Arguing to Learn

Occasionally, learning something new is extremely challenging, especially when it doesn’t jive with what we hold to be true.  In science education this is especially problematic because students come having already formed their own personal conceptions about the world they have known all their lives, and these preconceptions do not always align with the targeted scientific conceptions being taught in the classroom.  In the world of science we see this as well, as Pathagorians proposed that the Earth was actually round, or when Galileo was imprisoned for blasphemously proposing a heliocentric universe.  In the education community this is referred to as conceptual change.  In the science community this is referred to as scientific revolution.  In both situations,  it is easy to see how emotions and affect can be connected to the most tenacious of preconceptions.  Many argue that the arguing that occurs naturally in science communities should be emulated in classroom communities, but I disagree.Two adults arguing

Strongly influenced by the works of Kuhn, Lakatos, and Toulmin, Posner, et al. (1982) released their ballon d’essai model of conceptual change with a bend toward rationalistic ideology. They were well aware that it lacked affective elements, as their intention was not to generate a comprehensive holistic model, but a cognitive model (personal commu-nication, Posner, 2011). Of course, forerunners draw fire from many critiques, the Posner model being no exception. All three influences, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Toulmin, are tied to argumentation, but all three ideologies do not effect the science classroom community in the same way they effect the professional science community.

Kuhn (1962) viewed scientific arguments to be inextricably intercalated with affect and political agenda. Kuhn’s science is not exposed to humanity; it is created by humanity, and in so doing, competing paradigms fall subject to the hands of human idiosyncrasy.

Lakatos (1963) on the other hand, believed “ideological interference leads to bad science” (Larvor, 1998). After being imprisoned for four years for bucking imposed political dogma on the sciences, Lakatos emerged in academia with a zeal for academic freedom from imposed ideology. His 1957 writings for his PhD thesis endorsed dialectic argumentative discourse in math and science; these influential writings were later published just after Kuhn’s seminal work on the irrational character of scientific revolution (Kuhn, 1962, Lakatos, 1963, Larvor, 1998).

Toulmin (1958) analyzed argumentation specifically, criticizing formal logic for failing to “account for the process of practical, informal reasoning that characterizes most real world arguments” (Warren, 2010). That is, formal syllogistic arguments do not formally recognize the implied justification for using specific data to support a claim.

I see that the Posner model of conceptual change straddles all of Kuhn’s, Lakatos’, and Toulmin’s ideologies in that cognitive conflict in a learner is a socio-cognitive prerequisite for conceptual change, conceptual change can occur through the systematic process of dialectic argumentation, and preconceptions lay latentl in implied justifications.

Here we are only discussing Posner’s model of conceptual change, and its connection to argumentation.  In later posts I will share my opinions of how I view the role of argumentation in classroom learning environments.


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