How to make good arguments at school (and everywhere else)
From as early as Grade 3 teachers start teaching children how to put across their own points of view. It’s not about winning arguments, but ensuring kids grow up to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. These skills might come in to play at school in essay writing, in oral presentations or in debates.
And whether we’re talking about making arguments for school or just in life, there are three things present in all good arguments.
Reasonability is about connecting reasons and evidence to your opinions. This serves two purposes.
The first is for our own clarity of thought, so we understand how concepts and events relate to each other (or realise when they don’t).
The second is so others can assess our reasons. We need to respect the person we’re arguing with and that means giving them the opportunity to agree or disagree with our reasoning. Without this, we’re tricking people into agreeing with us.
We should be teaching students to provide the reasoning behind their opinion as well as backing it up with evidence, not to manipulate emotions.
So if students are asked to write a persuasive essay against same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not enough to assert an opinion such as “it’s bad for public morals”. They need to say which morals, how the public would suffer, and present any historical or contemporary evidence to support this claim. An argument needs to have reasoning to make it reasonable.
Charity is one of the most overlooked aspects of debating, which is ironic considering many prominent philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas, John Stuart Mill and David Hume, saw it as as the highest of virtues. In the context of argumentation, charity means looking past the text of what someone is saying to see the heart of their issue.
We’ve probably all enjoyed watching our opponent struggle to articulate their points or deconstruct arguments (President George W. Bush was famous for these gaffes), but doing this serves no purpose but to humiliate.
We all fail to make our arguments clear and coherent from time to time, and we need to be generous when interpreting what’s being said. If we approach all people as having worthwhile ideas that might just not be fully developed or expressed, we’ll not only reveal clearer ideas but also make everyone feel valued. And making people feel valued isn’t touchy-feely nonsense – there are demonstrable benefits to learning and democracies when we feel our contributions matter.
Say another student has done an oral assignment on the dangers of migrants in Australia – of them supposedly taking jobs or causing fights. This may be a racist argument but a more charitable interpretation might lead the listener to take a look at the job security of the debater’s family or their experiences of safety. Their conclusion may be entirely false, but it’s worth looking into whether there are underlying reasons for their argument. Our charity here brings knowledge rather than conflict.
It’s a struggle for anyone – child or adult – to admit they don’t know the answer. But the willingness to be wrong is crucial to learning. We improve our ability to find solutions when we recognise that we might be wrong or limited in our point of view.
There are several major benefits in recognising our own fallibility.
The first is in learning; children are far more likely to be willing to try and participate if there’s no need for them to get it perfect the first time round. Failure and learning are linked
The second benefit is we engage in more meaningful inquiry if we don’t treat any one argument or perspective as objectively correct.
Imagine a school debate on “students shouldn’t have to do homework”. Children aren’t going to be in favour of homework and they’re going to struggle to find reasons in favour of it. At the same time, it’s the perfect topic to separate how they feel (I hate homework) from the practical benefits of doing homework (revision and improved retention).
Students don’t need to change their minds and come to love homework. But having them recognise the limitations of their own perspectives is valuable.
Try this out
A fun way to try this out in the classroom is through a “fishbowl” exercise.
This involves having some of the students sit in a circle and discuss a contentious ethical topic. The other half of students sit in a larger circle around them. Their task is to individually analyse the arguments of a specific student and look for fallacies.
The outer ring gets the chance to critique the inner ring for their reasoning. After this, the inner ring gets the chance to critique the outer ring for charity.
Throughout this, students develop a willingness to be wrong when they discover everyone makes mistakes. Genuine inquiry, reasonableness and open-mindedness become more important than score-keeping.
It’s perfectly acceptable to want to win and to be heard. But we want to teach our kids inquiry and making everyone feel valued is more important than winning. After all, we can win and still be wrong.