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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Fact, Feeling, and Argument: Helping Students Tell the Difference

Fact, Feeling, and Argument: Helping Students Tell the Difference

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High School Students Talking in a Circle

In the United States, you have to be living under a rock not to have seen the historic ruling about what we now call marriage. In Obergefell v. Rodgers, a 5-4 Supreme Court stated that under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, states are required to allow persons of the same sex to marry. Social media exploded with rainbows, pride, marriage pictures and even some condemnation.

As both a lawyer and a teacher, I grappled with a nuance: how do we teach our children debate in the midst of an ever-changing climate? How do we, as teachers, use cutting edge decisions to hone rhetoric skills? Although this discussion could take many turns, I would like to offer a few ways to encourage mindful classroom debate while introducing issues of the day.

1. Don’t Ignore the Issues

I have found, through studying, observing and teaching in many classrooms, that teachers choose to ignore issues of the present day. When I was in my last year of high school, there was a very famous presidential election and an equally famous court case to resolve the outcome, Bush v. Gore. What complicated the matters even more in the eyes of ths particular student population was that George Bush had attended my high school.

What struck me about some of my magnificent teachers and was emblazoned in my mind what kind of teacher I wanted to be was their mastery of allowing and encouraging civic dialogue without being pedantic or one-sided. I was also able to learn about issues of law and politics at an early age which shaped my desire to both teach and advocate.

2. Establish Rules

I advocate for establishing student-created classroom rules, especially as it pertains to argument and teaching. When you are creating your normative and expectation document, ask your students how they want to discuss the issues of the day? How do they want to be heard and how do they want to learn possibly new activity? What sources do you like for grappling with issues that are on the cutting edge of our consciousness?

3. Require Evidence

Even when you are discussing hot topic issues, make sure that evidence is required. This is a classroom, not a session of psychotherapy (although it can sometimes feel like that). When discussing particularly dicey issues, remember the importance of citing evidence for every declarative statement. This also ties back to your CCSS about argument and tying argument to context and evidence.

4. Explore the Difference Between Fact, Feeling, and Argument

This best practice works in conjunction with number 3. Teach about these three concepts and instill argument skills in your students to equip them with the abilitiy to "defend" each.

For example, ask questions to clarify if the student is asserting a fact, a feeling or an argument. How do we know it is a fact? A fact is a specific detail based on an objective truth. A feeling or an opinion is a value judgement that can neither be proven nor disproven. An argument is a way to utilize facts to validate your opinions, it can be considered a fact-filled opinion.

Again, using these concepts as scaffolds and requiring the identification of the building blocks of successful argumentation will keep the peace when the blood is boiling.

5. Resolution is not the End Goal

This is perhaps the most important point of teaching the hard issues, the goal can’t always be resolution as that can and likely will show your own bias and belief and make many students feel uncomfortable. The discussion and the exploration of the "hard" issues is a goal in and of itself. It can be clarifying to start the discussion with, "This will just be a discussion. Do not worry about a resolution. I may have questions for you, but I truly respect your voice and opinion."

Allow the space for a discussion without an end goal (or having the end goal be a civil, civic-minded discussion and having an informed classroom). Give your students the space to explore mindfully in an evidence-rich environment, allow the conclusions to come (perhaps) many years later and be the teacher who allowed comprehensive rhetoric and occasional argument without judgment and watch the conversation flourish.

I read recently a comment on the importance of establishing a “yearning for learning” in my last post in teaching advocacy. I think this cannot be minimized, even when we are talking about the tough issues. Establishing curiosity, respect and even ground rules around the hot political topics of the day will allow your students more creativity, as well as allowing them to profoundly explore and understand that they are a part of history and that their dialogue, advocacy and compassion informs national debate.

Although not included in the list would be this bonus tip: let your students and their parents know that you will be tackling these tough issues with as little bias as possible and the goal of increasing civic participation and argument skills.

Let me know in the comments below how you have the tough conversations and manifest social consciousness in your classroom.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

@pkbagorio1 Thank you so much for replying. I think that number 5 (in my mind) is actually the most important as well. Too often we look towards a resolution when the really terrific learning is through the process.

I also love that link. :-)

Cari Pepper's picture

I agree; educators and students must tackle difficult current issues. It's imperative to creating active participants in life! My students and I had a deep and meaningful discussion of the n-word before reading To Kill a Mockingbird - other teachers told me they would never discuss this. My #1 rule is: be kind; we will NOT be ugly to anyone. It worked - no problems, at all. I used Julian Curry's powerful slam poetry Youtube on the n-word. It brought up a lot with my students - thoughtful, painful things that they needed to discuss. If students are led, they can do this and they WANT to do this.

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Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

@Cari, I am so sorry it took me so long to get back to you and your awesome comment! I absolutely agree that kindness is so imperative as an impetus to meaningful discussion.

Herb Coleman's picture
Herb Coleman
Community College Professer and Curriculum and Dev. specialist

I use this with my colleges classes all the time. I am having the toughest challenge getting students to understand the difference between facts (data) and conclusions (opinion?) when citing studies. Many of the issues, student feel passionate about so I do let them have a cultural example, and a personal case study but I also want them to be at least exposed to what the research data shows.

(2)
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Hello Herb,

Thank you so much for your comments and I agree with you completely. Students at the university level are in need of this instruction as well. I also like your tip to allow one personal or cultural data point.

johntreml's picture
johntreml
Biology / MicroBiology Instructor

Great article, Katie! I agree with Amy's recognition that it's the step-by-step guidelines that make this especially valuable. Herb's comment about citing data reflects my experience pretty well - although I think I have a much more fluid view of facts as established primarily by solid evidence and exposing assumptions. My question is how much time do you (Katie and readers alike) spend on assessing evidence? (for more elaboration, see my post at https://downhousesoftware.wordpress.com/2015/08/20/its-amazing-how-diffi...)

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Amazing synthesis, John! I also am honored by your blog post and I think your explanation of the two points using the excellent example of Hubble could also be a community post her at Edutopia! Have you ever thought about it?

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I absolutely LOVE this point you raised:

"This is perhaps the most important point of teaching the hard issues, the goal can't always be resolution as that can and likely will show your own bias and belief and make many students feel uncomfortable. The discussion and the exploration of the "hard" issues is a goal in and of itself. It can be clarifying to start the discussion with, "This will just be a discussion. Do not worry about a resolution. I may have questions for you, but I truly respect your voice and opinion."

Too many adults never listen to converse opinions because 1)They will never change their minds therefore don't need to hear any additional information (fixed mindset) 2)They don't enjoy or respect healthy dialogue, which you so eloquently put in your post.

The more we can teach this, the more we can have productive debates and dialogue in the future. :)

(1)
johntreml's picture
johntreml
Biology / MicroBiology Instructor

Thanks so much, Katie -and, I'd love to share anything I could.

(1)
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Elana, thank you so much for the comment. The ability to have an amicable discussion, even as adults, does seem increasingly difficult! I love a good argument and that part of the CCSS, but then again I am a lawyer, as well. ;-)

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