While writing yesterday's post about the first writing anchor standard (W.CCR.1), I began to list some reasons why arguments really were a highlight of my past school year's English and world history classes. I didn't think I'd do anything with the list so soon…
Until today. While I was outside in the driveway cutting some boards for yet another bumbling DIY homeowner project, two of my students from last year drove up on a red moped with a busted headlight (they live in my subdivision, and they saw me out cutting wood while they were scooting by). During our brief conversation, they brought up the fact that, next year, they will miss the arguments we had.
“Man, they were always so intense!” said one.
“Yeah,” said the other.
So, with these eloquent reviews of last year still echoing in my head, why not discuss some reasons that arguments are a worthwhile investment of greater time and space in our classrooms. (Update on 9/24/12: And, by the way, they were needlessly bummed because their current teacher, Erica Beaton, does a much better job than I did with in-class argumentation!)
1. They're collaborative
Arguments beg for collaboration. Whether in pairs, in triads, in teams, or as a whole class, when students are engaged with a substantive text or topic, even the most reticent ones tend to get involved.
2. They build community
This might seem counter-intuitive if you're thinking about arguments as solely adversarial. But arguments are more than competitive when we do them right; in fact, they're downright cooperative. Arguments are about “getting to the bottom of things,” to borrow from Williams and McEnerney (as quoted in CCSS Appendix A). They are an expression of our classroom desire to get to the truth.
3. They promote upper-level thinking
Arguments come in high on the Bloom's pyramid. They require us to analyze texts, topics, and situations; they require us to evaluate the validity of claims, reasoning, and evidence; and they invite us to be creative. One watershed moment in our argumentative classroom last year was when students began spontaneously applauding when someone came up and gave a really creative, solid argument.
4. They build respect, civility, and humility
For my students to flourish in college or a career, I know they'll need more than academic skills; they'll need character. The great thing about arguments is that they can build some really valuable character strengths. During this past school year, I remember when students began vocalizing on their own that respectful arguers were more powerful than disrespectful arguers, and that arguers who were willing to concede a point were more convincing than those who stubbornly (and often stupidly) ignored any validity in an opposing claim.
Our society can always use another person who thinks of others before him/herself. Arguments can build those kinds of humble people.
5. They are a key unifying principle across academia
I've written about this elsewhere, but the list wouldn't be complete without it. Gerald Graff claims that students are “clueless in academe” because the unifying principle of academia — namely, that the core disciplines are different variations of an overarching argumentative culture — is obscured from them. Teaching students about this culture and helping them see it is a key way of making school more cohesive and sensible to them.
6. They are a lynchpin of democracy
We are in a time when Washington's “Farewell Address” is creepy in its insightful warning against political parties. As the USA becomes increasingly polarized along party lines, we need the kind of cooperative, collaborative, upper-level thinking, civility, and intelligence that arguments produce.
7. They are important for career growth
I want my students to be able to advocate for themselves; in a competitive job market, this is going to be crucial. If my kids can't show why they are a great candidate, and if they can't analyze their job search and create a winning strategy, they'll have a hard time getting a job. And if they can't use those same skills while working, they'll have a hard time advancing.
8. Everyone wins in a good classroom argument
Oh good, you're thinking: here's the obligatory positive ending. Before you write me off as trite, allow me to illustrate why this is a legit final reason.
For most of the school year, I always skirted past the occasional student who, at the end of a debate, would ask, “So, Mr. Stuart, which team won?” My thoughts on an argumentative classroom culture still nascent, I mostly did this because I had no objective way to determine a winner, and for instructional purposes, I didn't really need a winner.
But during the last week of school, I gave in to my students, and using an online, anonymous voting system, I had students vote on the winner of one of our final debates. The results were not surprising: unlike practically all of our in-class arguments during the school year, this one ended with some hurt feelings instead of an eagerness to continue the debate in the hallways.
The moral of the story is simply that my in-class debates didn't need a winner because, at the end of them, we all had practiced the items on the list above, and at debate's end, we had all cooperated in getting closer to “the bottom of things.”
May our classrooms be places where such boomtown magic often occurs.