Teaching students the art of argumentation is one way to help nurture 21st century dispositions and future readiness – skills necessary in an increasingly complex world. How can this be applied across disciplines? We find out more from three SOTA teachers.
Argumentation Across Disciplines
Different disciplines require different teaching approaches. In Math, teachers help students make sense of the problem and make use of structure or repeated reasoning. In Science, students define the problem, carry out investigations, interpret data, and make evidence-based conclusions. In the Humanities, they read complex texts, and come to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading, listening and collaboration.
What, then, lies at the centre of these three disciplines?
“The centrality of the thinking across these disciplines lies in argumentation,” says Mr Edmund Song, Dean, Curriculum, School of the Arts (SOTA). “Argumentation in the classroom implies there is reasoning, thinking and evidence of engagement.”
Argumentation as a concept can be rather abstract. It is the process of developing an argument involving a group of statements, based on premises that are meant to provide support for a conclusion. Argumentation helps students arrive at a conclusion that is evidence-based.
Framework to “Think”
Thinking is not always as straightforward as we think.
“If you tell students to ‘think about it’, they may not know how to approach that question or concept to reach a conclusion,” shares Soh Lian, a Math teacher.
As students may feel at a loss if teachers were to ask questions they do not know how to answer, it is important that teachers give them a safe classroom environment, and ask questions that act as scaffolds.
Teachers may not always know intuitively how to do that, says Soh Lian. “We therefore need a framework to guide us, and Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning is one good example.” (see box story below)
In guiding these students to think visibly, the SOTA teachers adopt different methods.
“In the Physics class that I taught in the US, every student was a peer facilitator,” shares Edmund. “They went through the process of argumentation and rich questioning, verifying alternative conceptions and diverse points of views before arriving at a final conclusion.”
In his class, Edmund used “whiteboarding” as a platform for students to make their thinking and conceptions visible. The humble whiteboard allowed students to confront their own conceptions and give feedback to other students.
“In the process of receiving feedback from each other, students collaborate,” says Edmund. “And such collaboration and rich questioning is needed to elicit evidence of understanding from the students.”
In the process of receiving feedback from each other, students collaborate and such collaboration and rich questioning is needed to elicit evidence of understanding from the students.
– Edmund Song, Dean (Curriculum), School of the Arts
Slow Looking, Deep Understanding
Bee Leng, a Humanities teacher, believes in using artful thinking strategies in the classroom to facilitate thinking. One such strategy is “Slow Looking, Deep Understanding”.
Slow Looking, Deep Understanding means taking the time to carefully observe more than what meets the eye, and thinking through what goes on beneath the surface, explains Bee Leng.
“The purpose is to uncover the complexity of things, and help students learn how to pace inwards, by asking questions like ‘Who are we in relation to what we look at?’, ‘What do we choose to engage in?’, and ‘How do we navigate, react, and respond accordingly?’”
For example, in teaching her students about the poverty cycle, Bee Leng used a cartoon that she thought would appeal to the Visual Arts students.
“I would ask students what they think is going on based on their interpretation of the cartoon, give them 3 to 5 minutes to think, jot down their thoughts, and then share with one another in class,” says Bee Leng.
This was followed by asking the students to make a claim about the observation, and looking for evidence to support their claims.
The next stage involved students challenging their own thinking by asking questions relating to their claims (e.g., can this poverty cycle be broken, and how?). This allows students to challenge the validity of their claims.
“When students are trained to think from both sides of an argument, they also think about evidence and reasons why they make those statements,” says Bee Leng, who finds this exercise useful in the Humanities classroom.
When students are trained to think from both sides of an argument, they also think about evidence and reasons why they make those statements.
– Toh Bee Leng, School of the Arts
Another strategy Bee Leng uses in the classroom is perspective thinking.
On the topic of migration, Bee Leng asked students: “What is migration? What do you think about migration? Who are the people interested in migration?”
She showed them a photograph of migrants and invited them to look at migration from a different perspective, such as that of a migrant, authority figure, a child or the photographer who took the picture.
For Bee Leng, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes, or looking at issues from various lenses.
“Doing this helps students expand their range of experiences, evaluate assumptions, review their own cultural beliefs, and understand how their beliefs and past experiences can influence their reasoning and behaviour,” shares Bee Leng.
And with such scaffolds in place to enhance the spirit of questioning and dialoguing in the classroom, the SOTA team believes that students will be well on their way to creating meaningful knowledge.