Argumentative Artefacts

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About this e-book

The first part of this e-book presents the case for using arguments as stimuli for enquiry. The second part gives examples of how to choose and use arguments with links to some resources on p4c.com. We will update the book as significant new examples and ideas are created.

Part One: The case for using arguments

The impurity principle

I don’t believe that any one kind of stimulus should be thought of as being the ‘gold standard’ for philosophical enquiry with all ages of pupils on all occasions. However, I certainly do think that arguments have much to offer as part of a varied programme. What I mean by ‘argumentative artefact’ is some presentation of a dialogue or a juxtaposition of ‘voices’ in which differing claims are compared, questioned and justified.

The range of argument

There is great variety in forms of argument and in their presentation. Arguments should not necessarily be seen in opposition to narrative. They are often contained within stories and sometimes make good stories in their own right. Some of the greatest stories such as ‘The Book of Job’ and the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ are arguments. They keep the reader wanting to know what happens next and what can be said on the other side after each turn of dialogue. We hear alternating justifications and criticisms and we are engaged by them.

In educational settings arguments may be read, performed, written and spoken by pupils and teachers for a wide range of purposes: to understand the world better by exploring different interpretations, to investigate a belief, to unsettle confirmed opinion, or to interrogate an event or narrative.

However, though created arguments can be artful and dramatic, an impurity principle is also appropriate for using arguments in education. A great variety of forms of argument are useful for learning, not just the ‘stories’ of single extended arguments. For example, two stories incorporating differing arguments on the same issue could be set side by side for comparison; the differing beliefs and justifications put forward by pupils in a discussion could be collected and presented back to them for further exploration.

Before developing such practical ideas further, we should pause to ask the question: ‘Why should arguments be considered a necessary part of the curriculum for philosophical inquiry?’

People may question the wisdom of starting an inquiry by presenting ready-made arguments to children. They may be anxious that an argument may, to an unacceptable degree, direct children’s thinking. ‘Surely,’ they may say, ‘it is the children themselves who should be coming up with the arguments, and it is the teacher’s role to draw those out by negotiation and turn them, by further dialogue, towards a philosophical horizon. What could one say in response? Why should we think pupils need access to arguments? In the sections below, I present some reasons.

Why arguments?

There are some arguments pupils should hear

If a dialogue proceeds solely from the arguments that pupils themselves bring to a topic, they may be missing important perspectives they would be perfectly capable of understanding had they been raised. Their teachers may not suggest those perspectives either. For example, in a discussion about lying, one important view is that when people lie, they reduce the choices available to those they are lying to. Lying can be a way of controlling other people and limiting their freedom. If we think that part of what makes people human is their capacity for choosing, then this argument against lying should at least be considered and applied to some example scenarios. Yet in my experience this is not often raised in discussions either by adults or children. A stimulus presented in the form of an argument could raise this point so it is available for consideration. Certain arguments such as those pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of taking a utilitarian approach to ethics are part of a cultural heritage of argument that all pupils should be aware of. Teachers and pupils, for whatever reasons, may not be able to re-create those arguments during their own enquiries.

There is a related point that although teachers may want pupils to face certain controversial issues, they may not want to carry an argument directly to pupils because they are aware of their powerful position and they are anxious about the possible accusation of indoctrination. Alternatively they may worry about that some pupils might take up the challenge of opposing the teacher’s view (because the teacher is an authority figure) to the detriment of exploring the arguments thoroughly first. However, if a range of contrasting views are presented in an argumentative artefact, they are available for comment and the teacher has more freedom to manage the enquiry.

Arguments may help pupils develop an ‘argumentative imagination’

Argument and questioning is a valued activity and a major component of the western philosophical tradition. One is encouraged to question oneself and others, to predict counter arguments and the consequences of arguments and to find rivals to one’s own beliefs. John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty’ goes as far as to say that: ‘if opponents of all-important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments’. George Myerson writes of the quote from Mill that the: ‘… emphasis on imagination connects persuasion with play: to be truly persuasive one has to imagine the other view, and be able to “play at” addressing it.’ (Myerson, G and Leith, D (1989), ‘The Power or Address’, p100, Routledge). Arguments presented to children could exemplify this ‘argumentative imagination’ – this playfulness ­– in practice.

The practice of argument is the main alternative to violence, the use of force and resentful submission when people disagree. Therefore the disposition to argue, to value argument and to imagine the arguments of others is a worthy goal for teachers and pupils. Using arguments as stimuli may help to achieve this goal because they show people disposed to argue with other rather than impose their views on them.

Arguments help pupils gain ‘argumentative instruments’

Arguments can exemplify certain moves that could be useful to both teachers and pupils in their enquiries – for example: the idea of necessary and sufficient conditions, the productive use of examples and counter examples, or the means to establish consistency and reveal inconsistency. Also, a well-articulated argument could be appropriated or adapted for use in other enquiries.

Arguments may focus minds

While it is sometimes good to present a very open stimulus that could bring forth a great variety of questions from pupils, there is also merit in offering a stimulus focused on an argument about a specific question or topic. As I propose above, there are some arguments and some moves of argument that pupils should be aware of. I also think that it can be a relief for the teacher when some enquiries are predicable. It could be argued that this valuing of focus and predictability is opposed to a basic tenet of philosophy for children – that teachers should work with pupils to help them enquire into their own interests and questions. Yet there are other ways of negotiating pupils’ interests apart from simply asking them to make what sense they can of a very ‘open’ stimulus such as a globe. A teacher could, for example, ask pupils what they are interested in discussing and then find, or create, an argument about that topic for the group to consider. After presenting the argument, there will still be a range of questions because pupils will be interested in different aspects of it.