Research on learning in science presents argumentation as a fundamental aspect of the discipline (Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007; Kuhn, 1993; National Research Council, 2011). Within science, argumentation serves to expose and address inconsistencies among ideas and evidence; it is a central means by which the community assesses the promise of conjectures and the validity of claims. As synthesized by Berland and Reiser (2009), individuals engaging in argumentation are making sense of phenomena, articulating those understandings and persuading others of their ideas. Meeting these goals requires that individuals construct and support claims using evidence and reasoning; and that they question, challenge and revise their own and other's claims, evidence and reasoning. Students, however, seldom do these things. A number of studies have documented challenges associated with argumentation, in both classroom and clinical contexts (e.g., Berland & Reiser, 2009; Erduran, Simon, & Osborne, 2004; Felton & Kuhn, 2001; Kuhn, 1991; Larson & Britt, 2009).
Over the past 20 years there has been progress in how researchers understand these challenges. In early work, D. Kuhn (1991, 1997, 1999; Kuhn, Black, Keselman, & Kaplan, 2000) used laboratory studies to identify developmental levels for coordinating theories and evidence, arguing that student reasoning needed to undergo “strong restructuring” in the sense Carey (1988) had described for conceptual understanding. D. Kuhn's work demonstrated that higher levels of argumentation abilities were rarely seen in adults and children alike and resulted in a deficiency view of individuals' reasoning abilities. This view has had a strong influence on the science education community, including inspiring instruction that treated argumentation as a set of skills that could be developed through explicit directions and scaffolds regarding the strategies of argumentation. A variety of design studies have shown gains in argumentation as a result of this explicit instruction (Chin & Osborne, 2010; McNeill, Lizotte, Krajcik, & Marx, 2006; Sampson, Grooms, & Walker, 2011; Schworm & Renkle, 2007; Simon, Erduran, & Osborne, 2006; Voss & Means, 1991). For example, Nussbaum, Sinatra, and Poliquin (2008) found that explicit instruction helped students attend to alternative explanations and engage in thought experiments.
Other studies of argumentation have considered it from a socio-cultural perspective (see review in Ryu & Sandoval, in press), specifically to focus on the social context in which students are asked to engage in argumentation. For example, Kelly, Druker, and Chen (1998) concluded that high school students are more likely to warrant their claims when they expenence a lack of shared understanding or agreement across the partners. More recently, McNeill and Pimentel (2010) compared three classes in which the students received similar instruction regarding argumentation. These authors found that, in the class in which the teacher asked open-ended questions, the students' arguments were more thorough and they engaged with one another's ideas in a more substantive manner, than did students in the other classes. These findings lend support to a growing body of evidence that students are more skilled arguers than traditionally expected, when the context, or more specifically, how students experience the context, calls for it (Berland & Reiser, 2009; Bricker & Bell, 2007; Engle & Conant, 2002; Louca, Hammer, & Bell, 2002; May, Hammer, & Pea, 2006; Naylor, Keogh, & Downing, 2007; Warren, Ballenger, Ogonowski, Rosebery, & Hudicourt-Barnes, 2001).
Research on students' scientific argumentation has thus shifted in focus from identifying and teaching decontextualized skills of argument that students “lack,” to exploring the contexts in which students do and do not engage in argumentation. This shift is emphasized in D. Kuhn's recent work (2010; Kuhn & Udell, 2007) in which she investigated the “cognitive challenges” facing students when they participate in argumentative discourse in a context designed to elicit their nascent argumentation abilities, rather than in decontextualized laboratory studies. For example, Kuhn and Udell (2007) found that high school students were able to rebut potential counter-arguments when prompted but rarely did so spontaneously—this lead the authors to claim that the students knew how to include rebuttals but not that rebuttals were expected.
Views of the importance of context have raised new considerations for instruction and research. For instruction, they suggest that the first step in fostering student argumentation may be to create learning environments in which the students' sense of what they are trying to accomplish—or their understanding of the purpose of the discussion—aligns with scientific argumentation. The first author and colleagues (L. Kuhn, Kenyon, & Reiser, 2006), for example, showed that middle school students argue when they disagree and feel a need to reach consensus. D. Kuhn and Pease (2006) similarly emphasize that “achieving and maintaining an awareness of the objective of inquiry activity” (p. 547) is a key challenge for supporting students' engagement in inquiry practices—such as argumentation.
For research, this shift points to the importance of understanding how students form and maintain that sense and awareness, which a number of studies suggest occurs within rich, multilayered dynamics. Leander and Brown's (1999) analysis of students' and teachers' various interpretations of, and goals for, their discussion demonstrates the complexity associated with individuals building a shared understanding of the activity objective. In this case of a high school physics class, there were apparent conflicts among participants' experiences of what was taking place. The authors argued that the interactions reflected a complex interplay among participants' stable understandings and the “highly unstable negotiations of meaning.” Similarly, Tabak and Baumgartner (2004), applying Cazden and Beck's (2003) notion of “participant structures,” presented evidence that students' understandings of those structures—including roles and expectations for how individuals participate—can shift within a discussion as a result of things as subtle as a shift in the pronouns the teacher uses. Lidar, Lundqvist, and Ostman (2006) gave evidence of how a teacher's “attentional cues” gradually helped the students stabilize around a new understanding of which aspects of their observations were important, that is of what information was valuable in the current setting. Studies such as these demonstrate that the classroom community forms its sense of the purpose of a discussion dynamically through subtle cues and explicit messages among participants.
In this article, we contribute to this work with a case study of learning and teaching in a sixth grade science class. The empirical case we present shows multiple stabilities in the students' and teacher's understandings of what is taking place during argumentative and more traditional class discussions, with dynamics at the levels both of individuals and of the class as a whole. The theoretical case we present is that these phenomena of student, teacher, and class dynamics connects to prior research on frames and framing (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974; Minsky, 1975; Tannen, 1993).
We begin in the following section with a review of the perspective of framing and an argument that it is relevant to research on argumentation in the science classroom. In the Methods Section, we explain how we have applied this perspective to analyze data from the target class. We then present the data and our analysis of two snippets from the class that show two different stabilities of expectations and interactions, with evidence that the stabilities at levels both of the class as a whole and of individuals within it. We then turn to a third snippet that is striking for its instability, in conflicting dynamics evident again at levels of the class and of individuals. We close the article with implications for instruction and for further research.