Building better arguments in the classroom


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

A new generation of national education standards emphasizes the importance of class discussions when students are learning science. However, engaging students in critical, equitable and collaborative interactions is no easy task.

New technology developed by Bryan Henderson, assistant professor in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, provides teachers with real-time feedback on how to support students in using empirical evidence to argue in a productive and respectful manner.

Henderson is the principal investigator on the ASU portion of a $3 million collaborative grant shared by Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley. This four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will fund development of an innovative science argumentation curriculum. While teaching that curriculum, teachers will use the new technology developed by Henderson.

Henderson and co-PI Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, are overseeing both the continued development of the technology he created, as well as all statistical evaluations throughout the study. They are collaborating with Eric Greenwald at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC–Berkeley.

Henderson’s technology, abbreviated DiALoG for Diagnosing the Argumentation Levels of Groups, is a tablet-based instrument that allows teachers to assess multiple dimensions of argumentative speaking and listening skills with quick swipes of their fingers on screens.

When teachers use DiALoG, a tablet prompts them with eight unique questions such as, “Are the students building off the ideas of other students?” or, “Are the students accurately representing the contributions of their peers?” Then, by moving their fingers back and forth across the touchscreen, teachers can quickly dial in the degree to which they believe the classroom argumentation they observed agrees with each question posed by DiALoG.

DiALoG instantly generates scores based on teacher responses to each of the questions. When scores are low, DiALoG prompts the teacher to take action to improve discussions. That action could be re-arranging students’ seats or asking students to repeat and paraphrase what another student said before responding.

Henderson said, “We are running a multistate, randomized controlled trial where 100 middle school teachers will receive the same three science units, each requiring one or two weeks to complete. Half of the teachers also will be given the DiALoG instrument, which provides instant feedback and suggestions on how to stimulate effective arguments among their students.”

The guiding principle of the study, according to Henderson, is that teachers who are using DiALoG will develop a specific set of skills to orchestrate an effective classroom discussion.

“Classroom speaking and listening is very messy to assess, and not all talk is created equal. Just because students are talking doesn’t mean that they are truly listening and building off the contributions of their peers. If teachers are regularly using DiALoG to assess multiple important facets of what makes for a critical and equitable conversation, it stands to reason that they will become more adept at identifying and supporting what makes talk truly interactive and co-constructive,” said Henderson.

“There will be ample opportunities for teachers to receive feedback on their own practice, as well as to provide feedback on the functionality of the DiALoG instrument,” Henderson said. This is an early-stage development grant, and the research team plans to refine the instrument based on teacher feedback. Henderson said that careful attention will be paid to how teachers use the instrument for different class sizes, as well as how much time is needed to observe the groups in order to obtain a reliable score.

Henderson added that he hopes to use information from this study to ultimately launch a follow-up, late-stage study that explores the potential benefits of DiALoG on an even broader scale.