Broadening argumentation for science education

By Kerri Wingert - June 2014


Bricker, L. A., & Bell, P. (2008). Conceptualizations of argumentation from science studies and the learning sciences and their implications for the practices of science education. Science Education, 92(3), 473–498. doi:10.1002/sce.20278

This conceptual paper provides a concise summary of theories of argumentation that could influence classroom practice. It is a review of the literature on argumentation from many fields, including the philosophy of science, the sociology of science, and the learning sciences.

Theoretical Basis 

The best-known theory of argumentation used in science education stems from Stephen Toulmin’s work. Toulmin (1964) said that different types of arguments have different purposes, depending in part on the audiences and the discipline. However, in science education, Toulmin’s work has been boiled down to the general-purpose framework of claim-evidence-reasoning. Bricker and Bell argue that Toulmin had no intention of prescribing a “one-size-fits-all” framework. In addition, they argue that this image of argumentation might not allow educators to leverage learners’ prior knowledge and experiences of argumentation.

From the sociology of science, Bricker and Bell draw on Latour & Woolgar (1986) and others to show that scientists have many ways of arguing as they work in their laboratories to create new scientific knowledge. These types of argumentation emphasize the use of modals such as “could” or “might”, representations of many types (such as diagrams or graphs), linguistic features such as hedges, and social interaction to justify explanations. For example, scientists might hedge a claim by saying, “Genetic analysis could reveal differences” rather than “Genetic analysis will reveal differences.” This slight change in phrasing indicates a shift in certainty. These different types of argumentation could be incorporated into science education to enable learners to practice constructing different types of scientific argument for different purposes and different audiences.

From the learning sciences, Bricker and Bell summarize work in everyday argumentation, focusing on research that investigates how scientific understanding is built, in part, through culturally influenced argumentation practices. One example is Sarangapani’s (2003) ethnography on schooling in India, in which students use significant, cultural methods of argument.

After carefully summarizing seminal publications in each of these fields, the authors recommend that science educators and policymakers broaden their conceptualization of argument in science education so that learners are better supported in making their thinking visible and in practicing a variety of types of argument in the various scientific disciplines.

Implications for Practice 

With the publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, curriculum designers, educators, exhibit directors, and science practitioners at all levels are trying to engage students in argumentation. However, science curricula can often constrain argumentation to formulaic writing. Bricker and Bell set forth a number of ways to broaden science argumentation, including incorporating everyday argumentation. Thus, science educators could think about ways to engage students in scientific argumentation using everyday argumentation as a jumping-off point.


Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Sarangapani, P. M. (2003). Constructing school knowledge: An ethnography of learning in an Indian village. New Delhi, India: Sage. 

Toulmin, S. (1964). The uses of argument. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.