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Argument in geograpy

‘An academic argument is a tool of learning and understanding. It is a form of intellectual engagement. It is a type of exchange based on the sharing of knowledge, a pooling of facts and opinions.’

Bonnett, 2008

Topics on this page:

  • Using argumentation in geography
  • Developing argumentation with older students
  • Argument Maps
  • Reading and References

In this context ‘argument’ refers to reasoning as used in a discussion or debate. It does not imply disagreement but it does mean that students need the skills to develop a rational argument in geography and deal with contrasting viewpoints. 

This process of ‘arguing’ in the language of academics is known as argumentation. It can support geographical learning, especially in complex and controversial topics.

The thought processes used to develop and present arguments are part of the essential 21st century cognitive skills. Much research has been done into argumentation in science education (Osborne, 2010). 

It indicates that teaching students to reason, argue and think critically improves their scientific reasoning. It seems very likely that this would be the same in the case of geography, but there has been very little investigation into the impact of argumentation specifically in geography.

Using argumentation in geography

In particular, argumentation is seen to have a role for developing learners’ reasoning skills and their ability to view an issue from different perspectives and explain both sides of an argument, orally and in writing. 

Many teachers might feel that this is already part of their practice, but adopting an argumentation strategy places a more overt focus on the process and skills of reasoning and explaining different views about a geographical issue.

The ability to reason and use argument is part of both GCSE and A level examinations. The DfE criteria expect a 16 year old geography student to be able to ‘Develop well-evidenced arguments drawing on their geographical knowledge and understanding. At A level, students must ‘Draw well-evidenced conclusions informed by wider theory’.

Budkeet al (2010) studied the arguments written by their Year 11 students in the context of global temperature and concluded that they needed to identify more clearly the crux of the geographical problem. 

They identified a need to process information and gain secure understanding before they could begin to develop any arguments. They found that, in response to a task, students resorted to internet research and reproduces the claims of others rather than gave their own reasoned arguments.

Ofsted (2008) noted that boys are ‘especially poorer than girls at articulating explanations and developing reasoned argument in writing.’ (Geography in schools: changing practice para. 32)

In order to develop reasoning skills and be able to argue effectively by year 11, students need to begin to learn this in key stage 3, if not the primary schools – see Johnson (2005).

One way to help students to articulate and communicate their reasons is by using an argument frame. This is used to scaffold the different stages in making an argument and includes both sides. Using such a frame, will provide students with a focus for their discussion and analysis.

The example shown below is an example of a simple writing frame to present arguments and information about different viewpoints. It sets out two opposite positions and then requires the student to give their opinion. By using a framework such as this, the important last stage is less likely to be omitted.

The issue we discussed was about …………………..

Some people think that ……………………………..

Because ………………………………

They argue that ……………………………

Another group that agrees with this point of view are …………….

They say that …………………

One the other hand …………. disagree with the idea that ……………

They claim that …………………

My opinion is ……………………..

Because …………….

Before they begin to fill out the frame, students first need to have been taught the topic so that they have a secure understanding of the key concepts. Roberts describes this as ‘pre-argumentation’ teaching which should include opportunities for students to examine data, generalise, ask critical questions and check information sources.

These activities involve students working with information to clarify and consolidate their understanding of the key concepts before they begin to explore alternative viewpoints and develop an argument.

  • Refer to Critical thinking in practice p 33 which provides activities and case studies of argumentation in the lower secondary school and gives further examples of writing frames you could use.

The two main things to remember to implement an argumentation strategy successfully are:

  • Students do not learn how to argue simply from learning content; they need to be given opportunities to engage in argument and learn strategies to help them articulate the different viewpoints.
  • The ability to develop a rational argument is developed progressively and depends on building a culture of argument in the geography classroom. This involves discussions, both with the whole class and in small groups.

Developing argumentation with older students

If students have been introduced to reasoning about geographical issues and articulating different viewpoints, it will be easier for them to handle controversial topics and so-called ‘wicked problems’ and develop further their skills of argumentation (see Values and controversial issues).

Argumentation begins with a ‘claim’. (It differs, therefore, to the route to enquiry which leads from an initial question to a conclusion.) From the claim, students investigate the evidence and counter evidence and put forward argument and counter-argument.

Sometimes it can help students plan and organise their ideas if they tabulate their arguments for and against in an Argument and counter argument grid. In argumentation students are asked to consider not only their own reasons but to predict and decide how to respond to the opinions of others. Therefore, the grid could take this sort of format:

Your pointCounter-argumentPossible response
   
   
   
   

Roberts (2023) identifies six types of argument (as summarised in the table below) that might be developed in school geography. These categories were identified by Bonnett (2008) to help undergraduates write essays. 

From these different categories you will see the richness in the different forms of argument in which you can involve older students. It also shows the importance of having a clear focus for the argument type you wish students to employ in a particular context.

Different argument types
1Identifying tensionsContradiction: e.g., sustainable development
Deconstruction: e.g., Europe and European
2Cause and effectQualitative data: e.g., Polish migration to the UK in the last 10 years
Quantitative data: e.g., development indices
3Starting with observation or hypothesis testingE.g., Is the local weather becoming more extreme?
4Arguing about words: meanings and classificationsE.g., What is globalisation and how does it affect the place where I live?
5Contributions and impactsE.g., What is the contribution of wind power to the UK’s total energy production?
6ComparisonE.g., How do the road traffic congestion zones of London and Singapore compare?
  • Read Roberts (2023) Chapter 8 for more information on each of these types of argument and also to find out about structured academic controversy which is another strategy you could use for developing ‘for’ and ‘against’ views and structuring argument with students.

Argument maps

An argument map visualises and improves thinking. It supports critical thinking by:

  • Promoting clarity and rigour in student’s thinking, and so deepens their understanding of different sides of the argument
  • Providing the visual image to help focus discussion and improve information sharing within a group
  • Focusing on what is most relevant, and thereby promoting better decision making
  • Showing the limits of current knowledge
  • Helping to present complex arguments to others.

Look at the example below, which organises some arguments concerning global warming.

Argument in geography diagram

Source: adapted from Morgan, A. (2006) ‘Argumentation, Geography Education and ICT’, Geography, Summer

The model shown above was developed by Toulmin (1958) and you can read about this in Roberts (2023) Chapter 8 where the different elements – claim, warrant, data, backing, qualifiers and rebuttal – are explained. 

You should note that Roberts stresses that the emphasis should be on developing good reasoned geographical arguments and warns against getting bogged down with the terminology. 

Roberts describes how to use Structured Academic Controversy with older students, which is another approach for discussing complex and controversial issues in geography, such as the expansion of Heathrow Airport or onshore wind farms.

Reading

  • Budko, A., Schiefele, U. and Uhlenwinkel, A. (2010) ‘I think it’s stupid’ is no argument: investigating how students argue in writing, Teaching Geography, Summer. This analyses the arguments used by year 11 students in the context of global temperature.
  • Johnson, S. (2005) ‘The art of argument’, Primary Geographer  Spring. This discusses teaching argumentation to year 5 students that has ideas applicable for lower secondary.
  • Morgan, A. (2006) ‘Argumentation, geography education and ICT’, Geography, Summer.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 8.

References

  • Bonnett, A. (2008) How to Argue (2nd edition). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
  • Osborne, J. (2010) ‘Arguing to learn in science: the role of collaborative, critical discourse’, Science, 328, pp. 463–7.
  • Toulmin, S. (1958) The Uses of Argument, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.