Argumentation in science education

Many students reject natural selection simply because they consider it ‘just’ a theory. However, this is not a reason to dismiss it – as this excellent video from the Royal Institution shows. 

What is argumentation?

As we trawl through specifications listing fact after fact, we sometimes forget science involves debate and argumentation. Many important discoveries were not initially accepted by the scientific community.

Argumentation allows scientists to refine and improve their theories and understanding. Similarly, we can use argumentation in the classroom to help students understand important scientific principles and hone key skills, such as developing and presenting arguments.
Constructing arguments also helps students develop opinions about ethical and socio-scientific issues regarding science. Argumentation can involve:

  • Making claims based on observable and empirical evidence
  • Justifying evidence
  • Rebutting claims

For an excellent review of argumentation, see this paper by Osborne et al. ‘Enhancing the quality of argumentation in school science‘.

Ways to support good argumentation in lessons (Taken from Osborne et al., 2001)

  • Present students with competing theories. They must consider the evidence for and against
  • Focus on why a claim should be believed, and not what should be believed
  • Use the predict, observe and explain model
  • Allow sufficient time for arguments to be developed (>30 minutes)
  • Use writing frames to scaffold argumentation

Further information on using argumentation effectively in science is available from the Nuffield Foundation.

An example of using argumentation to teach evolution

Evidence for evolution teaching resources

Further reading

Osborne, J., Erduran, S., and Simon, S. “Enhancing the quality of argumentation in school science.” Journal of research in science teaching 41.10 (2004): 994-1020.