Research Summary

In pursuit of consensus: Disagreement and legitimization during small-group argumentation

Certain Student Behaviors Help Move Groups from Arguments to Consensus

International Journal of Science Education

Science educators in general, and environmental educators in particular, often use techniques related to argumentation to teach science concepts. Argumentation allows students to apply their knowledge as they form and defend their own arguments and challenge others. Often, the goal is for students to reach a consensus about the topic at hand. But, for students, reaching a consensus can be challenging.

The authors of this study explain that a long history of research helps explain why it’s often difficult for people to argue productively. For example, they point to “confirmation bias,” in which people favor evidence that supports their ideas. The authors also cite the work of cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber, who concluded that people are perfectly capable of objective reasoning “when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate.” Other factors that can influence how students argue include how strongly the students hold their beliefs, students’ perceptions of the people with whom they are arguing, and classroom norms and culture.

The authors observed fifth- and sixth-grade students as they engaged in an argumentation activity in which the students were asked to come to consensus about ecosystem interactions. As a part of the week-long lesson, the researchers tasked pairs of students with identifying the food source of an invasive species based on information and data supplied through a computer model of the fictional ecosystem. They asked the pairs to develop an argument to support their idea; then two pairs of students were joined and asked to discuss their arguments and come to consensus about the food source. In all, the authors observed ten groups of students in five classrooms in three different schools. One school was a suburban school in the Midwestern United States, another was in a small city in the Mountain West, and the third was an urban school in a major American metropolitan area.

The authors’ analysis focused on one group that failed to reach a consensus and two groups that struggled but eventually did reach consensus. In the group that did not reach consensus, three students agreed but one did not, and the students in agreement challenged and dismissed their classmate’s ideas quickly. The researchers believe that “the students were focusing on the persuasive aspects of argumentation,” as evidenced by their exclamation at the conclusion of the discussion, “We win, we win.”

In contrast, in the groups that ultimately found consensus, the students “seemed to find a way to legitimize one another’s ideas—so they were not simply ‘wrong’ . . . .” In one group, for example, a student had become disengaged in the discussion as the students argued about the invader’s food source. Only after another student in the group acknowledged that her idea might be right did the disengaged student become reengaged, and the students found consensus. In the other group, the authors point to one student who held an opposing view but finally accepted the rest of the group’s claim, by saying “‘I still don’t [agree], but yes.’” The student’s acceptance of both ideas paved the way for the group to move forward from argumentation to consensus.

The authors believe that in addition to skills related to constructing, articulating, and revising arguments, students also need other skills to move to consensus. The authors explain, “In contexts like the schools participating in this study, some students will be more willing participants in consensus-building through argumentation if they feel that they are heard and that their ideas are valued.” The researchers argue that teachers can foster this kind of social interaction by establishing classroom norms that support consensus by legitimizing other’s ideas.

The Bottom Line

Environmental educators often use argumentation and consensus as teaching tools to help students understand the complex nature of environmental issues and to help build skills in addressing them. This research suggests that students may need support in effectively engaging in argumentation. It may require that teachers remind students that the goal of argumentation is finding an answer, not the answer. That is, students should not set out to persuade each other to their own way of thinking, but instead acknowledge each contribution as they move toward a solution. Teachers can accomplish this directly with reminders during an argumentation activity, but also indirectly through the creation of a supportive classroom culture.