Explanations, Discourse, and Argumentation, Oh My!

03/26/2019  |  By Terry Talley
THE FUTURE IS NOW

In the scientific community, gathering and explaining evidence in light of current scientific knowledge is one of the practices of scientists and engineers.  When we create those same settings in our STEM classrooms amazing learning can take place! Nor longer are students the memorizers of facts and other peoples’ ideas, but are active participants in the creating of scientific explanations based on their observations and understandings of the world around them.

At an NSTA Conference in California, I had the opportunity to visit the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.  What an amazing collection of fossil evidence of the animals that roamed that area during the Ice Age! Observing the painstaking care taken to remove every fossil from the asphalt, reconstructing the huge skeletons of the now extinct sloths and mammoths, and classifying all items found, brings to mind the real work of scientists. 

The roles of the many scientists involved in uncovering the past of the ice age animals of La Brea are important to scientific community. As fossils are identified and classified, there are many clues being gathered as to the way they died, their diets, the predators who fed on them as they were trapped in the soft tar, as well as their adaptions.  Clues into the environmental changes that occurred in that area of the continent are discussed based on the adaptations of the species as each layer of pit is separated out.  The fossils are organized in such as way for scientists to make explanations about what each of these clues mean – based on the current scientific knowledge, theories about genetics and mutations, other fossils found elsewhere in the world, as well as the scientists’ background knowledge in their specialized fields. 

Discourse among the many scientists associated with the Page Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County occur to reach an agreement about what the fossils are really showing.  Teams of scientists determine if the evidence is showing something that is already known or if it shows something that has not been explained before. Often times a new species or idea emerges and that is published for the scientific world to review. Scientific explanations are the ways scientists communicate with their peers and other scientists around the world.

Argumentation occurs when the evidence that is collected and the posed explanations are not the same explanations that other scientists draw from the evidence based on their background knowledge and experience. Often inferences and assumptions are drawn about evidence that cannot be based on direct observations.  When scientists use inferences to make an explanation about a missing piece of evidence – it is often met with other interpretations and explanations from others in the scientific field.

Scientific argumentation is very different than the common arguments that occur socially. The Framework for K-12 Science Education takes a great deal of time to discuss the ways scientists form explanations from scientific evidence and use discourse and argumentation to reach an agreement on what the evidence means. The Framework states, that often these arguments raise more questions about what it could mean than provide answers.

When STEM teachers take the time to engage their students in creating explanations from evidence gathered from observations in their labs, students become engaged in the authentic practices of scientists.  Rather than telling students what they will see and how it is related to what they are currently studying, teachers can create an environment of inquiry.  When engaged in inquiry, students raise the questions or seek ways to answer questions posed by the teacher.  As they begin to explain what they are observing and state the reasons for the explanation, they are taking the first steps towards scientific understanding!

In the book, How Students Learn Science in the Science Classroom, by the National Research Council (National Academies Press, 2005), the argument is given for changing how science is taught in the classrooms for the Next Generation of Science Students:

Simply telling students what scientists have discovered, for example, is not sufficient to support change in their existing preconceptions about important scientific phenomena.  Similarly, simply asking students to follow the steps of the “scientific method” is not sufficient to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to understand what it means to “do science” and participate in a larger scientific community.  And the general absence of metacognitive instruction in most of the science curricula we experienced meant that we were not helping in learning how to learn, or made capable of inquiry on our own and in groups.  Often moreover, we are not supported in adopting as our own the questioning stance and search for both supporting and conflicting evidence that are the hallmarks of the scientific enterprise. (NRC 2005, p. 398.)

As STEM teachers who are nurturing the practices of scientists and engineers in our classrooms, it is important to first understand the difference in explanations, discussions, and argumentation.  These are the tools of scientists in creating and adding to the body of knowledge about the world, known as Science.  Authentic science education engages students in these practices on a regular basis.

Dr. Terry Talley, retired educator and author of The STEM Coaching Handbook, is the National STEM Manager for STEMscopes. Talley holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Mississippi University for Women and an Ed.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration from the University of North Texas. She began her career as a secondary science teacher, later serving as a Science Teacher Specialist, Dean of Instruction, and eventually Supervisor for Science. Dr. Talley joined Rice University as the Program Manager for STEM Professional Development with Accelerate Learning and the National Institute for STEM Education. Prior to joining Rice, she was at the SRT-STEM Center as Program Director for the UTMB Office of Education Outreach in Galveston, TX.
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