No Debate: Kids Can Learn By Arguing

Columbia professor Deanna Kuhn says teachers should foster some debate to help kids learn the lost skill of thinking critically.
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Columbia professor Deanna Kuhn says teachers should foster some debate to help kids learn the lost skill of thinking critically.

Let’s not “agree to disagree,” says Deanna Kuhn. The Columbia University professor of psychology and education wants to bring back serious debate in America — in sixth grade, if not sooner.

Kuhn is tired of hearing that people have a right to their own opinion. It’s too easy to fall into thinking that all opinions are equal, she says, and “so why bother?” The country needs citizens who can make logical arguments “based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence,” she writes. That’s language from the new educational standards for middle school, adopted by 44 states as the Common Core State Standards K-12 curriculum.

“The ultimate goal is for students to value discourse as a way of being in the world and addressing the problems of the day,” Kuhn says.

But how do kids become deep thinkers? To find out, Kuhn, who’s the author of a book titled Education for Thinking, and Amanda Crowell, a doctoral candidate at Columbia’s Teachers College, set up an experiment at a public middle school in Harlem. Forty-eight students, mostly Latinos and blacks, took philosophy classes twice a week for three years, from sixth through eighth grades, and every year debated four new subjects. The kids became experts on, for example, home schooling, animal rights, the sale of human organs, and China’s one-child policy. Under a coach’s supervision, they chose one side or another on an issue and tried to anticipate their opponents’ arguments. They often debated in pairs — not face to face, but online, in a sort of Socratic inquiry via Google Chat. By debating electronically, the students were able to consult each other and reflect before firing off comebacks.

At first, as each new topic was introduced, the researchers were startled: the youngsters were clueless about complexity. (“Prisoners, not animals, should be used in medical research because prisoners are guilty and animals are innocent!”) And early in the experiment, the kids showed no interest in the written questions and answers offered by their coaches. By the end of year two, though, they had developed a thirst for evidence.

The Jan-Feb 2012
Miller-McCune

This article appears in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue under the title "Socrates’ New Students." To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on Miller-McCune.com, please visit the
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As each quarter drew to an end, students held a “showdown,” a verbal debate where every three minutes, two new students — one from each side — would rotate into the hot seat. During the post-showdown debriefing, coaches awarded points for good moves (counterarguments and rebuttals), took away points for bad moves (unwarranted assumptions and unconnected responses), and declared the winning side.

All the while, a separate group of 23 students at the school studied philosophy in a more traditional way, using a textbook. Their teacher led discussions; the students rarely broke into sides, or held formal debates. They never argued online, but they wrote a lot in class — 14 essays apiece per year, compared to four in the experimental group.

At the end of every year, as a test of their progress, the students wrote essays on a subject neither group had ever discussed: seniority-based pay versus equal pay for teachers. At the end of the third year, everyone wrote an essay on whether family members and doctors should assist in euthanasia.

Hands down, the winners were the students in the experimental group — even though they’d had much less practice writing. By the end of year one, researchers found, two-thirds of the students in that group were considering and addressing opposing arguments in their written essays—a skill demonstrated by only 38 percent of the students in the comparison group. By the end of the third year, nearly 80 percent of the students in the experimental group were writing essays that identified and weighed opposing views in an argument. Less than 30 percent of the students in the comparison group were doing so.

In an increasingly divided nation, reasoned argument is becoming a lost art, Kuhn says. Rather than assigning piles of writing, her research shows, teachers would do well to step back and foster some debate. Students must learn, Kuhn adds, that opinions have reasons, that some reasons are better than others, and that nothing is as simple as it seems.

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