topics in even more depth later in the semester, students responded with great interest: they actually cheered! It was heart-warming to see such a high level of investment in class projects and to witness the students’ intense interest in the topics under investigation.

— Mary Anna Thornton, Assistant Head of School


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