Arguing to Make It Stick

By Dr. Jay Wile

Suppose you are looking at your community calendar and you see two events that you
could attend with your children. The first is an opportunity to do some supervised
experiments at the local community college. The second is a debate about whether or not
we should use genetically-modified foods. For most children, the first option sounds a lot
more fun and interesting. As a parent, however, you want them to attend the one that will
end up making the strongest impact on their education. Which do you choose?

Based on several studies, the debate will impact your children’s education more profoundly
than the chance to do some experiments. Just three years ago, Dr. Jonathan Osborne,
professor of science education at Stanford, published an article in the journal Science
entitled, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse.”
In the
article, he reviewed several studies that have analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of
different methods of science education. In the end, the studies agree that the best way to
help students learn and remember science is to present it in the context of a controversy.

For example, in a series of experiments, researchers evaluated three different kinds of
learning activities: (1) activities that involved argumentation, (2) activities that involved the
group working together to make a single product (like a report), and (3) activities involving
experimentation. They found that the students who participated in the activities involving
argumentation were the ones who best learned and remembered the material in the lesson.
Those involved in the group projects were second, and those involved in the experiments
were dead last.

Does that surprise you? As someone who has taught science at many different levels, I can
tell you it doesn’t surprise me. Doing experiments can be valuable in science education, and
group projects can also be valuable. However, if you really want to hold the students’
attention and make a lasting impact, give them something to debate. Show them two sides
to an issue, and discuss how the proponents of each side make their case. Have them look
at the arguments and decide which they think are most persuasive. This kind of activity will
engage their minds in a way that no other educational activity ever will.

So in the end, if you want to make sure your children learn and remember something well,
present it in the context of a controversy. But wait a minute! In most controversies, there is
a side that is right and a side that is wrong. Do we really want to expose our children to the
arguments that are wrong? Surprisingly, the answer is, “Yes!” Studies show that presenting
topics in the setting of a controversy produces the most learning gains, even when the
students are exposed to incorrect ideas!

Consider, for example, our solar system. Most students are taught that ancient people
believed the earth was at the center of the universe. The sun, planets, and stars orbited
around the earth. However, as more and more observations were made, scientists learned
that the earth-centered view was wrong, and they eventually switched to a sun-centered
view, which led to our current understanding of the solar system.

Have you ever spent time actually investigating the controversy? Why did so many
scientists back then cling to the idea of an earth-centered universe despite evidence to the
contrary? The standard answer is that they were clinging to a religious view. The actual
facts, however, are much more interesting. Those who believed in an earth-centered view
had scientific arguments against the sun-centered view. Those who believed in the sun-
centered view shot back with scientific arguments of their own. If your students spend some
time learning the actual arguments both sides used, they will learn a lot about how planets
move in the night sky and how we measure the distance to objects in space. Even though
we know the earth-centered view is wrong, exposing your children to the arguments of
those who believed it will help them learn and remember astronomy better.

So don’t be afraid of controversy in your home education. Embrace it! Creation versus
evolution, the age of the earth, vaccinations, global warming, and stem cells are just a few
of the many controversies that exist within the realm of science. When what you are
learning in science class relates to one of these issues, bring up the debate and encourage
your students to explore it.

Even though I am focusing on science education, what I am saying can be applied to other
subjects. The study of history is filled with controversy. For example, many home educators
use timelines as an aid in history class. Do you know how much controversy exists
regarding timelines and the ancient world? When, for example, was the nation of Egypt
founded? Historians don’t agree. Depending on whose account you read, you will find a
variety of dates, including 10,000 BC, 5,000 BC, 3,100 BC, and 2,100 BC. Each historian
has arguments to back up his or her claims. I guarantee that if you explore this controversy
with your children, they will learn and remember a lot more about the founding of Egypt.

Now, of course, not all subjects can be explored in the context of controversy. There isn’t a
lot of controversy about balancing chemical equations, solving algebra problems, or learning
the state capitals. I also don’t think it’s valuable to artificially make up a debate just so you
can present something in the setting of a controversy. However, I do think it is valuable to
be on the lookout for topics your children are learning that relate to a controversy. When
you find such a topic, stop and spend some time on the debate. You might end up having to
skip a lesson or two in your planned curriculum, but I think the benefits your children
receive from analyzing the controversy will more than make up for a couple of skipped

Dr. Jay L. Wile holds an earned Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry, both
from the University of Rochester. He has won several awards for excellence in teaching and
is best known for his “Exploring Creation With...” series of junior high and high school
science textbooks. His latest book, Science in the Beginning, is a hands-on elementary
science course that begins a series of books which teach elementary science in a historical
framework. Dr. Wile and his wife of more than 25 years, Kathleen, homeschooled their
daughter, Dawn, from the time they adopted her until she graduated high school. Dawn is a
Butler University graduate and is currently a long-haul trucker with her husband, James.
You can visit Dr. Wile on the web at


1. Science 23 April 2010: Vol. 328 no. 5977 pp. 463-466.

Copyright 2014, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the Annual Print 2014 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education
magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and
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