How Arguing Improves Students’ Reasoning Skills

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American educators agreed last year that argumentative reasoning should be taught in schools when those in most states adopted the new Common Core State Standards, a state-led effort to establish educational benchmarks to prepare kindergarten through 12th grade students for college and career. Reaching a similar consensus on how to teach the art of arguing, however, hasn’t been as easy. But a new study published in the journal Psychological Science could offer a solution in the form of dialogue.

Researchers Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell created a new curriculum for teaching reasoning skills that emphasized discussion and tested it on 48 sixth graders. A comparison group of 23 students in a separate class were taught through more traditional, solitary methods of reasoning using techniques such as  essay-writing. It turns out that arguing with others is more effective than arguing on paper.

The researchers, who are also professors at Columbia University’s Teachers College, conducted the three-year study at an urban middle school with students from low-income families who were predominantly Hispanic or African American. (More on Can people really be “visual” or “verbal” learners?)

“Children engage in conversation from very early on. It has a point in real life,” explains Kuhn in a press statement. Fulfilling a writing assignment, on the other hand, largely entails figuring out what the teacher wants and delivering it, and to the student, she notes, “that’s its only function.”

Each quarter, the students in the more interactive group focused on one social issue — starting with more relevant subjects like school discipline before moving to larger issues like abortion and gun control. They chose  sides and prepared for debates that were facilitated using a computer, which helped the students to reflect on the viewpoints as the dialogue remained on the screen. The students in the control group or comparison class, on the contrary, simply engaged in full-class teacher-led discussions of similar topics.

After each year, all students wrote essays on entirely new topics, which the researchers analyzed for reasoning merit. Students who participated in the more innovative teaching method fared better across the board on demonstrating more reason-based skills. (More on Straight As in High School May Mean Better Health Later in Life)

At least one fellow educator, University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Gerald Graff, approves of this more interactive approach to teaching reasoning skills and hopes it catches on.

“Kuhn and Crowell’s focus on argument has the potential to transform schools if policy makers and curriculum developers were to take their conclusions to heart and put argument and debate at the center of the curriculum,” he said. “Dialogical argument is what we actually practice in the real world where we make arguments not in isolation.”

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