In partnership with the Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Institute of Physics

The teacher’s role in supporting argumentation

Often when discussion is used in science lessons it is ‘teacher-led’. However, in an argumentation activity discussion should be ‘student-led’. The teacher should fully embrace the role of facilitator; scaffolding tasks, setting up collaborative small group discussions, and asking probing questions to encourage students to justify claims and challenge their own reasoning.

Simon et al (2006) suggest that the process of argumentation can be broken down into eight categories, in a tentative hierarchy with talking and listening being the lowest order and reflection being the highest order. These are shown below along with examples of the strategies a teacher may use to facilitate argumentation. The exemplifications are extracts of dialogue from actual lessons, presented in Simon et al (2006).

T:= teacher. S: = student.

Talking and listening
Teacher facilitates by...

Encouraging discussion
T: OK, how many bits of evidence did Sally give “for” [the zoo]? Did she just give one or did she give more than one? Tell me. Did she just give one? Or were her reasons for agreeing with building the zoo more than one? Who thinks there were more than one?

S: Definitely more than one.

T: OK, Onny, give me two things that she said for “why”. Whether you agree or not, just tell me what she said.

Encouraging listening
T: So we need to be able to say our own ideas and also we need to be able to listen. When you are working in groups the same thing applies. You need to be able to speak, but you also need to be able to listen.

Knowing meaning of argument
Teacher facilitates by...

Defining argument
T: The way scientists come up with theories is to look at evidence that they are given, look at facts that they’ve got and then discuss them, argue over them and then, when they have done that they come up with what they think is a good idea.

Exemplifying (modelling) argument
T: Let me give you an example, some people say—oh, let’s build a new zoo because animals that are going to be extinct, we can save them by putting them in new zoos.

Teacher facilitates by...

Encouraging students to share ideas
T: These are just your first thoughts, some of your arguments for and against. I am not asking you at this stage to decide whether you are for it or against it. Just some of your arguments for and against.

Encouraging positioning
T: So you need to decide are you going to say yes, we should support building a new zoo or no, we shouldn’t support building a new zoo. Then you are going to have to give your arguments.

Valuing different positions
T: OK, you are ecologists, so you would want animals to stay in their natural environment, you study animals in their natural environment, this, to you, is abhorrent; you can’t believe that people do this. Taking them out.

Justifying with evidence
Teacher facilitates by...

Checking evidence base of students
So you should all have seen something about zoos now and you should have all maybe just thought about it a little bit last night, about zoos, your experience of zoos, what zoos might be like from the animal’s point of view.

Providing evidence for students
T: Think about what we were doing in populations <the topic>. What were we doing in populations? So what do things need? They need space, don’t they? Yeah, OK, but what is the other problem with animals? Some species are dying out, aren’t they? So they could help, couldn’t they, in terms of species that are going to be extinct. Yeah?

Prompting and emphasising justification
T: Why? How do you know?

Encouraging further justification (e.g. by playing devil’s advocate)
T: OK, how do you know they like being out in the wild? How do you know they don’t think of a zoo like—this is brilliant, I don’t have to catch my food, somebody just brings it around to me.

S: They are free and they can do whatever they want to do.

T: But how do you know that they don’t prefer it in a zoo?

Constructing arguments
Teacher facilitates by...

Using writing/speaking frame

Encouraging students to make presentations

Using roles
T: You’ve got to become the person you are going to be. Just like when you are acting. This group, you are an MP in the local area, OK? This group, you are residents living very close by. You need to have three proposals, three reasons why you should build or not build the zoo, that you are putting forward to the agency. Only three.

Evaluating arguments
Teacher facilitates by...

Encouraging evaluation
[could focus on use of evidence (process) or nature of evidence (content), or both] See Section 5: Getting critical within argumentation

Teacher facilitates by...

Encouraging students to anticipate counter arguments
T: Can anyone think of anything that somebody might say to oppose that? What might someone say which makes that argument a bit flawed?

Encouraging debate (e.g. through role play)
[A useful strategy may be to pair pupils with opposing viewpoints together to set up a counter argument with the goal of changing the other persons mind.]

Reflecting on argument process
Teacher facilitates by...

Encouraging reflection
T: So have you thought about how you are going to justify it? What is your argument? You have got to really think about it. Can you see what I am doing? I am constantly saying— why? Questioning what you are saying, so you have to have every single little bit of reason and evidence to back up what you are saying.

Asking students if they have changed their minds
Did anybody manage to argue it so that their partner changed their mind from where they came? OK, this is the first one. Diane, would you like to explain how you persuaded Sally to change her opinion?

S: Well, first I found it a bit hard because Sally didn’t like to see the animals cooped up in cages, but then at the end she said that she … it is not their habitat so they couldn’t get food how they wanted. And then I said—well, if they are in the wild and say an animal got a bad leg or something, they wouldn’t be able to go and catch food so then it would die. But then if it had been in the zoo, it would just be fed to them.


Emphasising and modelling argumentation

In the conversation below the teacher models argumentation by questioning and challenging students’ responses, to encourage them to justify their answers.

Teachers role in argumentation


Challenging misconceptions

It is important to note that although argumentation is a student-centred approach and involves students building upon their own ideas, this does not mean that misconceptions should not be challenged.

Presenting the accepted scientific viewpoint at the end of an argumentation activity could disengage students from thinking and leave them wondering what the point of the activity was. On the other hand it is clearly important to encourage students towards these accepted ideas.

One way of achieving this might be to present data which conflicts with a misconception, and ask students to evaluate their claim in light of this new data. In this way students determine for themselves which argument is better.

Questions to challenge misconceptions:

  • That's an interesting point, but how can you explain this...
  • Your point is supported by this data but how might you adapt it to explain this other data...
  • Have you thought about...
  • There are lots of ways of interpreting the data. Why might ... be a stronger argument than your own?

The process of argumentation aims to demonstrate that scientific explanations are constantly evolving and it is often the case that claims have to be revised in light of new data or further evidence becoming available.

Collaborative group work

It is recognised that it takes time to train students in the skills needed for both effective argumentation and group work. It is recommended that when planning argumentation lessons teachers put thought into how they will group students together. This might include defining specific roles (for example scribe, timekeeper, chairperson/group leader) for group members, considering the role the teacher will take, and preparing questions to facilitate sustained argument.

For further support in the use of group work and argumentation in science teaching see these links:

The Department of Education document ‘Strengthening Teaching and Learning in Science Through Using Different Pedagogies’ consists of five teacher self-study units which were produced to offer practical suggestions for classroom. Unit 1 focuses on using group work and argument and includes ideas for how to arrange groupings, questioning prompts for both teachers and pupils and a literature review at the end of the document.

The Belfast Education and Library Board have published strategies for promoting effective collaborative group work. Their resources give examples of roles and prompt cards which could be used with students.


Page last updated on 29 April 2013