Scientific Argument – How to Encourage It

How can you encourage scientific argument in an elementary classroom? First, continuously refine arguments based on evidence. Second, foster critical thinking. Let kids judge, critique, argue, and communicate in your science class.

In third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms, science argument is essential for overcoming misconceptions.

Ms. Grow Encourages Scientific Argument

Our favorite fifth grade teacher stood in front of his class. “Today,” said Mr. Grow, “we’re going to talk about gravity. As a matter of fact, we’ll address this standard.”

He held up a poster and read aloud:

NGSS 5-PS2-1 Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down.

“Duh,” he heard someone say under their breath.

“I’ll ignore that,” Mr. Grow responded with a smile. “But I anticipate that we’ll also engage in some hearty science argument about this topic. And actually, engaging in argument is one of the eight science practices we will use this year.” He pointed to a poster on the wall that listed them:

Setting the Stage

In the opening session, Mr. Grow asked each science group to list examples and non-examples of gravity. Next, they came together as a class and shared.

After that, the teacher asked them to break into groups again and define gravity. Finally, they met as a big group and created a whole-class definition.

Gravity is a force that pulls everything on Earth toward its center.

Begin Scientific Argument by Comparing and Refining

The next afternoon, Mr. Grow was back with more gravity activities. “For the next 30 minutes,” he told his class, “you will be immersed in exploration of gravity. Every 10 minutes, I’ll give you another task.”

True to his word, the teacher asked his kids to:

  1. Drop a Styrofoam and plastic ball of the same size at the same time.
  2. Investigate how a cotton ball and a paper plate behave when thrown in the same way.
  3. Explore how a marble rolls on a table and a ramp.

For each lab, students drew conclusions. First, they compared the force of gravity on falling objects. Second, they considered how it impacted objects moving through the air. Third, the groups decided how gravity affects rolling objects.

As the activities concluded, Mr. Grow addressed the class. “Today, I asked you to compare two things in each lab. For example, in the first lab, I asked you to compare the rate at which a plastic and Styrofoam ball fell. What happened?” Several hands shot up, and he called on a kid in the back.

“To be honest,” said Jed, “I thought the plastic ball would fall faster. After all, it’s heavier. But they both fell at the same rate.”

“Ah,” Mr. Grow responded. “Compare and refine. These are two important factors when we engage in scientific argument. Jed fostered a misconception. In other words, his thinking, which was based on reason, was faulty. But comparing the two falling balls allowed him to refine his definition of gravity.”

Discussion continued on objects moving through the air and rolling. In both cased, students agreed that their investigations helped them refine their thinking.

To encourage scientific argument, ask kids to compare and refine definitions. For example, in this activity, kids compare two falling balls then refine their definitions of gravity accordingly.
Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

Let Kids Judge Faulty Ideas

When the students entered the classroom after lunch the next day, they noticed that something was projected on the screen. A woman stood on a wooden floor, leaning back. Below, these words were typed:

While driving up a mountain in Montana, we saw a sign that said, “Vortex ahead. Visit Mystery Mountain.” After paying a fee, we entered a cabin, which seemed to defy the rules of gravity. You could lean back and not fall over! Furthermore, a marble could roll uphill. Is this possible?

“A vortex! Cool!” one student exclaimed.

“No way,” said another. “It’s a hoax.”

Before class began, with just one picture, Mr. Grow’s class engaged in some lively scientific argument. As they judged and argued, the teacher silently listened in.

After the bell rang and his kids took their seats, Mr. Grow began. “I noticed that you saw the picture. Is this possible? If so, how does it happen?”

“I read about this phenomenon,” one student said. “Because Earth’s crust has buckled, it’s now sort of sideways – or at least at an angle. So the magnetic force pulls you in a different way.”

At that, Mr. Grow cupped his chin in his hand and tapped his fingers on his cheek. “Hmm, interesting. But I thought you guys said that gravity came from the center of the Earth.”

With that, the classroom erupted in argument. Finally, Mr. Grow invited them to get out of their seats and explore the photo in more detail. Funny, for example, that the tree outside the building was growing at the same angle as the woman was leaning. Was the floor slanted?

By the time they moved on to social studies, part of the class had dismissed the vortex as a faulty idea. But a number of students still clung to the idea.

Using a discrepant event lets kids judge and argue about scientific ideas.

Encourage Them to Critique Everything

“Well,” Mr. Grow said the next day. “I guess we’re at a standoff. Some of you believe that the vortex is real; others don’t. Maybe we’ll just return to the concept of gravity itself.”

The teacher stepped to the whiteboard and picked up a few markers. First, he drew a picture of a hill with trees growing at angles facing its center.

“That looks a little weird,” a student commented.

“Are you questioning my drawing abilities?” Mr. Grow joked. Then he drew another picture with the trees growing perpendicular to the center of the Earth.

“That’s better,” said another student. But some kids looked a bit uncomfortable.

Next, Mr. Grow drew two pictures of a man walking up a hill. In the first one, the man walked at an angle perpendicular to Earth’s center. In the second, he walked perpendicular to the center of the hill.

“I can see that a scientific argument is brewing. Go ahead and meet in your science groups. I’ll give you ten minutes to duke it out.”

As they discussed, Mr. Grow circulated. In most cases, it seemed that students were accepting the idea that gravity pulls toward the center of the Earth.

When kids foster a misconception in science, present them with two views. Then let them critique and argue.

Of Course, Argument in Science Involves Arguing – and Agreeing

“Enough arguing,” Mr. Grow finally said.

“Actually, our group was agreeing,” a girl in the front of the room said.

“Great! What did it take for you to agree?”

“Well, we started looking at the evidence.”

“Aha! Evidence. Yes, scientific argument must be supported by evidence.”

With that, he displayed a few photographs. One showed hikers walking up a mountain at an angle perpendicular to Earth’s center. In the other, a tree growing out of the side of a hill bent to stretch at an upward, again perpendicular to the center of the Earth.

“How many of you think that gravity pulls things on Earth’s surface toward its center?”

All but one hand went up. Then, after a few seconds, the dissenter raised his hand too. “But I reserve the right to believe in a vortex,” he said sheepishly. Everyone laughed.

Images that show the concept in action help debunk misconceptions.

Sometimes, Ask Kids to Write Scientific Argument

“So,” Mr. Grow continued, “we’ve engaged in scientific argument about gravity. And we’ve developed a claim: Gravity pulls objects downward, toward the center of the Earth.”

He picked up a stack of papers and began distributing them. “As a culmination to our argument, you will write a paragraph.”

After a few groans, he continued. “Yep, we’re connecting science with ELA. On this paper, list three pieces of evidence for that claim. Then restate the claim in different terms. Tomorrow, we’ll use this in ELA to write strong paragraphs.”

With that, the class got busy. And to be honest, after their exploration, organizing their writing was easy.

Scientific argument can also involve writing. Just ask kids to state a claim and back it up with evidence.

Enjoy Teaching Argument in Science

The following day in science class, Mr. Grow once again faced his students. “What about this?” he asked, pointing to their original definition of gravity. “I think we need to add some things about falling, flying, and rolling objects.”

Of course, that caused more scientific argument. But Mr. Grow didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, a little dissent made him enjoy teaching even more.

Previous Post
Constructing Explanations – Sure Ways to Do It
Next Post
Information in Science – How to Use It with Kids