Arguing to learn and learning to argue: Case studies of how students' argumentation relates to their scientific knowledge



In this study we investigated junior high school students' processes of argumentation and cognitive development in science and socioscientific lessons. Detailed studies of the relationship between argumentation and the development of scientific knowledge are rare. Using video and audio documents of small group and classroom discussions, the quality and frequency of students' argumentation was analyzed using a schema based on the work of Toulmin (1958). In parallel, students' development and use of scientific knowledge was also investigated, drawing on a schema for determining the content and level of abstraction of students' meaning-making. These two complementary analyses enabled an exploration of their impact on each other. The microanalysis of student discourse showed that: (a) when engaging in argumentation students draw on their prior experiences and knowledge; (b) such activity enables students to consolidate their existing knowledge and elaborate their science understanding at relatively high levels of abstraction. The results also suggest that students can acquire a higher quality of argumentation that consists of well-grounded knowledge with a relatively low level of abstraction. The findings further suggest that the main indicator of whether or not a high quality of argument is likely to be attained is students' familiarity and understanding of the content of the task. The major implication of this work for developing argumentation in the classroom is the need to consider the nature and extent of students' content-specific experiences and knowledge prior to asking them to engage in argumentation. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 45: 101–131, 2008