Scientific argumentation approaches and orientations

By Bronwyn Bevan - May 2011


Cavagnetto, A.R. (2010). Argument to foster scientific literacy: A review of argument interventions in K-12 science contexts. Review of Educational Research 80(3) 336–371.


This literature review will be of special interest to, and aid, informal educators who lead classes or programs that seek to develop learners’ experience and fluency in scientific argumentation. 

This article provides a review of the research literature concerning scientific argumentation in the K-12 classroom. The researcher argues that not all forms of argumentation promote an understanding of scientific practice, and therefore not all support scientific literacy. This article identifies three main approaches to lessons that aim to introduce students to scientific argumentation: (1) immersion, (2) structure, and (3) socioscientific. This research draws on the work of Ford (2008) and others to find that immersion strategies – lessons in which argumentation is integrated into the processes of engaging in scientific inquiry (as opposed to it being taught as a separate lesson on structures of argument (approach 2) or being taught in the context of debating or discussing science and society issues (approach 3)) holds the greatest promise for supporting scientific literacy.

This paper provides an overview of the nature of scientific argumentation, noting that compared to other modes of argumentation (for example, legal argumentation), scientific argumentation is characterized as ultimately collaborative in that it promotes shared understanding. While it may sometimes appear adversarial, in terms of competing claims, it is oriented towards vetting ideas which claim to advance communal scientific knowledge. This research contrasts an understanding of argumentation at the heart of scientific practice with the way that science is often taught in school which focuses on “surface structures of science – hypotheses, methods, results, and conclusions” (Cavagnetto, 2010, p. 339). The researcher claims that surface treatment, contributes to perceptions of science as being about facts and received knowledge rather than about a constant process of evidence-based reasoning and deductive and logical inference.

Peer-reviewed research journals identified a total of 54 papers that (a) reported research on argumentation, (b) clearly described the intervention that was the subject of the study, and (c) focused on the K-12 classroom. The paper claims that analysis of these studies considered the nature of the “argument intervention” or lesson (whether it was used as a culminating activity, as an integral part of investigation, or to explain phenomena); the “emphasis of the argument intervention” (whether it focused on teaching content, argumentation processes, or moral or ethical considerations); and the “aspects of science included in the argument intervention” (whether it emphasized social or “material” (natural) aspects, or some combination).

This analysis led to the identification of three main approaches to argument in K-12 settings: (1) immersion in science for learning scientific argumentation, (2) learning the structure of argument to learn and apply scientific argument, and (3) experiencing the interaction between science and society to learn scientific argument. The research found that some of the interventions had multiple orientations but that most were clearly in one camp or another.

An example of an immersion orientation is the Science Writing Heuristic project (Keys et al., 1999), which provides students question prompts to help them understand how to construct scientific arguments related to their science inquiries as they are underway. Questions include: “What is my question?” “What is my claim?” “What is my evidence?” In this article, another immersion strategy describes the use of concept cartoons. Concept cartoons aim to generate discussion or debate about scientific concepts or practices or application, much as op-ed cartoons in newspapers address provide reflection or discussion about political issues (Keogh & Naylor, 1999). In interventions such as these, the researcher claims that argument is “an embedded aspect to scientific practice” (Cavagnetto, 2010, p. 347) and, to the extent that it is part of doing science and not a separate exercise unto itself, reflects more closely the way scientific argumentation has been developed and is used in the real world. As such, this approach presents an argument on how likely it is to promote scientific literacy than other approaches.

An example of a structure orientation is the IDEAS project (Erduran et al., 2004) where students are explicitly instructed in the components of scientific argument using Toulmin’s (1958) structure before being challenged to apply arguments (with increasingly less scaffolds or supports) to different topics. Because this activity occurs independently of actual scientific inquiry, the researcher contends that it may not sufficiently support scientific literacy in that it does not provide students firsthand experiences with the relationship of argumentation to scientific inquiry and understanding. The paper posits that this orientation portrays argument as more of a product and less of an enmeshed process of doing science.

An example of the socioscientific (science and society) orientation is Walker and Zeidler’s (2007) student discussions about genetically modified foods. Such approaches often involve class debates or role-playing activities. While the researcher notes that this approach does provide an authentic context for science instruction, he contends that this orientation blurs lines between scientific and political argument, and that it again disconnects scientific argumentation from scientific practice. “In science,” he says, “nature plays a more prominent role than in socioscientific contexts” (Cavagnetto, 2010, p. 351).

In conclusion, this research claims that an immersion orientation more fully captures the “culture, including the epistemic nature, of science that is embedded in scientific practice.” (Cavagnetto, 2010, p 352) and calls for more research through which one can test its analysis to show whether particular orientations do in fact lead to deeper levels of scientific literacy. Papers that are cited include the following:

Erduran, S., Simon, S., & Osborne, J. (2004). TAPping into argumentation: Develop- ments in the application of Toulmin’s argument pattern for studying science discourse. Science Education, 88, 915–933.

Ford, M. J. (2008). Disciplinary authority and accountability in scientific practice and learning. Science Education, 92, 404–423.

Keogh, B., & Naylor, S. (1999). Concept cartoons, teaching and learning in science: An evaluation. International Journal of Science Education, 21, 431–446.

Keys, C., Hand, B., Prain, V., & Collins, S. (1999). Using the science writing heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36, 1065–1084.

Toulmin, S. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, K. A., & Zeidler, D. L. (2007). Promoting discourse about socioscientific issues through scaffolded inquiry. International Journal of Science Education, 29, 1387–1410.