Friday, October 20, 2017

Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching

I have new hope for the next generation’s ability to negotiate civic conversations! I just collected the best argument essays I’ve ever gotten from my AP Language students. Why were they so good? I'm not exactly sure, but in my 3rd year of teaching the class, here are 3 little things I did differently this year than last year: (1) required at least 1 source on the other side of the argument, (2) had students compile their own mentor argument sentence stems, and (3) taught a mini-lesson on fact-checking.

First, early in the research process, students had to find at least 1 source on the other side of their argument. This made students aware at a whole new level of the straw man fallacies we frequently use within our homogeneous groups. Halfway through the writing, some students were modifying their claims. In their reflections on their final drafts, several students voiced observations similar to these students: 
  • You have to consider and understand the counterargument. It gives you a more well-rounded argument and broadens your perspective.
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.

Next, as we read and analyzed other arguments, I used the inductive method of asking students to compile 1 sentence stem from each that they found useful in argument development. These we posted on the classroom wall (see photo above). (This in contrast to past years deductive method of telling students a list of sentence stems to use for introducing different parts of the argument.) After reading their first drafts, I told the class I was amazed at how sophisticated and smooth their arguments were. One student said, “I think I used every sentence stem on that poster—I kept checking it while I was writing.” I said, “I could tell.”

Finally, I taught 1 mini lesson on fact-checking sites. I really think that information awareness strategies are something we need to just keep teaching, drip method, a little every course, every year. (See this blog for last year’s 10th grade lesson.) After all, I’m continuing to learn how to be more savvy about sifting the deluge of online information. This week we discussed what we do when we come across information online that catches our attention in any way. Then I asked them to read the Edutopia article “Turning your students into web detectives: Five vetted resources students can use to separate truth from fiction online.” Finally, I asked for a 2-sentence exit ticket on students’ fact-checking strategies. Here are some of the answers I got:
  • I do tend to fact check on a daily basis about pop culture topics. I used to check the URL of the website and see if it was a .org, .edu, .gov, etc., because I remember learning that it's a way to check if a site is credible. I didn't even know that these fact check websites existed, so from now, I think I will use them also.
  • Honestly, my biggest thing was seeing if it was published by a company or organization, and also check the credibility of the author. Now I will use some of the websites provided to figure out whether my sources are credible or not.
  • I generally don't trust other fact checking websites, so first I check for facts when I feel suspicious about the presented "facts" and evaluate the validity of the site itself for the url, publisher, company, etc. If the website is within my criteria of credibility, I look for other websites that meet the same criteria and compare the two (or three/more depending on how skeptical I am) and look for bias and misalignment between the facts/information between the sources.
  • I usually only look for sources that back up my argument, not so much my counterargument. So the sources I use are going to have a bias, SO it's better to have an open mind and get things checked. I should definitely start checking if something is correct, not just that it favors my claim.
  • I used to just read through a site and look at the url and figure out by myself if it's credible, but now I realize that I need a better way to fact-check because anyone can make a website and write false things. I will use the websites listed to fact-check. They are very helpful.

Here are a few additional things students wrote in their reflections on their final drafts:
  • I learned how to make and argue a point that I believe in. I know how to find sufficient evidence for argument. I need to be able to address both points.
  • I had to make sure that I was using a credible source and not falling for “appeal to false authority.”
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.
  • You have to use familiar examples/interesting methods to make very obscure things interesting for an audience uninterested/unfamiliar with it. (This for an argument on whether copyright law supports artists or big business.)
  • Some forms of rhetoric are so ingrained in us that when presenting an argument, we may use it without noticing, and we must be careful to avoid fallacies.

What could be more important in today's world than learning to identify important issues, think through all sides of an argument, discern truth and bias, dismantle rhetorical fallacies, and respectfully enter the conversation? How have you had success helping students do this?

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