The role of dialogic argumentation in science education for decision-making

My PhD journey (adventure? odyssey? endurance test?) is finished, and all that's left to do is walk across a stage. I have the title, the testamur, and my thesis has been published. If you're interested, you can download my thesis here. I've already found a typo...


A common rationale for science education is that learning science improves decision-making. It is argued that students will develop a strong understanding of the ideas and nature of science, which will inform their decisions. Toward this goal, science classroom activities aim to develop students’ scientific literacy, including their capacity to engage meaningfully with scientific ideas. Ideas about the nature of science are advanced through scientific inquiry, with emphasis on developing students’ capacity to articulate scientific explanations for phenomena. The success of this approach for developing students’ scientific literacy is demonstrated. However, evidence to support the success of this approach for students’ decision-making is scant.

Knowledge of, and about the nature of, science can assist individuals to evaluate claims made by others, as well as their own beliefs about a scientific issue. However, to genuinely engage in these evaluations, a disposition towards open-mindedness and a valuing of science are necessary. An individual is likely to engage with many socioscientific issues in their personal lives; that is, ill-structured and open-ended issues involving social and other factors beyond the physical and natural sciences. Engaging with these issues requires developed skills of reasoning, including the abductive logic used for reasoning from evidence. Scientific inquiries alone are insufficient for developing students’ decision-making processes, developing open-minded thinking, and the attitudes to science for decision-making in everyday contexts. 

It is difficult to assess directly an individual’s decision-making. It is feasible, though, to observe how learning science affects students’ performance in several domains related to decision-making, including, but not limited to: their knowledge of science and its nature, skills of reasoning, disposition towards actively open-minded thinking, and attitudes to science. 

These domains are inherent to dialogic argumentation. Like explanation, argumentation in the science classroom requires students to draw on their ideas of and about science, and reason between evidence and theory, but dialogic argumentation goes further. Dialogic argumentation, framed for tentative consensus, can motivate students to collaborate productively with others, and to engage with socioscientific issues relevant to their personal and social lives. The dialogue requires interlocutors to reason, to critique the reasoning of others, and to engage with feedback to their own reasoning. Students are encouraged to challenge their own and others’ beliefs, interrogate biases, and recognise the limits of knowledge and understanding about the world. They must also consider and negotiate scientific principles and standards of evidence. 

This study investigated the role that dialogic argumentation in a foundation course in science can play in developing first year preservice primary teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions for decision-making. A quasi-experimental design was prepared to explore the influence of science education, with or without dialogic argumentation, on seven domains that are potentially relevant to decision-making: knowledge of, and about, the nature of science, reasoning, algorithmic thinking, cognitive reflection, disposition towards actively open-minded thinking, and attitudes to science. 

Throughout the course, a small group of volunteers gathered for an hour each week to engage in dialogic argumentation about a socioscientific issue. These sessions were loosely scaffolded, with direction given about the topics discussed, and some instruction provided regarding successful (and unsuccessful) schemes of reasoning. 

Data were collected from consenting preservice teachers in both groups. Quantitative and qualitative data were gathered using surveys, tests, course assessments, and semi-structured interviews. The data were interpreted to describe changes in and differences between each group. Non-parametric statistical analyses were conducted of matched pairs’ pre- and post-treatment responses, and between groups, to identify changes over time and differences between groups. Toulmin’s Argument Pattern (Toulmin, 2003) and the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982) were both used as frameworks for evaluating reasoning presented in assessments and interviews. 

The group of preservice teachers who had engaged in dialogic argumentation demonstrated significantly more sophisticated reasoning, both in written argumentation (an optimal response task) and in interviews (a typical response task). They demonstrated more open-mindedness, and were significantly more likely to articulate normative ideas about the nature of science during interviews. Non-significant differences were found between the two groups’ knowledge of science and attitudes to science. 

These results suggest that dialogic argumentation can improve students’ skills and dispositions for decision-making in a way that scientific inquiry alone may not. This points to the potential value in including opportunities for rich, extended argumentation about socioscientific issues of interest to students in science classrooms. Future research may further elucidate the factors of argumentation that produce these outcomes, or how other outcomes may also be stimulated. 

At the present, the national science curriculum in Australia does not provide rich opportunities for extended argumentation, and teachers are not well-prepared to develop and enact such opportunities in their science lessons. If decision-making is to continue to be a rationale for science education, more needs to be done to support teachers’ capacity to scaffold and facilitate dialogic argumentation within an open and flexible curriculum.