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Friday / December 15

The Making of Well-Reasoned Arguments

We have a couple things to confess.

Michael, he will admit, spends WAY too much time listening to sports talk radio. And in so doing he hears WAY too many bad arguments of this sort: “I just have this feeling that the Eagles will have a great season. I just think they’ll turn things around this year.”

Jon-Philip, he will admit, spends WAY too much money building his board game collection. And so he has to hear WAY too many arguments of this sort from friends and family: “I just think you’re wasting your money on those games. They’re just a waste.”

We know that these examples may seem trivial, but they make two very important points: 1) arguments are endemic in our lives; 2) what passes for reasoning in many of these arguments is more akin to repetition. And here we’ll share a pet peeve. The phrase “begging the question” has come to mean “prompting that a question should be asked,” when it used to refer to a logical fallacy of the sort that appears in our examples above, in which the evidence for a claim presumes the truth of a claim.

We worry that we’ve lost the words to describe this fallacy because the fallacy itself has become accepted. Of course, that’s not the case in every community. We consider ourselves fortunate that, in our capacities as educators and members of a scholarly community, we have had our ideas held to different criteria for what counts as a well-reasoned argument. The scrutiny we have faced has pushed us to elaborate and refine our thinking. We worry, though, that many of our students are not getting the experiences they need to distinguish between the kind of “Did not”/“Did so” exchanges you might hear on a schoolyard (or a cable news network) and thinking critically. That’s why we want to create classroom communities that support and celebrate the making of well-reasoned arguments.

In our new book, Developing Writers of Argument: Tools and Rules That Sharpen Student Reasoning, we share lessons we developed to prepare students to make that kind of argument. We want them to be able to do much more than simply repeat what they’ve asserted. We want them to have the structure and practice they need to not only write successful papers for class, but also to make informed decisions in their lives. We’ve used our lessons with both middle and high school students.  In our approach to teaching argument, we start by engaging students in the kinds of arguments that they face in their everyday lives: what streaming service to buy, where to go to get a burrito, and so on. Then we work with them to understand the elements of effective reasoning that they have to employ to make a good decision. Finally, we engage them in applying what they’ve learned to more important arguments, arguments that they make in response to texts, in response to essential questions like, “What does it really mean to be smart?” and in consideration of crucial life issues such as, “What career is right for me?”

Why devote so much time to teaching argument? Well, we know that if students are to succeed in school they have to be able to craft academic arguments. As Andrews (2009) explains, argument is “the most highly prized type of academic discourse” (p. 1). Little wonder that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place “particular emphasis” on the importance of students’ ability to write effective arguments.

However, as important as argument is for students’ futures, it might be even more important to our nation’s future. We live in a world of fake news and alternative facts. We live in a world in which a recent Pew study found that while Americans largely value the importance of science and believe that scientific endeavors should be funded by the government, they are far less likely to embrace the understandings that scientific research generates. We live in a world in which assertions of, “Well, that’s just the way I feel” or “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion” replace the need for critically examining our own or others’ positions. We worry that our students may be drifting into a malaise of anti-intellectualism and unwillingness to engage deeply and critically with the world around them.

If we view this as a strictly academic problem, we’re missing the boat. We must view it as a social problem—one that involves education. Unfortunately, reform efforts such as the CCSS seem to have no explicit interest in confronting this social problem. The majority of standards focus on college and career readiness. But what about readiness for responsible citizenship? What about fostering the social conscience needed to assume important roles in the future of America? As educators, we’re very much concerned with not just the colleges and careers our students matriculate into, but also with the kinds of people they become. We hope that the lessons and tools we provide in our book will demonstrate how our emphasis on argument also contributes to how students read and respond to the world around them and to how they develop identities as responsible members of society.

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Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools.  Jon-Philip Imbrenda, an assistant professor in the Department of Doctoral Studies in Literacy at Salisbury University, has taught reading and writing to high school and college students for over 15 years.  He is a recipient of the Sigol Award from the International Society for Technology in Education and the Dr. Rita Wolotkiewicz award for outstanding professional achievement in education.  His scholarly work has appeared in Written Communication and Research in the Teaching of English 

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