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Introduction: Special Issue on Argumentation in Education in Scandinavia and England


The genesis for this special issue on argumentation in education in England, Norway and Sweden was a two-day doctoral seminar on argumentation held at the University of Oslo in April 2008. Chaired by Frøydis Hertzberg, this seminar provided a forum for doctoral students and lecturers in Norway and Sweden to come together with Richard Andrews, visiting from the Institute of Education at The University of London, in order to share ideas on the state of argumentation in schools and higher education—at least as far as it concerned the three countries involved. But we hope the significance of the discussions, represented by the articles in this issue of Argumentation, will be felt internationally.

First, it should be noted that the advent of an Argumentation and Education strand at the 2006 ISSA conference in Amsterdam signified a rise of interest in argumentation in this particular applied field, as well as a mutual prior interest from educationalists in the study of argumentation. Interest ranges from primary through secondary (elementary through high) schooling and on to further and higher education contexts, largely because argumentation is central to the development of rational thinking in personal, social and educational development (Billig 1996). Its importance in higher education has never been in doubt, even though in countries where the rhetorical tradition has declined since the 19th century (like England) it has only tacit, assumed significance. But with an increase in the number of studies in the last 20 years (e.g., Mitchell 1994a, b; Andrews et al. 2009) at the interfaces of the last years of schooling and the beginning of university, as well as at secondary school and primary school levels, argumentation now pervades the educational curriculum.

What theoretical principles underpin practice in the field of education as far as argumentation is concerned? The principal influence has been from argumentation studies within classical and contemporary rhetoric; and in particular the rhetorics identified within the North American tradition which derive, in turn, from the classical tradition as well as more recently from the 19th century Scottish tradition (Bain 1871). Rhetoric is seen to be a source for the categorization of broad types of writing within the curriculum, distinguishing argument from narrative, exposition and the more factual, descriptive genres. Debates about the curriculum include the matter of whether argument teaching should be explicit and generic (as in higher education within the USA in rhetoric and composition classes for beginning undergraduates); or whether it is best taught in the service of learning a particular discipline (arguing in History, say, being different from argumentation in the sciences). At secondary school level, it is now acknowledged that despite the difficulties in the art, the teaching of argumentation—both for compositional as well as cognitive development—is essential for the success of students. One important distinction that can be made is between argumentation and persuasion, where the latter is seen as one of the functions of argument. However, argumentation is a technical process whereas persuasion is an effect of good argument; they are not synonymous.

A secondary influence has been the work of Toulmin (1958/2003) and his followers, particularly through teachers and lecturers who have used his model (to his surprise) within communication studies as a basis for teaching argument. At school level, it has been the ‘field-independent’ dimension of Toulmin’s work that has been most influential (i.e., the generic model) even though its declared function as a way of testing the soundness of arguments has been used as a guide to actually composing arguments. The limitations of the model for the latter function are evident: it appears rather static as a composing tool, its architectural nature proving hard for young writers to use as they develop their plans and drafts. But its value in checking (for both students and teachers) where an argument has clear claims (propositions) and supporting evidence—and what the warrants and backing are that enable such a connection between claims and grounds—is invaluable. It is also helpful in identifying how an opposing point of view can be rebutted. Its ‘field-dependent’ dimension comes more to the fore in university disciplines, where the different fields have different modes of operation.

The dialectical and pragma-dialectical approaches to argumentation have probably had the least impact on educational practice, at least to date, and certainly within the English and Scandinavian contexts on which the present issue focuses its attention. Such a lack of influence is to be regretted, as pragma-dialectics provides a useful procedure for confronting, opening, arguing and concluding discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Both education traditions value openness, debate and discussion in a democratic spirit, and both would have much to learn from didactic procedures that could be converted to pedagogic ones for use at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education. Not unrelated to the dialectical approach is a broader-based interest in dialogue (see Simon and Richardson in this issue), dialogism (Bakhtin 1982) and dialogic teaching (e.g., Alexander 2005).

With the help of Vygotsky (1962), the notion that argument is not possible in the early years of elementary schooling has now been put to rest, with argumentation now appearing in the curriculum in England, at least (largely through discussion rather than in writing). It is Vygotsky who remains the principal locus of theory, particularly in terms of the psycho-social development of argument and argumentation in young people. His constructivist approach, coupled with an interest in teaching via the notion of scaffolding and the ‘zone of proximal development’ have been helpful in understanding and designing learning in the classroom. Such a contribution has been closely allied to the value of discussion in classrooms, with the notion that what is discussed and listened to ‘becomes’, in effect, inner speech and subsequently abstract thought.

The contribution of Habermas (1984), while not readily apparent in the classrooms of England and Scandinavia, nevertheless has potential significance for education. His emphasis on argumentation as a ‘court of appeal’ for conflicts and contradictions in everyday life is supplemented by a belief that argumentation is central to learning because it enables us to learn from mistakes. The key quotation is “Argumentation plays an important role in learning processes… Thus we call a person rational who, in the cognitive-instrumental sphere, expresses reasonable opinions and acts efficiently; but this rationality remains accidental if it is not coupled with the ability to learn from mistakes, from the refutation of hypotheses and from the failure of interventions.” (p18) It has to be said, though, that Habermas does not yet figure in much discussion about argumentation and education.

Finally, the linguistic and communicative dimension of argumentation is recognized in those articles in this issue (e.g., Nestlog, Coffin) that use Halliday’s (1978) relationships between content (the ideational), function (the relational) and form (the textual dimension) of systemic functional linguistics to explore and understand students’ compositions. The social semiotic (multimodal) approach to discourse is a potentially rich one for argumentation studies, not least in education where issues of power are clearly evident in teacher–student relationships, but also in terms of the semiotics of learning. Such an approach would ask seemingly simple questions like ‘What are the linguistic and other modal resources for learning?’, ‘What forms does learning take and how is it assessed?’ and ‘What role does argumentation have in learning, and how is it manifested in semiotic codes?’

The articles in this special issue approach argumentation from the point of view of educational practice, on the whole. We have arranged the sequence of articles in terms of the age groups to which the article refers, starting with the youngest. We have preferred this way of structuring the collection rather than a comparative split between English articles on the one hand, and Scandinavian ones on the other, because we think the common interests and practices with regard to argumentation are more telling than the differences.

Rather than recite the focus of each article, we leave the abstracts to orient the reader to the particular focus of each piece. We think that what the articles show collectively, to varying degrees of explictness, is a theoretical basis in Vygotskian thought combined with a rhetorical and/or linguistic and/or multimodal perspective. The influence of Toulmin is evident in a number of cases, both in a general sense and in specific cases of subject- or discipline focus. What is yet to be explored is the relationship between education and specifically learning on the one hand, and the pragma-dialectical approach and/or a more philosophical approach, as characterized by Habermas, on the other. We thus look forward to continued research at the interface of these important fields.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Learning, Curriculum and Communication, Faculty of Culture and Pedagogy, Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of Teacher Education and School DevelopmentUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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