Can Software Help People Build Better Arguments?
Want to help students build better arguments? There’s a map for that.
While just about everyone agrees that critical thinking should be learned in school, the actual teaching of better reasoning is not easy.
But there’s growing evidence that concept mapping can help students engage in improved thinking, and a forthcoming research review argues that helping students create online organizers leads to stronger reasoning skills. The authors declare that mapping tools are simply “a very effective way to teach critical thinking.”
As an educational approach, concept mapping is far from new. The practice dates back to at least the 1970s, and it typically involves creating diagrams that visually represent a set of ideas. Argument mapping is a variation of concept mapping, and the approach encourages people to create diagrams of an argument’s contentions.
As an example, I included an image of an argument map below, which comes from an article by researcher Charles Twardy. He created a simple 2-D argument map for this statement: “Socrates is mortal because Socrates is human.”
2-D argument map of “Socrates is mortal because Socrates is human.”
Even in this simple example, the benefits of creating an argument map are pretty clear. By visually representing the contentions of a statement, people gain a better understanding of the statement’s strengths and weaknesses, and in this example, we can see that Twardy does not provide a lot of evidence that Socrates is mortal beyond the fact that Socrates is human.
A forthcoming paper pulls together a large body of research to support the idea that argument maps can boost critical thinking. Written by Martin Davies, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues, the article cites a wealth of studies showing that argument mapping has a large impact—in some cases, double or even triple the impact of a traditional critical thinking course.
One of the benefits of argument maps is that they focus students on inferences. According to the research paper by Davies and his colleagues, it’s easy to miss the leaps of reasoning that make up a contention. Argument maps address this problem by outlining the claims for a contention, and thus people gain a better understanding of how to construct an argument of greater quality.
The paper also notes that online argument mapping provides benefits to teachers. In contrast to a lot of educational technology, the approach is fairly painless to roll out in a classroom, and argument mapping allows students to “engage in self-directed exploratory learning as they try out different argument structures to see what works best.”
When it comes to teaching critical thinking, argument maps are more effective than many other interventions. In an earlier article, Davies noted that college age students using argument mapping over a ten week period improved their critical thinking skills as much as a student who had taken four years of more conventional, critical thinking training.
What’s more, ten weeks of practice on argument maps may not even be necessary, and Davies notes that some students show gains in critical thinking even after an hour of practice on an argument mapping tool.
A slew of mapping packages are now available. Some like Rationale come at a cost. Others like MindMup for free, as Davies notes. An old-school approach to mapping shouldn’t be dismissed either, and a Carnegie Mellon University study once found that using pencil and paper to diagram an argument also shows strong outcomes.
There are downsides to argument mapping, of course. For one, the practice may end up turning students off to reasoning, since the tools makes it easy to spin out argument after argument.
When we reached out to Davies, he pointed out another potential flaw. “Mind mapping is designed to help visualise associations, or loose connections between concepts and ideas,” Davies noted in an email. “It won’t necessarily help you structure inferential connections in arguments. It won’t help you reach a conclusion from stated nor unstated premises.”
But in the end, argument maps should be in the toolbox of any teacher who aims to teach sharper reasoning. The approach is inexpensive, easy-to use, and proven, and this makes them, as Davies notes, “an obvious course of action for modern educational institutions.”
This article first appeared on the website of Forbes.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation.