CSTA Classroom Science

Approaches to Argumentation in Science

By Virginia Oberholzer Vandergon and Brian Foley

“Observation and experiment are not the bedrock on which science is built, but rather they are the handmaidens to the rational activity of generating arguments in support of knowledge claims.” (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000; p. 297)

Early in the twentieth century before the dawn of the modern synthesis, there were two camps in the science of inheritance; the Mendelian camp claimed ancestral heredity occurred through discontinuous change, and the Darwinian camp claimed that heritable change occurred through natural selection. A great debate ensued where both camps argued for their claims using evidence from experiments and mathematical models. As the debate grew more heated, the camps provided more and more evidence to prove their points. The breakthrough came when scientists began to synthesize the evidence from both sides of the debate. Several famous scientists of the time (e.g., Ernst Mayr) realized that instead of each camp’s claims being exclusive, the Mendelian genetics camp supported the theory of evolution, and the claim of natural selection from the Darwinian camp supported Mendelian inheritance. In 1918, the consensus view took the form of the modern synthesis, proposed as the melding of both claims, which led to the new science of population genetics (Provine, 1971).

The above scenario is just one of many examples in the history of science illustrating how the advancement of science and the resolution of conflicting claims could be solved by the process of argumentation, leading to a consensus conclusion. As the opening quote makes clear, the ultimate goal of any scientific inquiry is to produce evidence in support of a claim or hypothesis. Many of science’s greatest breakthroughs have been the result of argumentation, convincing others through evidence gathering that the claim made is true. In the same way, argumentation in the classroom gives students access to the process by which scientists make sense of evidence and compare competing explanations. This turns them from passive to active learners. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have included scientific argumentation as one of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), increasing the need for science classes to engage students in the process of scientific argumentation. While argumentation has been recommended for science teachers for many years, this is the first time it is explicitly referenced. Our team (San Fernando Valley Science Project) finds that teachers are eager for help in engaging students in constructing explanations and scientific argument.

Argumentation in NGSS
In the Science Framework for California Public Schools Appendix A, there is a progression for SEP 7 (Engaging in Argument from Evidence), a summary of this SEP is linked to the CSUN guide to the CA NGSS Science Standards. We start in kindergarten with students distinguishing between two evidence-based arguments and also recognizing the difference between opinions and evidence-based explanations. For example, kindergarteners may be asked to provide arguments about why it is warmer on a sunny day than on a cloudy day. Here teachers can help students evaluate conflicting ideas using evidence-based argumentation. As we move up the grade levels, students need to critique and develop their own arguments and ultimately use these arguments to evaluate design solutions to real-world problems. For example, in the California Science Framework Vignette 7.1 (Chapter 7, pp. 843-855), students create concept maps of evidence and reasoning to support their claims and use the maps in a class debate.

Progression summary for SEP 7 Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Full progression of SEP7.[/caption] 

Argumentation in Science Classes
Even before the adoption of NGSS, science teachers have been engaging students in argumentation for decades. One of the most popular approaches used is the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) methodology (McNeill & Krajcik, 2011). CER is a variant of Toulmin’s method argumentation in which claims are proposed and supported with evidence (observations, data, related research) and reasoning (arguments that connect the claim to the evidence). Having students articulate their arguments with CER can be a very effective strategy for helping them understand how to make effective arguments in science and how our understanding of science changes over time. Henderson et al. (2018) showed that students who used CER and engaged in argumentation are better able to communicate their scientific understanding with their peers and classmates. Perhaps more importantly, the use of CER puts students’ thinking at the center of the discussion rather than relying on the instructor or textbook to be the authority, thus encouraging students to take ownership of their conclusions.

A CER activity can fit within scientific inquiry or be a stand-alone activity. The teacher asks students to make claims about a phenomenon; the students then try to identify competing claims. Sometimes the teacher will seed claims into the discussion that they know will be interesting to debate. Students will need to identify evidence and reasoning to support their claims either from their own inquiry or from other sources. They can also identify evidence and reasoning that rebuts a claim as well. With CER, arguments between competing claims become more substantive because students can address which of the evidence is compelling or suspect and the soundness of the reasoning for each claim.
However, there are some issues with the use of CER in science classes. Many teachers report that classroom arguments are infrequent, happening only once or twice a year. With such little exposure to argumentation, students do not have a chance to internalize the practice. Some teachers complain that it takes too much time to complete a classroom argument. A second issue is the concern that CER can result in students presenting claims that are not-scientific which may lead some students to the wrong scientific conclusions. As a result, some teachers only use CER on topics where there is no settled science. For example, some teachers feel comfortable having students debate the dangers of genetically modified foods but are not comfortable debating about the processes of evolution. While we recognize these concerns, failure to use CER in all types of debate may undermine the value of student-driven reasoning to help students draw clear conclusions about data. Students should be able to debate topics and come to a consensus that matches established science. This will help them build confidence in their scientific reasoning.

The problems and concerns with CER suggest a need for a method of scientific reasoning and argumentation that is faster and results in a clear consensus conclusion. We have started developing a technique we call Five-E Plus Argumentation (FEPA). FEPA is designed to be a process that can be used during a lesson sequence to engage students in writing and comparing explanations such that only when there are serious disagreements, will the CER approach be engaged. To speed up the process, we utilize online tools that engage all students in the activity and allow them to share their reasoning and arguments with classmates. FEPA described below occurs during the Explain stage of a 5E lesson after students explored a phenomenon and have done some inquiry.


The goal of FEPA is to create a streamlined process for student-generated explanations and arguments that can become a regular part of classroom practices. Whatever approach to argumentation teachers employ, it is critical for students to engage in identifying their claims and evidence that supports or refutes them. The process of argumentation is critical for engaging students in the development of scientific knowledge and should be a regular part of a science class. Putting this powerful tool in the hands of students, empowers them to fully engage in the practices of scientists. We argue that increasing the frequency of argumentation in the classroom will result in a more student-centered approach and better prepare students for advanced study and even careers in science.

Driver, R., Newton, P., & Osborne, J. (2000). Establishing the norms of scientific argumentation in classrooms. Science Education, 84, 287–312.

Henderson, J. B., McNeill, K. L., González‐Howard, M., Close, K., & Evans, M. (2018). Key challenges and future directions for educational research on scientific argumentation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 55(1), 5-18.

McNeill, K. L., & Krajcik, J. S. (2011). Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing. Pearson.
Provine, W. B. 1971. The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago.

Virginia Oberholzer Vandergon is a professor of Biology at CSU Northridge, Director of the San Fernando Valley Science Project, and is Treasurer of CSTA.

Brian Foley is a professor of Secondary Science Education at CSU Northridge and a Co-Director of the San Fernando Valley Science Project.



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