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The Science Teacher, Summer 2013 vol. 80 no. 5
Excerpts of Six Articles
ENSI Lessons for Argumentation
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What is Scientific Argumentation?
During the processes of scientific inquiry, scientists will make claims, based on observable evidence, and will clarify with justification of the evidence as relevant to the claims. Other scientists often make rebuttal claims, pointing to other evidence that counters the evidence for the previous claim. The key points are that any scientific claims coming from an investigation must be based on observable (empirical) evidence, and that evidence must be justified as connected with the claims. The NGSS includes many references to scientific argumentation. This is based on the nearly 100 times that argument or argumentation appears in the new Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012) that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is based on. The Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) Likewise requires that students learn how to form logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning and relevant evidence.

It's important to know that scientific argumentation is quite different from typical arguing that goes on between people, which is seldom based on tangible evidence, and typically involves opinions, beliefs and emotion. The goal of a confrontational dispute is for one person's point of view to "win" over another's. In scientific argumentation, however, explanations are generated, verified, communicated, debated, and modified. Ideally, the goal of all participants in scientific argumentation is to refine and build consensus for scientific ideas, based on evidene, to come as close as possible to understanding the reality of the natural world.

The following articles can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of the NSTA journal The Science Teacher. They present a variety of examples of scientific argumentation in various kinds of interactive strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms. (See how to access these articles following these excerpts).

1. The Gummy Bear Lab (pp. 14-15) by Jeanne Chowning <>:
The importance of argumentation. The lesson is available without cost online:
The real learning comes from devising methods, discussing results, and collaboration.
[Emphasizing] the importance of critiquing ideas rather than people. Students learn that they shouldn’t take a skeptical comment personally.
Scientific knowledge is socially negotiated.
Students engage in critical analysis of the arguments of others, to analyze experiments in order to repeat them, [and] engage in discourse processes common in the scientific community.

2. Argumentation in Science Education (pp. 30-33) by Victor Sampson et al. Excerpts:
What counts as an argument in science? Claims include conjectures, conclusions, explanations, models, or an answer to a research question. They usually rely on evidence to support those claims. Scientists must also convince others that their evidence is relevant and of high quality, so they spend lots of time assessing, critiquing, justifying and defending the evidence.
Resource online: Ideas, Evidence and Argument in Science: Resource Pack (2004) J. Osborne, et al.
Click on the red PDF under “FILES” to get 72 page IDEAS Resources.

3. Making and Defending Scientific Arguments (pp. 34-38) by Douglas Llewellyn.
Animals Tracks Activity: “Proposing Explanations for Fossil Footprints” in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, pp. 87-89. Free. PDF:
Science Take-Out:
What is scientific argumentation?
What do the Common Core and Framework say about argumentation?
How can science teachers effectively scaffold and prepare students to make and defend arguments?
Developing a Plan of Action:
Strategy 1: Making an inference from observations (using the Mystery Boxes and “Track Stories” (see online reference above), or the ENSI lesson: Laetoli Trackway Puzzle.
Strategy 2: Agreeing or disagreeing with a statement: e.g., reason for giraffe’s long neck, meteorite hitting earth caused dinosaur extinction, the table you are working on is mostly empty space, light is both particles and waves, the Earth is flat, or it’s round like a ball.
Strategy 3: Testing another person’s claim. Strategy 4: Making your own claim.
Lots of excellent suggestions for scaffolding scientific argumentation.


4. Arguing History (pp. 39-43) by Renee Clary and James Wandersee.
Teaching historical scientific controversies to engage students in discourse and the nature of science.
Examples: Age of Earth, Continental Drift, Formation of Coral Atolls, Extinctions/Mass Extinctions, Dinosaur Research, Germ Theory of Disease, Structure of DNA, Vaccines vs Autism.

5. The Language of Argumentation (pp. 44-49) by Laurie Taylor.
Using debate to spark interest and learning in science.

6. What’s the Alternative? (pp. 50-55) by Doug Lombardi, et al. Using model-evidence-link (MEL) diagrams to weigh alternative models in argumentation. Clever scaffolding ideas to facilitate argumentation. MEL diagrams facilitate argumentation about competing explanations.
Web Access for Climate Change MEL materials: click on MEL Workshop under Prof. Dev. Then note Downloadable Files with MEL instructions, samples and templates.
Developing MEL Diagrams for Classroom Use:
Examine two alternatives: 1) the scientifically accepted model and 2) a compelling alternative.
Gather data from classroom experiments, online data sets, and other activities. Downloadable examples include lunar phases and genetically modified food. Can also consider vaccinations vs non-vaccination, anthropogenic climate change vs non-anthro- climate change.
To teach disciplinary core ideas, a model representing a scientifically valid concept could be paired with a common student misconception (e.g., Mendelian genetics vs Lamarckian inheritance, scientifically accurate explanations for the seasons or phases of moon vs alternative conceptions). Avoid non-scientific models that compare opinion-based claims, e.g., “Plastic bags are good for grocery stores vs Plastic bags are not good for grocery stores.”

MEL diagrams are effiecient replacements for instructional materials the merely provide information. Teachers can employ MEL diagrams in one class meeting and immediately foster a scientific habit of critical evaluation. Students quickly learn to use the MEL diagrams with enthusiasm.

How to Access Articles Online from NSTA
Access The Science Teacher (and other NSTA journals) online (members only) at:
A good reason (among many) to become member of NSTA. You can choose to view an article, then click on download to pdf file, or add to your online NSTA member library.
The July 2013 issue of the NSTA journal for middle school teachers, Science Scope, also contains several articles on scientific argumentation.

ENSI Lessons that are Suitable for Scientific Argumentation

Mystery Boxes
Flat Earth
The Great Fossil Find
Checks Lab
Laetoli Trackway Puzzle


Magic Hooey Stick
Perception Not Always Reality (illusions)
The Great Volume Exchanger
Becoming Whales
Crime Scene
Chromosome Fusion (vs Chrom. Fission)
Patterns in Time (Cambrian "Explosion" vs
Gradual Emergence of Major Groups)

Click Here for ENSI Lessons That are NGSS and CCSI Compliant.