Making Arguments Stronger: How to Get Students to Consider All Sides of an Issue

By Patricia A. Dunn

Whether students compose arguments for tests or for real-world genres such as online petitions, public service announcements, complaints to manufacturers, letters to editors, etc., their writing would be more persuasive if they acknowledged and understood opposing views. As more and more people today shield themselves from positions with which they disagree (by limiting their news channels and social media feeds), how can students learn to open the minds of those who don’t already agree with them? The first canon of ancient rhetoric—invention (exploring an issue thoroughly)—can help.

What is Invention, and Why Do We Need It for Writing?

Ancient rhetoricians designed invention strategies to help speakers understand and consider many sides to an issue, not simply to address the concerns of opponents but to possibly negotiate a mutually agreeable solution to a problem. We know invention today mostly through “pre-writing” exercises that help students think through their ideas in the early stages of their writing processes: graphic organizers, free writing, outlines, etc.) These exercises can help students gather their thoughts. But as rhetoricians Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee point out in their classic textbook, the extensive invention work ancient teachers did with their students to broaden their minds and educate them about complex issues are underused in today’s writing classes.

I teach college students who are preparing to be English teachers. They’ll be teaching writing throughout their careers. It is crucial, therefore, that they become familiar with invention, an ancient, powerful tool that can help their future students tackle any writing tasks involving argument and persuasion.

Jump-Starting Thinking through A Simple Invention Activity

Here’s an activity I do in my classes to take advantage of invention’s possibilities: exploring the the arguments and counterarguments surrounding a particular controversy in the teaching of writing. The purpose of this activity is to get students engaged in talking about an important issue and to help them think through its sticky complexities. This activity pushes them beyond the routine of simply listing all the evidence that supports their view. It invites them to consider other views.

First, the set-up: In my writing classes, students must write an extensive argument (about 1000 words), to a real audience and in a real genre, regarding a controversial issue related to the teaching of writing. To prepare them for this, I have them read academic articles, arguments, and blogs representing different sides of issues such as high-stakes testing, teaching traditional grammar, the five-paragraph theme, code-switching and code-meshing, etc. They read some experts’ positions on the topic, and then they write about it in a reading log, or we discuss it in class. I make sure they have some background on the issue and some awareness of where different scholars and researchers stand. At this point they have written an early draft.

The Cross-Room, Student-Led Debate

Then we change the furniture. I ask the three rows on the right to turn their desks to face the middle, and I ask the three rows on the left to do the same. Now several rows of students face each other. I assign each side a different position on a controversy—for example, the pros and cons of using rubrics.

A cartoon, with stick figures, of a classroom of desks facing one another. There are about 15 students at their desks facing left (the center of the room) and about 15 students at their desks facing right (also the center). Arrows indicate that the students are speaking to others across the room. The teacher stands apart, in the front.

I assign one side of the room to argue in favor of rubrics, and the other side to raise objections to them. By now, remember, they will have already read a selection of views on the use of rubrics, and we also would have attempted to design and use a class-generated rubric on an assignment or two for this class. So they have a lot of background.

Once the rows are facing each other, I call on someone to start. Then that initial student speaker must call on the next speaker—someone on the other side of the room—and then that person calls on the next, and so on. Since everyone knows their “position” on rubrics has been assigned by me, they can speak as role players if they must say something they don’t really believe. In fact, this situation encourages students to front some of the scholars we’ve read. They’ll say things like, “Alfie Kohn points out that rubrics can create several problems.” Then someone across the room might say, “But Heide Andrade says those problems can be addressed by tweaking the process….” –and so on.  

When I see that everyone has spoken, I end the debate and ask for general comments with students giving their real opinion.

How Does This Debate Help Their Writing?

No one in the class may in fact be doing their writing project on rubrics, the subject of the debate. But the debate is a simulation. Embedded in students’ consciousness now is the insight and thinking patterns this activity has unlocked for them. When they return to their drafts after this debate, they must check to see that they come across as knowledgeable and fair, and they must decide where and to what extent they will include opposing views in their own argument. More importantly, these future teachers experience a multi-modal invention strategy that they can take with them and use with their own students: a habit of exploring many sides to an issue and handling the perspectives of those who may not agree with them.

This cross-room debate is worth 20-30 minutes of class time because it

  • Demonstrates in a “live” activity how invention can generate thought
  • Reviews complex issues involved in a controversial topic
  • Challenges students to summarize, analyze, and evaluate claims on either side

Returning to their own drafts, students now have plenty to add. They’ve seen how opposing views might be articulated. They’ve heard models of how experts might be quoted or summarized. And they have practiced articulating a point of view orally, which may help them construct their written arguments.

How Else Can We Use This Activity?

Although I’ve centered this invention activity mostly on controversies in the teaching of writing, teachers could set up similar cross-class debates about many issues in English Language Arts: the interpretation of an ambiguous ending in a literary text, the analysis of a problematic character like Lady Macbeth, the use of a controversial novel in class, etc. Teachers could also use invention strategies to design interdisciplinary projects with social studies, business, or science, etc.

If debates are too complicated, simple questions can do wonders. Parents or teachers working with high school or younger students might simply get writers thinking about the many angles in a position they might be taking:

  • “You’re arguing for more variety in school lunches. Let’s think about some problems the school might face in trying to grant that request. Maybe we can then think of some creative ways to address those problems.”
  • “You’re giving many reasons why parents should not pry into their teenager’s online activities. What might parents be worried about? Maybe there’s a way to address their worries but also give teenagers more privacy.”
  • “You’re asking the school administration to provide more student parking. Why might adults want to discourage teenagers from taking cars to school? What are some reasons people might want to avoid building more parking lots? How might you answer those objections?

As we all know, good writing involves much more than the niceties of editing (though those are important, too). Invention exercises like the cross-room debate or well-placed questions can get students thinking beyond their own view of an issue. Invention empowers writers because it demonstrates what they already know, what they can research further, and points they can challenge or address. It also demonstrates to them that they’ll have plenty to write about. With their focus on invention, the ancient rhetoricians were on to something.

Patricia A. Dunn is a former high school teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing: Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995 and 2011), available online; Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing (2001); and, with Ken Lindblom, Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011). Her latest book is Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (2015). She is currently a  Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York, where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing.

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2 thoughts on “Making Arguments Stronger: How to Get Students to Consider All Sides of an Issue

  1. Pingback: Reaching Complex Thinking in Argumentative Writing: The Pitfalls of Creating Prompts and Using Evidence | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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