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I’m Really Good at Arguing October 20, 2015

Posted by Nancy Foote in writing in science.
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Argumentative writing in science

Using my students’ writing scores on their state assessment as 33% of my overall performance appraisal did not make me happy.  If it was math, I would understand it.  After all, math is the language of science, or so I’ve been told.  But writing?!

It was going to happen no matter how I felt so I decided to embrace it.  I never said I liked it.  After all, if I wanted to teach writing I would not have become a science teacher.  But I embraced it.  Ever give someone you aren’t overly fond of a hug because it was expected of you?  Like that.

So I did a little research and came up with this as my introductory lesson.  Not only did it go well, it went amazingly well.

I began by talking about the Powder Puff football game that was the previous night.  We are a middle school and it’s an annual event – 7th grade girls versus 8th grade girls.  This year, 8th grade won.

“8th grade girls are obviously superior in every way to 7th grade girls” I stated.  After some self-congratulations and mini-celebrations, I asked “How do we know that?”  “Because we won the game – we dominated them yesterday.”

“Right,” I said.  “There’s your evidence of athletic superiority.  But if 8th grade is superior in EVERY WAY, how can we prove they are superior academically?”

“We’re smarter.” “We take more advanced math.” “Our grades are better.” “We can all take the same test and compare scores on the test.”  They did a better job at coming up with evidence than I could.

“OK, so now we’ve provided evidence for athletic and academic superiority.  What about social superiority?  How can we prove the 8th grade girls are socially superior for 7th?”

Again there were plenty of answers. “Make a list of your friends’ names and count how many friends 8th grade girls have and compare that the 7th grade numbers.”  “See how many followers 8th grade girls have on Instagram, average them together and compare to 7th grade girls.” “Take a poll on who is more popular.”  We did take a poll – in class, right then.  8th grade girls won unanimously.  No surprise since it was an 8th grade class.

But someone pointed out “That’s not a fair test.  You have to ask people who are not biased.”  That can be a whole lesson in itself. I was delighted someone noticed it.

“We’ve proven that 8th grade girls are superior athletically, intellectually and socially.  So how would you prove this claim? ‘8th grade girls are far superior in every way to 8th grade boys.”  As you can imagine, chaos erupted.

We used the same proof for intellectual and social superiority as before, but with a twist for athletic.  “How many games did the girls’ football team lose this year?” I asked.  “None.” “Zero.”  They were correct.  The girls played one game, which the won.  How many games did the boys’ football team lose this year?” “ONE!”  Which proves, of course, that the girls are better athletes than the boys.

Naturally the boys didn’t agree so we had a short lesson a bias and how telling the truth doesn’t always tell the whole story.

I transitioned into a story (read: lesson) about my sister.  4 years older than me, my sister knew everything (and mostly, she did).  Except when it came to music.  She liked the Stones.  I liked the Beatles.   During my adolescence, screaming matches ensued about what band was better.  The argument would come to a screeching halt when she played her best card.  “Because I said so.” And that was that.

Many times, as I explained to my students, we accept something as truth because an authority figure says it. Just as many times, what they say isn’t true (Beatles!).

During World War II we had radar.  The enemy did not. We didn’t want them to know so we made up a story about the pilots’ incredible eyesight, which we attributed to the fact that they ate a lot of carrots.  It became a fact – carrots are good for your eyes.  While they aren’t bad for your eyes (Vitamin A and all that) they aren’t exceptionally beneficial either.  But most people today still believe that carrots are good for your eyes.  All the proof we needed was who said it.

We talked a bit about why it’s necessary to have evidence to back up our claims – in science and in life.

Earlier in the week we did the Knock ‘Em Down domino lab.  The students wrote down a claim about the question we were studying, which was “How does the space between adjacent dominoes impact the speed they fall?”

After writing down a claim, they wrote down 3 pieces of evidence that supported their claim.  They didn’t explain how it supported their claim, just what the evidence was.  The evidence could be qualitative or quantitative.  It could be data, calculations, observations, graphs.  Just like the fact that the girls never lost a football game while the boys lost one game was a piece of evidence, it wasn’t interpreted yet – just identified.

Next came the justification piece.  Use sentences to show how your evidence supports you claim.  This is the interesting piece because it forces students to articulate what their gut is telling them.  Use the evidence to prove your claim.

We stopped there.  Not only was it a natural break, I was tired.  Next steps are to work on sources of error, reflection, refute others opposing claims and a literature review.

Sounds like fun.