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Habits of Mind—Evaluating and Constructing Arguments

Dorothea A.L. Martin
Appalachian State University


     As teachers we often take for granted that students have the facility to evaluate arguments and assess points of view of academic materials. After all, they do these tasks in relation to other areas of their lives with what seems like automatic fashion. They challenge the truthfulness of classmates' statements, assess claims of fairness, and make judgments about misunderstandings or value of evidence used by others to make a case. Most often, however, those automatic actions are taken on personal matters or relationships and not about the materials they are studying in class. Getting them to apply some of these same skills to understanding, evaluating and comprehending historical materials isn't an easy task. But by drawing attention to the fact that they already do many of the things we ask them to do with non-academic materials can be a good first step to help them build the habits of mind to first deconstruct and then construct a reasoned argument. The hard part may well be convincing them that it's not a whole new process that they must master. Consciously applying and developing skills that they have already acquired can empower them to think and write critically as they acquire more sophisticated sets of information about world history or any other discipline.

     To drive home the point that they already have these skills, I use a non-academic subject to demonstrate: buying a cell phone, since both high school and college students are very much into being "connected." I ask them to apply the series of questions on evaluating an argument listed below. I'm always sure they will recall the key points they used to persuade their parents to their point of view regarding this issue. What was their purpose, what key questions did they need to ask, what were the main assumptions and key facts, what could be inferred from these facts and assumptions, were there other concepts needed to understand and convey the arguments [cost, responsibility for safe keeping of the phone, etc.]? Then I ask them to explore various points of view and to construct a logical conclusion for their argument.

     After this non-academic walk-through to demonstrate that they already know many of the structural habits of mind, I move to a well structured article or selection from a textbook or reader related to a topic I've already cover that allows students to "see" the elements of the argument being made within the context of the course materials. I then reinforce the process within a few days by finding, if possible, a counter argument and have the class do the same deconstruction of the argument.

     The next step is one they often resist because they feel they lack the "authority" to construct their own argument. Short exercises—no more than 2 pages double-spaced—help them narrow things down and make it more manageable. Getting them to trust what they know is also a challenge and using that knowledge to then make inferences about materials is a step, once taken, helps to increase their sense of authority and to also be more willing to live with ambiguity. Seeing alternative points of view can help make the case that the facts of history seldom, if ever, speak for themselves. Rather, discriminating historians must make persuasive arguments.

     This habit of mind will soon show up in students' analyses of oral arguments and will slowly begin to offer them the foundation to deconstruct and construct critically their own point of view on the historical materials in their World History courses.

Habits of Mind Workshop–NCSS 2006
Dorothea A. L. Martin–Appalachian State University
Evaluating and Constructing Arguments

[Most of the information here is modified from materials found in Evaluating Reasoning and Analyzing Logic sections of The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools and from the Introduction section of Migration in Prehistory by J. Rouse]

Deconstructing an argument—suggest using an article with a clear thesis and conclusion.

  • What's the main purpose?

  • What are the key questions; is there a thesis or hypothesis?

  • What's the main assumption(s)?

  • Most important information—key facts

  • What can be 'inferred' from those facts?

  • Are there key concepts needed to understand the argument?

  • What is the main point(s) of view?

  • Do the various elements led to and logically support the conclusions?

Constructing an argument—suggest that you start with a short, very focused topic and use this fill in the blank template to construct an approach to the writing.

  • My purpose is_______________

  • My thesis, key question, hypothesis is_________________________

  • The main assumptions are __________________________________

  • The key facts I need to use are ______________________________

  • I am inferring from these facts _______________________________

  • The key concepts I use are __________________________________

  • My perspective or POV is __________________________________

  • My conclusions are __________________and are logically supported by the elements of the arguments because ________________________________________________


     I use thinking about early human migration to help introduce the points made above. The thinking and discussion parts of this habit of mind are not as neat as the writing process so it can start at different points to get the information needed to fill in the blanks. For example, key terms and concepts are important to know before theses and hypotheses can be made. Or selecting the facts and seeing what they might infer [as opposed to "prove"] could come before generating the thesis, too. Various methods can be used at this point.

Brainstorming—what information do I have? Where do things fit?

Strong inference requires multiple or alternative hypotheses to help to avoid both circular arguments and falling into cultural bias. Then it is a preponderance of evidence that persuades rather than "proves" the point.

List-making helps visualize alternatives—on the one hand on the other . . .


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