Why Arguments Matter

Categories: Teaching
October 8, 2020

As I watched the debate, I heard both candidates call each other names and question the patriotism and intelligence of their opponent. I saw cherry picking of statistics and heard outrageous exaggerations of “facts.” It reminded me of what my mom used to say way too often, “The world is going to hell in a hand basket.”

For years I’ve been complaining about the loss of civil discourse, and for years my complaint has become more and more shrill. Is it hypocrisy that I can’t be civil as I bemoan the loss of civil discourse?

But then I thought about Kirsten Myers-Blake 5th grade classroom that I have frequently visited. Those little kids were arguing with passion about their interpretations of a novel they were reading. One boy, voice still unchanged, said, “I respectfully disagree with you. The way I see it is….” And the little girl he was arguing with responded, “I hear what you are saying. You think … but I’m wondering if there’s another way to thinking about it. What if…?”

Not one voice was raised.

Not one vile word was uttered.

Not one rolling of the eyes.

Just calm little voices politely agreeing and disagreeing. And was there passion in the air? Oh, yes, those kids were hotly engaged in the discussion.

Amazing.

Refreshing.

Inspiring.

Perhaps many of us need to go back to 5th grade and learn to argue under the tutelage of Kirsten Myers-Blake.

And perhaps those hotly contested Common Core State Standards got it right when argument was placed front and center. But what those Standards don’t state is what it takes to argue well and argue in order to build understanding. So what does it take? What does it take for Kirsten to mentor her kids so they know how to argue well?

It takes practice, and then more practice. As Tom Newkirk says, “Students need to make a lot of small arguments before they make the big ones.” (Newkirk, 2014)

It takes modeling and then more modeling. Kirsten’s students needed to see Kirsten actively seek out other positions, ponder them, and perhaps then to disagree – or agree — with respect.

It takes knowing how to listen deeply and listen to understand. It means turning off that inner debate voice and stop building the counterargument. It means being fully present and committed to coming to understand the other person’s thinking.

It takes wondering and wandering: wondering about other perspectives and wandering around in the realm of ideas. It takes wondering “what if this were true?” and wandering around in someone else’s interpretations. It takes curiosity in order to wonder about ideas that might disturb us and to wander around in possibilities before landing on our position – our claim.

It takes time: time for discourse, time to explore, time to read, time to write, time to gaze out the window, time to think.

And perhaps time to change our minds.


Stevi Quate is a serior staff developer with PEBC and the co-author of Clock Watchers (Heinemann, 2008) and The Just Right Challenge (Heinemann, 2013).

Join Stevi for one of her upcoming courses to learn how to teach students to argue with respect and courage.

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