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5 Steps to Argumentalizing Instruction

By Les Lynn

Note from Dave: I met Les Lynn through an author-thinker-teacher hero of mine, Dr. Jerry Graff. In one of those rare, surreal, “out of body experience” moments that this blog has blessed me with, I once found myself having a drink with none other than the author of the seminal Clueless in Academe and co-author (with Cathy Birkenstein) of They Say, I Say. (Also: Jerry served as president of the Modern Language Association — so that's kind of a big deal, too.) During the meeting, Jerry brought up someone whose work excited him — and that someone is Les Lynn.

As you'll read, Les is on the varsity squad when it comes to “going big on argument.” While Pop-Up Debate is a promising practice in the classrooms of many of those who read my blog, Les' work brings much more of argument's power to bear on classroom settings.

And so it is that I was so pleased with Les' agreement to share his work with you in today's post. Some things that I love:

  • Les' organization has a focused, coherent vision for professional development.
  • Les is intentional and clear in his thinking. There are five criteria for effectively formulated debate prompts (see Step 1); there are five key components of argument-centered instruction (see Step 5). 

Without further ado, here's Les.

s200_les.lynnI founded Argument-Centered Education in order to achieve college-readying rigor and engagement in K – 12 classrooms by helping teachers build instruction around argument. Argument-Centered Education is in the capacity-building business. We work to ensure that a school can meet its academic objectives by expanding teachers’ professional skill set and approach. We work with teachers directly, closely, collaboratively, in professional relationships that result in their own heightened professional satisfaction and effectiveness, and their classrooms attaining more higher-order and college-directed learning for all students.

Argument-Centered Education believes in and strives for education transformation. We are committed to making a deep and lasting positive impact on every teacher, every classroom, every administrator, every network, every district with which we partner. Our model for transformation is organized around three education services: collaborative professional development, curriculum design and adaptation, and implementation coaching.

These services were designed around our core pedagogical move: argumentalizing instruction.

Argument-Centered Education builds argumentational components into its partners’ curriculum in collaboration with its partners’ teachers. ACE makes existing curriculum argument-centered; it argumentalizes it. ‘To me it is hugely important that ACE is working with the curriculum maps, units, and resources that we have in place at our school,’ one of our current partner school principals recently testified. ‘In addition to ensuring full buy-in among our teachers, this approach is helping them learn how to apply student argumentation and debating to all that they teach and whatever they teach, even when it changes from one year to the next.’

Argument-Centered Education believes that there are five standard, basic steps to argumentalizing instruction. Becoming masterful in the use of these steps enables educators to infuse rigorous and college-directed academic argument throughout their instruction.

Step 1: Organize the Unit around a Debatable Issue or Problem 

Argument-centered instruction takes the formulating of debatable issues or problems much more seriously than is very often the case in 6th – 12th grade classrooms. Rather than coming up with a couple of essential questions that appear on a unit plan, and possibly on a final assessment, debatable issues or problems have an organizing influence over all of the teaching and learning in a unit.

In a recent post on The Debatifier (our blog), we identified the five criteria for an effectively formulated debatable issue:

  • Openness – the issue has to be an open question rather than a closed-ended or settled matter
  • Balance – the issue and its attendant evidence set is roughly balanced between two or more sides
  • Focus – the issue is limited enough to engender clashing points of view
  • Authenticity – the issue is discussed or debated in the real-world, academically or outside academics
  • Intellectual Interest – the issue is of interest to students or the teacher or (preferably) both

Step 2: Teach Content in Relation to Arguments about the Debatable Issue or Problem

In saying that the debatable issue or problem organizes the entirety of a unit we do not mean to say that every activity revolves around argumentation about that issue. Instead what we mean is that there is a connection between all academic activities in a unit and the debatable issue(s),[1] that a line can be drawn from any particular task, assignment, even question back to the debatable issue.

When checking for understanding in the reading of a novel chapter, for instance, questions don’t all need to be variations on the debatable issue (e.g., ‘The Outsiders expresses the theme that individuals are more a product of their environmental influences than of their own internal character’), but they should be posed in a deliberate relationship to the debatable issue (e.g., eliciting understanding of dialogue that demonstrates that Ponyboy is strongly influenced by Darry, in ways he isn’t fully aware of). Or in an economics class, for instance, a teacher’s PowerPoint slides on the federal government’s role in the economy can each have an ‘Implications for the DI’ entry, where matters of contention among economists relevant to the central question can be referenced. There is no limit to the ways to do this well; the important point is that to apply intentionality in thinking through the relevance of every portion of a unit to the organizing debatable issue.

Step 3: Prioritize Two Skills: Use of Evidence and Engagement with Other Views

In Argument-Centered Education’s pedagogy, the two pillar standards for argument-centeredness in instruction are (1) all viewpoints, claims, or answers must be supported by evidence, and (2) all viewpoints, claims, or answers must be placed in engagement with other viewpoints, claims, or answers. Another way to put this is: in their writing and speaking students must use evidence and must refute others in an argument-centered classroom. So when argumentalizing instruction we apply these two standards throughout, and we elevate the academic processes they require.

In an argument-centered classroom, we should see ample instances of students identifying, supplying, and evaluating evidence in relation to arguments, ideas, and solutions. We should see ample instances of students engaging with other points of view (especially student-to-student), explaining how their answers or argumentative claims differ from others’, and refuting counter-arguments or contrary conclusions. And we should see these student activities continuously throughout the school year, across units and content divisions.

Step 4: Employ a Structured Argumentation Activity as Performance Assessment

In an argumentalized unit, the culminating or summative performance assessment is argument-based. Students are required to produce argumentative writing, to make arguments in a debate or other oral activity, or to incorporate argumentative justifications for their science conclusions or math solutions. Summative argumentation should encompass the content and skills objectives of the unit.

Structured argumentation activities and argumentation constituent exercises should be included in the unit to prepare students for success on the summative assessment. This is another way in which a debatable issue or problem should organize the unit instruction.

Step 5: Assess for Summary, Argumentative Claims, Evidence, Refutation, and Evaluation

There are five key components that students enact in argument-centered pedagogy: summary, argumentative claims, evidence, refutation, and evaluation. Each of these academic skills has a specific set of criteria for their performance. Consistent application of an assessment rubric that is built around these key components is the assessment-driver required for a coherent argument-centered approach. These key components have discipline-specific appearances, and are expressed concretely in relation to particular unit content. They do not constrict instructional range when utilized consistently; instead, they ensure rigor and college-directedness in teaching and learning on literally any content.

We apply these five steps across disciplines as the sequential process of argumentalization. They are the levers by which we work to achieve our purpose of building school and teacher capacity to incorporate argument throughout their instruction so that students can become more college-ready and successful.

If you’re interested in staying in contact with Argument-Centered Education and its work and receiving free resources and strategies, I’d ask you to check out our Contact page.


[1] Some units can be organized around two or three debatable issues. If the content covered is more complex; if the academic objectives of the course require multiple angles on the content; if students are older or more advanced – these are factors that militate for multiple debatable issues.

Les Lynn was the founding director of the Chicago Debate Commission and the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, and is the founder and CEO of Argument-Centered Education. He has trained more than 2,500 teachers from across the country over his 20+ year career to use debating and argumentation to improve student performance.

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