Fig. 1: Famous debate in the history of science—Nature of Light
Fig. 2: Toulmin Argumentation Pattern
At 7:30-9:00 pm of June 2, 2021, the SSI Learning Project group of Beijing Normal University held a cloud salon in Tencent Conference Room. Professor Tang Xiaowei from Southwest University delivered a special report Theory and Practice of In-class Scientific Argumentation.
I. Concept of In-class Scientific Argumentation
Scientific argumentation and scientific debate are a pair of closely related concepts. The former emphasizes the outcome, while the latter emphasizes the process. The former includes the argumentation of an individual, while the latter refers to the argumentation in group interaction in a narrow sense. The two are not strictly distinguished here. Newton, Driver and Osborne were the first people to pay attention to in-class scientific argumentation in 1999. They observed 34 science classes at multiple middle schools in the U.K., to study the status of scientific argumentation in scientific teaching. They believe that the proportion of scientific argumentation in science classes is far lower than enough, which is a major shortcoming of modern science classes. NGSS also believes that it is one of the three major scientific practices that need to be addressed in science education. The curriculum in China does not propose scientific argumentation alone, but there are some relevant statements such as “teachers should provide students with various learning opportunities including the opportunities to explore, to solve real-life problems through comprehensive use of knowledge, to debate and discuss, and to care about issues related to environment and resources”.
Scientific argumentation starts with a certain theoretical point of view. The process in which scientists with different points of view defend their views is called a scientific debate. In scientific research, scientists explore the objective world, continuously produce new evidences, and people with different points of view try to explain their new findings with their own theories. Those who are good at persuasion will temporarily prevail and their opinions will be seen widely as the “truths” in a certain period. The history of science is a long scientific debate, where the more persuasive theories constantly overthrow the old “truths”, and the more general theories cover and replace the less general ones in a specific situation, thereby promoting the continuous scientific development. However, scientists are like ordinary people, who have similar mind set and will not give up their old points of view. Some probably are addicted to academic authority. Generally, evidences of new theories need to be accumulated to a certain amount before they can overthrow the existing “truths”.
II. Toulmin Argumentation Pattern (TAP)
Toulmin put forward a pattern of argumentation, which believes that if a certain conclusion is to be made based on a certain amount of evidence, it requires a deduction process that reflects a certain theoretical perspective. Meanwhile, it also considers others’ doubts of the deduction, and makes a supplementary explanation (with restrictions). McNeill，Lizotte and Krajcik simplified the model, so that it can be used more conveniently, and the simplified model is called CER, that is, Claim, Evidence, Reasoning. Erduran, Simon and Osborne put forward the five levels of a debate in 2004, that is, two simple viewpoints with differences, two viewpoints with a certain support (evidence, theories) but no objection; a series of viewpoints with a certain support but occasionally weak objection; multiple viewpoints that interact with each other with clear objections; and more than one rebutted extended argument. Let’s take two dialogues between students and teachers to show the application of the CER model and the five-level debate model.
When performing a structural analysis with CER model, we should pay attention to the following points. First, pay attention to students’ ability to coordinate evidence and theories. If the structure of the student’s statement is incomplete, we should ask about his/her evidence and deduction. If the student simply repeats his/her viewpoint rather than clarify his/her evidence and deduction, we should help the student to distinguish a viewpoint, evidence and deduction. If the evidence is inconsistent with the theory, we should ask the student his/her opinion about the evidence, in order to study his/her ability to coordinate evidence and theories. Second, to clearly ask students to distinguish a viewpoint, evidence and deduction; reduce or remove the hints when they get used to it. Third, sometimes it is hard to clearly distinguish a viewpoint, evidence and deduction in a dialogue, which is often seen in a complex argument structure or situation that can be reasonably omitted. Although this argument structure is not clear, the quality of the argumentation cannot be deemed as low.
III. Other Models of Argumentation as Supplements to the TAP
The Toulmin Argumentation Pattern has some flaws, which needs to be supplemented by other models of argumentation. First, the TAP does not pay attention to the knowledge level of the evidence, which in fact should be a part to evaluate the quality of the argument. Second, the TAP does not pay attention to problems such as low quality of evidence, and a mismatch between evidence and viewpoints, which will affect the quality of the argumentation. Third, the TAP does not pay attention to the purpose of the debate, but an argumentation that is not consistent with the purpose of the debate cannot be said to be a good debate.
The EBR model solves the first problem. This model believes that based on the connection from viewpoints to conclusions, there are four levels, that is, no support (repetitive viewpoint and circular argument), phenomenon reasoning (supported by data), relational reasoning (supported by evidence showing the relationship of local laws), and rule reasoning (supported by rules of induction and deduction).
The following thinking can be used as supplement to the second point. In terms of conceptual understanding, there are three levels, that is, simple concepts, pre-scientific concepts, and scientific concepts, which can also be used as a basis for the evaluation of the quality of scientific argumentation.
As for the third point, there are two typical models.
One model believes that there are three orientations of scientific debates, namely, explain ideas (explain why you have such a viewpoint and why you believe it happens in this way), construct meanings (understand what is going on through exchanges of ideas), and persuade others (persuade others into believing what you believe through judging their viewpoints and defending yours). The lower the level of interaction, the lower the value. Berland and Reiser believe that “persuading others” is against the unspoken rule of social interaction, so it is hard to be achieved in class. However, it is the most valuable form of scientific debates. If you want to achieve this in class, you need to consider the following factors: topics suitable for discussions (provide different viewpoints for students to choose and debate, viewpoints different from students’ pre-scientific concepts, in-depth open study of the mechanism, SSI, etc.), interactive traditional instruction (distinguish different ideas and sort out the thoughts of both sides), physical setting (hot seat strategy, “seat of the philosopher”, face-to-face debate, etc.), reflections and microphones (when one party finishes his part, ask about what the other party thinks; guide both parties to clarify the status of the debate, so that the debate can develop towards a deeper and more targeted way; avoid repetitive words), emphasize and compliment on objections.
The other one believes that in SSI, the discussion on how things happen is no longer a major goal. The key is to perform social decision-making based on scientific principles and social needs. Even values can be used as arguments, and this model believes that argumentation can be divided into three, namely, cumulative argumentation (the participants only share their own viewpoints without judging other’s), controversial argumentation (the participants obviously disagree with each other and challenge each other’s viewpoints), and exploratory argumentation (the participants construct their viewpoints and reach a consensus based on each other’s ideas). These three goal orientations are consistent with the three above-mentioned goals one by one. But the theory also believes that the topic itself is very controversial, which easily forms differences, and differences are hard to be reduced to reach a consensus. Therefore, exploratory argumentation is more difficult to be achieved than controversial argumentation, and it is more valuable to view exploratory argumentation from the perspective of decision orientation.