Learning by Arguing

The Learning by Arguing architecture is aimed at helping students learn how to evaluate and use their ideas. The crux of the architecture lies in getting students involved in intellectual arguments about their own ideas. The arguments do not involve shouting and shoving, of course, but the students should justify their positions in a coherent way. The goal is for the students to understand the basic assumptions their positions imply, and the consequences that flow from those assumptions. Even if a teacher agrees with a student's position, it is important for the student to articulate that position, and explore its underpinnings.

One reason arguments are important is that people tend to be wildly optimistic about how well they understand their own positions. Asking students to justify their positions, or evaluate one position in relation to another, forces them to bring into the open their knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about their positions. When the limits of their thinking are exposed, students develop the goal to solidify their positions. The situation fosters expectation failures which are the catalyst for Case-Based Teaching.

From the point of view of teaching, what we want is to have the discussion centered around a student's misconceptions. Arguments serve as very effective methods of locating these misconceptions. Thus, they provide a useful method to assess what students know, what they care about, and more importantly, what they might have gotten wrong. In general, such assessments are quite difficult to perform. But the Learning by Arguing teaching architecture not only facilitates these assessments, it points out why we need them: we would like to know what students don't know so that we can change what we would like them to learn accordingly.

A second reason arguments are important is that the ability to construct them is central to reasoning. The skills of generating hypotheses (e.g., Learning by Musing), and evaluating them (e.g., Learning by Arguing) are critical in the understanding cycle. Students can only learn these skills by engaging in them. The Learning by Arguing architecture gives students an environment in which to practice. It is interesting to note that when a person is arguing in order to practice the skill, it is not particularly important what the argument is about. Debate clubs, which often force students to improvise arguments on the spot, are valuable for just this reason.

The two reasons for the importance of Learning by Arguing illustrate two different ways to view the architecture. The first is as a method to help learners form a deeper understanding of the material. By arguing out their positions, they are forced to think about, and structure the material of the domain. The second way to view this architecture is as a form of simulation. The Learning by Arguing architecture provides students with an environment in which they may practice and develop reasoning skills.

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