Writing Across the Curriculum
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A Guide for Science Teachers
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Argumentative Writing in Science Classes
Writing – argumentative writing in particular – can help students organize their thoughts and practice scientific thinking.
“Argumentation is the means that scientists use to make their case for new ideas,” Stanford University Professor Jonathan Osborne notes. “It is debate and discussion with others that are most likely to enable new meanings to be tested by rebuttals or counter-arguments.”
Argumentative writing has a natural fit in science classes. Next Generation Science Standards list “constructing explanations,” “engaging in argument from evidence,” and “obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information” as scientific and engineering practices. Through writing, students practice these skills designed in the standards.
In science classes, students can use the argumentative writing process to devise explanations and draw conclusions about the natural world.
“Argumentation is critical to producing, evaluating, and therefore, advancing scientific knowledge,” University of Washington Professor Philip Bell and University of Michigan Professor Leah Bricker note. “It follows that it should be a core component of school science — as a way to help students engage with the social construction of scientific ideas as well as learn about the workings of the scientific enterprise.”
Furthermore, argumentative writing and discussion can shift students’ understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. “Teaching science through a focus on argumentation has been shown to foster scientific thinking by helping young people wrestle with scientific ideas more effectively as they socially construct them,” Bell and Bricker state. By discussing and writing about ideas, students work through ideas and make sense of them.
With so much information available online, it sometimes seems as though every idea accepted by the scientific community has a host of internet hot takes it must compete with. “In the time of the Internet,” Atlantic writer Julie Beck notes,
“Someone can find evidence (real or not) to support almost any belief he wants. There’s an understandable bias toward valuing evidence that reinforces already-held beliefs: [Yale Professor Dan] Kahan’s research has shown that people tend to ascribe more legitimacy to the experts who agree with them.”
Students who write or analyze arguments for or against scientifically accepted ideas, however, internalize and improve their conceptual understandings of science. Rather than blindly memorizing the scientifically-accepted understandings of the natural world, students can use argumentative writing to generate explanations by critically examining the claims, evidence, reasoning, and counterarguments scientists would consider in developing their ideas.
ThinkCERCA’s approach to argumentative writing in science revolves around the CERCA Framework:
Science teachers can use CERCA to teach students to include all the relevant components of an argument in support of a claim. The framework also helps students build discrete argumentation skills, such as explaining their reasoning for how evidence connects to their claim. Through argumentation, students draw scientific conclusions in a way that allows them to accept or reject their own prior knowledge or alternative hypotheses.
While there are some science-specific writing conventions that can be employed in science writing – like using the passive voice or academic vocabulary – science teachers may not need to explicitly teach much about grammar in student writing. Science teachers can focus more on making sure that students can write coherently about the content in a way that demonstrates understanding of scientific concepts.
Ideas and Activities to Practice Writing in Science
- Have students practice brainstorming, prewriting, and drafting. These informal exercises can guide students through conceptual shifts before they write a formal writing sample. The revision process can clarify understanding for all learners.
- Ask students to take a look at a scientifically-accepted understanding and parse out the evidence for it. For example, ask students to write a claim that cells make up all living thing things. What evidence supports this statement? For context, you can show students the TED-Ed video on the discovery of the cell. The video explains how cells were first described in 1665. It wasn’t until the 1830s, however, that more evidence was collected to support the explanation of the cell theory.
- Use graphic organizers such as MEL (model, evidence, link) diagrams to help students organize their thoughts in an argument. MEL diagrams help students to recognize that there can be multiple arguments in science. The most compelling arguments, however, are supported by the most quality data and evidence. In science, an argument is stronger when the idea has been evaluated by peers, evidence is rich in quality, and data is reliable.
- Help students organize their arguments using index cards during a lab. On one side of a card, students write down the data they collect in the form of a sentence (the evidence). After recording all the data, students turn the card over and write a few sentences, making inferences about the data (their reasoning). Students can use sentence frames like, “This shows that...” or “This might mean...” or “I think that....” Then, students can use the cards as an outline to get started on a writing sample.
- Assign writing tasks that require students to evaluate a scientifically-accepted idea against the idea that it replaced. For instance, assign the writing prompt: “Is geocentrism a better model than heliocentrism? Why?”
- Apply Page Keeley’s assessment probes to gauge students’ naive conceptions of science ideas through writing or discussion. These insights – which prompt students to explain their ideas in response to a question or phenomenon – can help you to personalize instruction or additional feedback for students.
Science Writing Prompts
- Should professional athletes be required to undergo genetic testing in conjunction with drug testing? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
- Why are ionic bonds stronger than covalent bonds?
- Is there enough scientific evidence to support banning GMOs from grocery stores? [Assign in ThinkCERCA]
- How can understanding the laws of physics help athletes improve performance?[Assign in ThinkCERCA]
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