Study finds best way to develop argument skills

If you’ve ever read the comments on a website then you know that most people lack the ability to argue well. Let’s be honest, some of the arguments you’ve read are probably really dumb.

Educators think that argumentive reasoning is a skill that students should be learning at school. The problem is identifying these skills and then coming up with a way for kids to acquire them.

According to a press release from the Association for Psychological Science, Deanna Kuhn and Amanda Crowell, of Columbia University’s Teachers College, have come up with an original curriculum to foster their development and evaluated the results.

According to their results, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, dialogue is a better method of developing argument skills than writing.

“Children engage in conversation from very early on,” says Kuhn. “It has a point in real life.”

Completing a writing assignment, however, largely hinges on figuring out what the teacher is looking for and delivering it. To most students, “that’s its only function.”

Kuhn and Crowell did a three-year project at an urban middle school whose students were mostly Hispanic, African-American, and low-income. Starting in sixth grade, two classes with 48 children participated; a comparison group of 23 were educated in a more traditional manner.

Each of the years was made up of four 13-class segments. Each quarter, the students highlighted one social issue, beginning with topics that were meaningful to the students’ lives, such as school discipline, and moving on to issues of larger social importance, such as abortion and gun control. Students choose their sides and they worked in groups, they prepared for debate, they detailed and judged the reasons for their beliefs, all of the things good debaters do.

Then, like-minded students were paired up and they debated opposing pairs.


In the second and third years, participants were asked to come up with questions whose answers would help them construct their arguments; this was their way of promoting their respect for evidence. Before long, they not only came up with many questions but they also agreed to do an investigation on the answers.

The debates were conducted on a computer, which was another brainchild of their project. The dialogue the students were a part of remained on the screen, and it promoted reflection. The debate cycle climaxed in an energetic “showdown” between the teams, where students individually sat in the “hotseat” debating an opponent but they could also turn to their teammates for help via a football style huddle. Lastly, students were asked to write individual essays explaining and justifying their positions on the topic.


The comparison class participated in full-class teacher directed discussions of similar topics and wrote essays, 14 annually compared to the project groups’ four.


Before the project and after each year, all students completed essays on completely new topics. The academics examined these for the types and number of opinions, those concentrated on the merits of one’s own side; those addressing the opposing side (“dual perspective”); and those trying to weigh pros and cons of each side (“integrative perspective”). They also observed the questions the students would like answers to.


On each measure, the experimental group had better results, making more of the higher forms of arguments and listing more substantial than the control group.

Significantly, says Kuhn, the children incorporated a core value of citizenship: informed argument matters. They showed it too. “We have gotten a little complaint from nearby classrooms that it’s a bit noisy,” she adds.