Arguing to Make It Stick

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<p>Arguing to Make It StickBy Dr. Jay Wile</p> <p>Suppose you are looking at your community calendar and you see two events that you could attend with your children. The first is an opportunity to do some supervised experiments at the local community college. The second is a debate about whether or not we should use genetically-modified foods. For most children, the first option sounds a lot more fun and interesting. As a parent, however, you want them to attend the one that will end up making the strongest impact on their education. Which do you choose?</p> <p>Based on several studies, the debate will impact your childrens education more profoundly than the chance to do some experiments. Just three years ago, Dr. Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at Stanford, published an article in the journal Science entitled, Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse.1 In the article, he reviewed several studies that have analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of science education. In the end, the studies agree that the best way to help students learn and remember science is to present it in the context of a controversy.</p> <p>For example, in a series of experiments, researchers evaluated three different kinds of learning activities: (1) activities that involved argumentation, (2) activities that involved the group working together to make a single product (like a report), and (3) activities involving experimentation. They found that the students who participated in the activities involving argumentation were the ones who best learned and remembered the material in the lesson. Those involved in the group projects were second, and those involved in the experiments were dead last. </p> <p>Does that surprise you? As someone who has taught science at many different levels, I can tell you it doesnt surprise me. Doing experiments can be valuable in science education, and group projects can also be valuable. However, if you really want to hold the students attention and make a lasting impact, give them something to debate. Show them two sides to an issue, and discuss how the proponents of each side make their case. Have them look at the arguments and decide which they think are most persuasive. This kind of activity will engage their minds in a way that no other educational activity ever will. </p> <p>So in the end, if you want to make sure your children learn and remember something well, present it in the context of a controversy. But wait a minute! In most controversies, there is a side that is right and a side that is wrong. Do we really want to expose our children to the arguments that are wrong? Surprisingly, the answer is, Yes! Studies show that presenting topics in the setting of a controversy produces the most learning gains, even when the students are exposed to incorrect ideas! </p> <p>Consider, for example, our solar system. Most students are taught that ancient people believed the earth was at the center of the universe. The sun, planets, and stars orbited around the earth. However, as more and more observations were made, scientists learned that the earth-centered view was wrong, and they eventually switched to a sun-centered view, which led to our current understanding of the solar system.</p> <p>Have you ever spent time actually investigating the controversy? Why did so many scientists back then cling to the idea of an earth-centered universe despite evidence to the contrary? The standard answer is that they were clinging to a religious view. The actual facts, however, are much more interesting. Those who believed in an earth-centered view had scientific arguments against the sun-centered view. Those who believed in the sun-centered view shot back with scientific arguments of their own. If your students spend some time learning the actual arguments both sides used, they will learn a lot about how planets move in the night sky and how we measure the distance to objects in space. Even though we know the earth-centered view is wrong, exposing your children to the arguments of those who believed it will help them learn and remember astronomy better.</p> <p>So dont be afraid of controversy in your home education. Embrace it! Creation versus evolution, the age of the earth, vaccinations, global warming, and stem cells are just a few of the many controversies that exist within the realm of science. When what you are learning in science class relates to one of these issues, bring up the debate and encourage your students to explore it. </p> <p>Even though I am focusing on science education, what I am saying can be applied to other subjects. The study of history is filled with controversy. For example, many home educators use timelines as an aid in history class. Do you know how much controversy exists regarding timelines and the ancient world? When, for example, was the nation of Egypt founded? Historians dont agree. Depending on whose account you read, you will find a variety of dates, including 10,000 BC, 5,000 BC, 3,100 BC, and 2,100 BC. Each historian has arguments to back up his or her claims. I guarantee that if you explore this controversy with your children, they will learn and remember a lot more about the founding of Egypt.</p> <p>Now, of course, not all subjects can be explored in the context of controversy. There isnt a lot of controversy about balancing chemical equations, solving algebra problems, or learning the state capitals. I also dont think its valuable to artificially make up a debate just so you can present something in the setting of a controversy. However, I do think it is valuable to be on the lookout for topics your children are learning that relate to a controversy. When you find such a topic, stop and spend some time on the debate. You might end up having to skip a lesson or two in your planned curriculum, but I think the benefits your children receive from analyzing the controversy will more than make up for a couple of skipped lessons!</p> <p>Dr. Jay L. Wile holds an earned Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry, both from the University of Rochester.He has won several awards for excellence in teaching and is best known for his Exploring Creation With... series of junior high and high school science textbooks.His latest book, Science in the Beginning, is a hands-on elementary science course that begins a series of books which teach elementary science in a historical framework.Dr. Wile and his wife of more than 25 years, Kathleen, homeschooled their daughter, Dawn, from the time they adopted her until she graduated high school. Dawn is a Butler University graduate and is currently a long-haul trucker with her husband, James. You can visit Dr. Wile on the web at</p> <p>Endnote:</p> <p>1. Science23 April 2010:Vol. 328no. 5977pp. 463-466.</p> <p>Copyright 2014, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the Annual Print 2014 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.</p>