The argumentative and discordant discussions took place on the final day of the unit. They focused on a computational NetLogo model (Wilensky, 1999) of a simple ecosystem that was comprised of foxes, rabbits, grass and an unknown organism called an “invasive species.” The students were told that foxes eat rabbits and rabbits eat grass, and they worked with the model to explore graphs of the population fluctuations. The challenge for the students was to use the graphs of the populations to determine the invader's food source. Figure 1 shows an example of these graphs showing the population fluctuations before and after the invader entered the ecosystem.
Figure 1. Example graph of population fluctuations in the NetLogo simulation (point A marks the beginning of the invasion).
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Students worked with this model for three class periods. In the first, they worked in pairs to construct initial answers regarding the invaders' food source. In the second, they worked in groups of four and attempted to converge on an answer to the question. On the third day, our focus here, the teacher tasked the whole class with converging on an answer to the question.
As we noted above, while the curriculum is designed to facilitate student argumentation, this was the only lesson in which the students were supported in, or observed to be, engaging in argumentation. Mr. S introduced this discussion by saying “Alright, now what we have to do you guys, what we have to do is come to consensus. But, before we do that, we need to hear why you people believe what it is that you believe, ok?” The class then entered into a brief discussion in which Mr. S reminded them that, in science, their beliefs should be backed up with evidence. Thus, Mr. S introduced the possibility that the students might argue by highlighting two aspects of argumentation: (1) a need for consensus, which requires comparing their disparate understandings and (2) a need to support ideas with evidence.
After this brief introduction, the students began an argumentative discussion that lasted for approximately 35 minutes. They never achieved the hoped-for consensus, and with time running short, Mr. S moved to end the debate and “wrap-up” the inquiry. Our analysis explores these two discussions. We begin with the argumentation, which we discuss as an alternative stable framing to idea-sharing, and then turn to explore the discordant “wrap-up.”
As discussed above, the first author has engaged in detailed analyses of the interactions in this discussion, in prior work (Berland, in press; Berland & Reiser, 2011). In this article, we apply the theoretical lens of “framing” to those analyses in order to understand how the classroom community stabilized around the expectations that are suggested by their interactions. Those prior analyses show that Mr. S and his students converged upon a stable set of interaction patterns that suggest a stable framing. Table 2 illustrates these interactions patterns.
Table 2. Excerpt from the argumentation discussion (Berland & Reiser, 2011)
|205||Isaac||Well, at the end of the graph, when the rabbits are dead, how do they [the invasive species] keep going up?|
|206||Tyler||What you mean? What you mean? Hold on, hold on, you mean right here, when they dead, how they keep going up?|
|207||Isaac||How the invader going up?|
|208||Tyler||Because it already ate the rabbits!|
|209||Isaac||You said if it eats rabbits, it would die out if it have nothing to eat|
|210||Mr. S||Tyler what he said is that if it eats the rabbits, if the rabbits are at 0 then how is the invader still surviving?|
|211||Student||maybe it ate off grass|
|213||Tyler||It don't eat grass|
|215||Student||Ahh Tyler, you ain't got NUTHIN|
|216||Tyler||It probably might eat foxes but grass|
|217||Tyler||see look all the way straight across, you see how it keep going like that, right. See when it [invader] come up, Still the same [the grass]… Still the same … still the same…|
|218||Students||Indecipherable calling out|
Table 2 began roughly 8 minutes into the argument when Isaac asked Tyler, the presenting student, to explain a feature of the data that was inconsistent with Tyler's claim that the invasive species ate rabbits. Tyler was standing in front of a graph similar to the one depicted in Figure 1. Issac's question (line 205) challenged Tyler's earlier claim that the invader ate rabbits, noting that the population of the invasive species was increasing after the rabbit population, their supposed food, had gone to zero. Another student suggested that the invader ate grass (line 211), but Tyler disagreed, claiming that the invader ate foxes and rabbits (line 213). He used evidence of the grass population remaining constant while the population of the invader increased to defend his claim that the invader did not eat grass (line 217).
The interactions in this discussion suggest that the students had framed this discussion and the idea-sharing discussion quite differently. Here, students frequently addressed one another directly and responded to each other's arguments, suggesting that they expected to challenge and be challenged by their peers. For example, had Tyler expected critiques to come only from Mr. S, he would not have found it necessary to respond to Isaac. Moreover, Mr. S seemed to encourage these social expectations in the way he set up the room: He sat behind his students allowing them to focus on another as they stood and presented their group's argument. And, he provided a yardstick for the presenter to hold; this served both as identification for the student with the floor and as a pointer to indicate places on the projected graph.
However, there is evidence that Mr. S was not independently stable in framing the conversation as managed by the students. In fact, after the first student had finished his presentation, Mr. S started to move the conversation onto the next presenter and the students complained. One asked, “Can we say something?” And Joshua, the presenter, asked, “Can I take questions?” Mr. S acquiesced to their requests, and the students' and teacher's expectations seemed to stabilize around students responding to one another directly.
The exchange in Table 2 occurred about 5 minutes after that explicit negotiation regarding students questioning one another, and it reveals the students consistently interacting with one another directly. Mr. S had shifted to a role of facilitator in that interaction, so in line 210 he intervened to help Tyler understand Isaac's reasoning. This had a clear effect on the substance of the conversation, as several students responded to that reasoning. In line 214, on the other hand, Mr. S tried to control the conversation in another way, saying “shh,” but that had no discernible effect; the students continued to call out challenges and questions to one another (see lines 215 and 216). Much as the students ignored the challenge, in Table 1 (line 21), here they ignored—if they noticed—Mr. S's request for quiet. Mr. S did not demand compliance, but allowed the students to continue. As in the idea-sharing discussion, the stability here involved a dynamic among the participants who, as a group, seemed to know what they were doing.
Although Mr. S had less of a role in the argumentative discussion, the students' framing seemed stable and included some epistemological expectations that align with argumentation. For example, exchanges such as the one shown in Table 2 reveal the students constructing the ideas themselves and to using evidence when doing so: Isaac used evidence to challenge Tyler (line 205) and Tyler responded with evidence of his own (line 217). Thus the students had at least a nascent understanding of evidence, and, in this context, they expected to use evidence when constructing and evaluating one another's arguments.
Moreover, as Berland and Reiser (2011) argued, the students were engaging in what Walton (1998) called a “persuasive dialogue” with the goal of winning the debate by persuading others that they had the right idea—more than, it seemed, with the goal of arriving at the correct answer. Thus Tyler, having claimed that the invasive species ate rabbits, would press to “win” with that idea, regardless of the strength of the counter-arguments. Like lawyers at a trial, perhaps, the students worked to discredit competing ideas and promote their own interpretations. It was, in essence, a competition of persuasion (c.f., Langer-Osuna & Engle, 2010).
In sum, Mr. S and his students interacted in ways that suggest a relatively stable set of expectations.
As with the idea-sharing discussion, there was a sense of competition, but of a different sort. Here, students were competing to persuade others of the accuracy of their ideas. Unlike the idea-sharing discussion, because their ideas were in opposition, only one side could win.
Students worked to support their ideas by comparing them against the available evidence, addressing each other in the process rather than the teacher. This suggests that they expected to assess ideas as worthy by their fit with evidence and reasoning.
Mr. S's stated goal for this discussion was that students would reach consensus and construct their own ideas. Students clearly engaged in the knowledge construction, but there was little evidence they were trying to achieve consensus.
Unlike the idea-sharing discussion, students were selecting the discussion topic by determining which ideas to discuss further; they responded directly to each other, and they controlled turn-taking among themselves. Mr. S, too, mostly acted in accordance with these expectations
Like the idea-sharing discussion, the stability of the class's framing involved the class responding to deviations with tacit or explicit corrections, such as in ignoring Mr. S's “ssh.” Another example is in how students worked to prevent Tyler's holding his position, and the floor, in the face of compelling counter-evidence (“Tyler, you ain't got NUTHIN!”).
The framings of the two discussions shared at least one common feature: students were constructing and sharing knowledge. However, they differed in a number of respects that are relevant for argumentation: The idea-sharing discussion fit within familiar patterns of interaction in school, with the teacher acting as social and epistemic authority, in tension, as we discussed, with argumentation. This argumentative discussion, which did not fit within any pattern typical to school (e.g., Weiss, Pasley, Smith, Banilower, & Heck, 2003), involved students playing a significant role in controlling the topic and flow and in assessing each others' claims, evidence, and reasoning. Also unlike idea-sharing, competition here was between ideas, or between students in defending their ideas, rather than simply for opportunities to display their reasoning. In this competition, there was little room for compromise.
This discussion provides ample evidence of students' abilities for argumentation: Students who had very little instruction in how to argue were using evidence to defend their claims (i.e., line 217); identifying counter-evidence to challenge others' claims (i.e., lines 205, 209); and evaluating counter-arguments (i.e., lines 213, 215). (See Berland and Reiser, 2011 for more discussion of this interaction.) Moreover, the fluency—their pace, ease, and rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “you ain't got nuthin”)—of their participation, suggests they were doing something that was in some way familiar to them.
Some educators may object to the characterization of this discussion as nascent scientific argumentation, in that the students seemed to be trying to “win” by persuading others of their views, rather than trying to construct the best answer. However as argued by Mercier and Sperber (2011), individuals employ their reasoning abilities in the service of winning arguments. In this class, the goal of winning is clearly motivating scientific behaviors of supporting claims with evidence and reasoning as well as identifying counter-evidence to challenge others. In addition, accounts of professional science (Latour, 1988; Solomon, 2001) often depict scientists as competing. Solomon (2001), for example, argues that while the scientific community is rational in the normative sense of truth-seeking, individuals themselves remain biased and motivated to confirm their own ideas.
To this point, we have analyzed two snippets showing patterns of interaction among participants that were stable over 30 minutes or more. In each, there was evidence of individual expectations as well as of group level dynamics; in each the stability evidently involved the group's correcting individual divergences, or fluctuations, away from the pattern. That is, one reason these discussions could take place as they did is that the individuals participating had a generally compatible sense of what was taking place; another reason is that the group as a whole held each other accountable to that sense, in moments of fluctuation.
We have also shown that the two framings were quite different from each other. The latter aligned more closely with, and gave greater evidence of, the beginnings of scientific argumentation. In this way, the data here contributes to the body of evidence we cited in the introduction that students come to class with nascent resources for argumentation, which they may use or not depending on how they frame what is taking place.
In the following section, we examine an episode that contrasts with both the idea-sharing and argumentative discussions in that it is difficult to characterize what the class, as a whole, is doing. We argue that in this episode, the classroom community did not converge on a stable framing.