Making sense of argumentation and explanation


  • The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation.


Constructing scientific explanations and participating in argumentative discourse are seen as essential practices of scientific inquiry (e.g., R. Driver, P. Newton, & J. Osborne, 2000). In this paper, we identify three goals of engaging in these related scientific practices: (1) sensemaking, (2) articulating, and (3) persuading. We propose using these goals to understand student engagement with these practices, and to design instructional interventions to support students. Thus, we use this framework as a lens to investigate the question: What successes and challenges do students face as they engage in the scientific practices of explanation and argumentation? We study this in the context of a curriculum that provides students and teachers with an instructional framework for constructing and defending scientific explanations. Through this analysis, we find that students consistently use evidence to make sense of phenomenon and articulate those understandings but they do not consistently attend to the third goal of persuading others of their understandings. Examining the third goal more closely reveals that persuading others of an understanding requires social interactions that are often inhibited by traditional classroom interactions. Thus, we conclude by proposing design strategies for addressing the social challenges inherent in the related scientific practices of explanation and argumentation. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed93:26–55, 2009