Argument is the Essence of Thought

by Mike Schmoker & Gerald Graff; from Education Week

If we want students to succeed in postsecondary studies and careers, an ancient, accessible concept needs to be restored to its rightful place at the center of schooling: argument. In its various forms, it includes the ability to analyze and assess facts and evidence, support solutions, and defend interpretations and recommendations with clarity and precision in every subject area. Argument is the primary skill essential to our success as citizens, students, and workers. Indeed, “argument is the soul of an education.”

Argument enlivens learning and is at the heart of inquiry, innovation, and problem-solving. Education researchers have demonstrated that in-school opportunities to argue and debate about current issues, literary characters, and the pros and cons of a math solution have an astonishing impact on learning—and test scores. Argument not only makes subject matter more interesting; it also dramatically increases our ability to retain, retrieve, apply, and synthesize knowledge. It works for all students—from lowest- to highest-achieving. Yet many educators never learn this. And they never learn that argument is the unrivaled key to effective reading, writing, and speaking.

Argument, in short, is the essence of thought. To succeed, students can’t simply amass information (as important as that is); they must also weigh its value and use it to resolve conflicting opinions, offer solutions, and propose reasonable recommendations. The same could be said for the demands of citizenship and the modern workplace.

Let’s immediately begin to give students hundreds of opportunities, every year, to dismantle and defend arguments about increasingly rich, complex texts. From the earliest grades, let’s have students argue about the pros and cons of almost anything: literary characters and interpretations, global warming, capitalism vs. socialism, Sarah Palin, or the comparative quality of life in the United States and Canada (based on statistical analysis). Let’s ask students to explain their reasoning for which alternative-energy source we should invest in as they read, talk, and write about what they are learning in novels, textbooks, newspapers, and magazines.

Tied to a content-rich curriculum, argument has unparalleled power to make school interesting—and to prepare students for college, careers, citizenship, or any achievement test that will ever come their way.

Mike Schmoker is an author and consultant. His latest book is FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Gerald Graff is an English and education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is the author of Clueless in Academe.

See also in ClassWise: “4 Questions to Promote Discussion”

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