Argumentation can take several different forms. It is important that educators and students recognize and understand the science-specific forms of argumentation and how they differ from the common forms of argumentation in which people engage in daily life. For example, the kinds of arguments in which a person may participate with family members, friends, or acquaintances are often acrimonious or focused on the desire to make one’s point and “win” the argument. Or in the case of more formal debate, such as the kind politicians engage in, contestants are scored on their ability to “sell” an argument that favors a particular position.
Both of these forms of argumentation differ from scientific argumentation in important ways. In science, the goals of argumentation are to promote as much understanding of a situation as possible and to persuade colleagues of the validity of a specific idea. Rather than trying to win an argument, as people often do in nonscience contexts, scientific argumentation is ideally about sharing, processing, and learning about ideas.
Scientific argumentation is also governed by shared norms of participation. Scientific argumentation focuses on ideas, and any resulting criticism targets those ideas and observations, not the individuals who express them. Scientists understand that, ultimately, building scientific knowledge requires building theories that incorporate the largest number of valid observations possible. Thus, while scientists may strongly defend a particular theory, when presented with a persuasive claim that does not support their position, they know they must try to integrate it into their thinking.
In spite of the importance of talk and argument in science and in the learning process in general, K-8 science classrooms are typically not rich with opportunities for students to engage in these more productive forms of communication. Analysis of typical classroom practice suggests that patterns of discourse in classrooms typically adhere to a turn-taking format, often characterized as “recitation.” A teacher asks a question with a known answer and a student is called on and responds. The teacher then follows up with a comment that evaluates the student’s response.
This talk format is sometimes referred to as the I-R-E sequence, for teacher Initiation, student Response, and teacher Evaluation. Researchers have found it