A “Just-in-Time” lesson plan following paper #1.

The inquiry cycle – Ask>Investigate>Create>Discuss>Reflect – is about creating new ideas from existing knowledge and perspectives.   Asking and Investigating (using systems thinking, or issue mapping as a visual aid to understanding) helps us to understand how different kinds of knowledge and perspectives are generated.

Creating, Discussing, and Reflecting start with constructing multi-disciplinary and multi-perspective arguments which bring understanding to (to support of challenge) a position around a complex issue.

When we say, “create,” we’re asking students to discern the truth as they see it.  We want them to work out in their minds the true nature of the problem, its full complexity, and how one might approach working it out.

Toward this end, we want students to publish their ideas.  In the FYS Inquiry model we use the word Discuss.  We want them to “effectively communicate and gain support for their ideas, positions, and decisions.”

Doing so is not easy.

Please know that I am not suggesting you and FYS focus exclusively persuasive essays; students should not see these essays as the end product.  The inquiry mindset that we’re seeking in our students assumes that reflection and revision follows each essay written (and read).

We expect them to realize that the more they know, the more they know there is to know, and that they eagerly reenter the cycle of asking and investigating toward ever deepening knowledge.

I’m going to use what’s below as the basis for a quick “Just-in-Time” lesson plan on argumentation.  If you think this model might be useful for you students, shoot me a note and I’ll send you more information. 

Writing well – no matter your major or career – is essential.  I haven’t always been most knowledgeable guy in the room, but I could communicate what I knew and they couldn’t.  Advantage: me.

There are different forms of writing for different fields and disciplines.  The differences stem from different contexts, audiences, information, and purposes.  Each demands a different format and style, but there is a common thread no matter the field: muddy writing is the product of muddy thinking.

Therefore it’s imperative to a) improve the quality of your thinking, and b) make sure that you can organize your thinking so it resonates properly regardless of discipline.

You should always outline your work before you start writing.  This is a tip that comes from the stone-age when we wrote long hand or on manual typewriters.  But I promise you, it’s useful.

Outlines are out of fashion because you can easily edit your work on the PC.  Isn’t MS Word great!  But the PC makes us lazy.  Although we can, we seldom revise once you’ve pressed out 1,500 words.

The Toulmin method (named for its author, Stephen Toulmin) provides us with a good tool.

It starts with a central claim, or a thesis, ie: “The Cubs are the best team in baseball.”

Those of you muttering, “no they’re not” are onto something: every claim has qualifiers and exceptions.

Critical thinkers know that absolutes are seldom correct, so they try to be as precise as possible.

“Even if they do not win the World Series, the Cubs are the best team in baseball this year.”

The next step is to think about why you believe this to be true.  List your reasons.

You are constructing what’s called an inductive argument, meaning that your conclusion likely follows from your premises/reasons.  It’s not a certainty, as you’d find with deductive logic.

This means you have to show the reader why you believe the Cubs are the best team in baseball this year.

Reason #1:  The Cubs have the best overall record.

Reason #2:  The Cubs have the most efficient defense in the history of baseball.

There are two tests for what makes a good reason:  is it relevant, and is it effective?

For example, telling the reader that the Cubs play in Chicago may be true, but it’s irrelevant to the argument.  Telling the reader that the Cubs deserve to win – clearly a personal opinion – may not be effective.

That’s not to say you should ignore emotion and sentiment.  As systems thinkers we know that factors like community pride often play a role in economic well-being and social cohesion.  In other words, evidence may be qualitative.

It’s hard to say how many reasons are enough.  It’s a judgment call.  There’s a balance between having a half dozen reasons but treating each superficially versus fully developing two. As we want to discourage over-simplification, more may not be better.

On the subject of “truth”, you need to support every reason with evidence.  Evidence must be sufficient, credible, and accurate.

What “sufficient” means is also a judgement call, and like the number of reasons more may not be better.  Students should offer enough evidence to make their case, but their essay should not be a collection of facts strung together with the reader responsible to decipher their meaning.

Accuracy and Credibility go hand in hand.  Consider that sometimes Google lies.  Google provides information that’s often untested and carefully spun.  You get what you ask for, not what you want or need.

If I offer that the Cubs have the best record in baseball and I’m wrong, my entire argument becomes suspect.  I have inaccurate data.  If I find my statistic on a website that’s questionable (like Wiki) then my argument may be suspect even if my data happens to be correct.

Statistics and “facts” are tricky things.  If I find a quote from a newspaper story that says the Cubs have the best record and use it to support my case, but that story was about a single week in April, it may be “true,” but it’s out of context.

Claim:  Even if they do not win the World Series, the Cubs are the best team in baseball this year.

Reason #1:  The Cubs have the best overall record.

Evidence:  Their record during the regular season was 106 wins to 58 losses.  That’s a winning percentage of .640.  The next best teams were Texas and Washington, both at .586.

Reason #2:  The Cubs have the most efficient defense in the history of baseball.

Evidence:  The Cubs have a defensive proficiency of .745.  This is in the top 50 ever.

I need to look for credible sources.  (Hint:  librarians can help with this…)

Peer reviewed scholarship is usually good.  Partisan websites are not.  As a critical thinker you should always look to see who is behind a story.  I would be as skeptical of a story on fracking funded by the gas industry as I would be from Greenpeace.  Both have agendas.

When I read a paper one of the first places I check is the works cited page.  If the author uses suspect evidence, I will read the paper with a jaundiced eye.

On this note, a good author is always prepared to address and rebut objections.  Remember, you are writing an inductive argument.  If your goal is to convince a peer that your ideas have merit, that they add to the body of scholarship, then you have to make your case.  Your argument must be cogent.

Others will see the same evidence in a different light.  Their interpretation and analysis led them to a different conclusion.

The critical thinker can look at her own argument and see the reasons and evidence that run counter to her own.  She will offer these opposing views fairly and accurately, but her rebuttal will show why shy believes the preponderance of evidence remains on her side.

Claim:  Even if they do not win the World series, the Cubs are the best team in baseball this year.

Reason #1:  The Cubs have the best overall record.

Evidence:  Their record during the regular season was 106 wins to 58 losses.  That’s a winning percentage of .640.  The next best teams were Texas and Washington, both at .586.

Reason #2:  The Cubs have the most efficient defense in the history of baseball.

Evidence:  The Cubs have a defensive proficiency of .745.  This is in the top 50 ever.

Objection:  Their offense is weak

Evidence:  The Cubs ranked 19th overall, with a team batting average of only .254

Rebuttal:  They have a competitive lineup, and their defense is overwhelmingly good.

I can easily see my argument taking shape.  It’s laser focused on the claim; I have no fluff or red herrings that get in the way of making my case.  I am not chasing rabbits down holes because I am not permitting my writing to become a stream of consciousness.

My friends in the English Language Arts remind me that there is a role unrestrained writing, and that our insights often emerge as we work out our thinking.  Absolutely!  What I tell my students is that once you’ve worked out your thinking you must return to your writings and reorder them for a specific purpose.  In this case, it’s about sharing your insights in a manner that’s most effective.

Turning this outline into a paper isn’t that hard.  To begin with, my outline probably needs more reasons and evidence to convince a reader.  I’d likely want to write about comparisons to other teams, to history, and to offer an explanation of what each of the statistics means (never assume your reader has your background).

I’d offer context to my argument, explaining in my introduction why this story mattered and how my argument added to our body of knowledge.

I might offer quotes and anecdotes to make my essay lively and more interesting than a collection of dry and boring statistics.

And I’d be prepared, I always tell them, that I would constantly.  Writing is a process. In fact it takes me well over 90 minutes to write 300 words because I am constantly refining my thoughts and the words that accompany them.

Writing can be hard work, but with models like the Toulmin Method, we can aim to reduce wasted effort.

 

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