We’re in an age when people form opinions as quickly as they can read a headline. For this reason and others, it’s more essential than ever that educators teach students not what to think, but how to think. Critical, mindful thinking is a skill that ushers students through college and sticks with them through all their pursuits in life.
Argument mapping is a great way to challenge students to show their thinking and arrive at conclusions in a logical, reasoned manner. In this article, we’ll look at what argument mapping is, the benefits and drawbacks of it, and how to use it in the classroom.
Argument Mapping Defined
Especially when dealing with complex or controversial issues, it can be difficult to think clearly and logically. Argument mapping gives students a visual way to break down and clarify their thoughts to see if they’re coming to the best conclusion. According to ReasoningLab.com:
Argument maps are box-and-line diagrams that lay out visually reasoning and evidence for and against a statement or claim. A good map clarifies and organizes thinking by showing the logical relationships between thoughts that are expressed simply and precisely. Argument maps are driven by asking, “Should I believe that? Why or why not?”
Similar to mind mapping, students begin an argument map with a central idea, or contention, and then draw branches off that contention to show why their argument is valid. Here are the different parts of an argument map in more detail:
- Contention: The central argument, idea, or position the student is examining. Also sometimes called the conclusion, argument, or claim.
- Reasons: The foundational ideas supporting the contention. Also sometimes called the premises.
- Objections: Reasons one might object or argue against the contention.
- Counterarguments: Arguments against the objections.
- Evidence: The statistics, studies, or other resources backing up reasons, objections, or counterarguments.
- Conclusion: A brief summary of the major findings in the argument map.
Benefits of Argument Mapping
Argument mapping has many benefits, including the following:
- Gives a full-picture account of all sides of an argument: Like most people, students can easily become fixated on the side of an argument they agree with. Argument mapping forces them to engage with opposing viewpoints.
- Provides clearer thinking and sharpens reasoning skills: When you’re making a complex argument, it can be difficult to keep your points clear and distinct. Argument mapping helps students define their reasoning and organize their thoughts so they can communicate their points more easily.
- Helps teachers introduce new concepts: Some topics lend themselves to teaching them from many different angles. Assigning students to construct an argument map on the topic can be a great way to introduce it (see the Argument Mapping in Action section for ideas).
- Locates flaws in logic: If students are missing evidence for their reasoning or fail to address objections, an argument map will quickly point out these issues so they can work to address them.
- Promotes rational solutions in heated debates: Some contentions can spark deep emotions in people. Argument mapping provides a dispassionate way to examine these contentions and try to arrive at the most logical conclusion.
Drawbacks of Argument Mapping
As beneficial as argument mapping can be, it might not work for every student or every assignment. Here are some instances when you might not want to use argument mapping:
- Auditory and kinesthetic learners: Argument mapping is a visual medium, so it may not “click” as well for auditory and kinesthetic learners. That’s why it’s important not to depend solely on the visual diagram when teaching how to form arguments. Instead, make sure to let your auditory learners talk about their arguments aloud, or let your kinesthetic learners move around or use objects to represent the different parts of their argument.
- Group work: Argument mapping is not always effective for group work. Students may be able to construct a map together (i.e., come up with reasons and evidence together), but teachers should keep an eye on groups to make sure they don’t become ideological echo chambers or hostile to other groups’ positions.
- Hot-button issues: Argument mapping is designed to help people look past emotions and make rational claims. However, some issues are so loaded and controversial that students might become contentious discussing them regardless of the method you use.
Argument Mapping in Action
Here are some examples of how you might use argument mapping in the classroom:
Teaching the Parts of an Argument
When students hear the word argument, they likely think of emotional disagreements, not reasoned debates. Argument mapping can be a great way to illustrate to students the importance of having multiple reasons and pieces of evidence behind any argument they make. Simply drawing a map and defining each part can help you teach students the different components of an argument and give them a blueprint for how to think through issues in writing and conversation.
Starting and Revising an Essay
Writing a persuasive or argumentative essay is an essential skill for students’ future education and work. Some students struggle to grasp concepts such as using evidence to support claims or refuting objections to their argument. An argument map is a perfect way to outline an essay or identify gaps in a weak essay.
Teaching Historical Debates
It’s sometimes difficult for students to remember or understand controversial issues in history because they aren’t comparable to the types of issues we face today. Argument mapping can be a great way to help students understand both sides of historical debates (and thus better understand the historical period more generally). For example, you could assign students to draw an argument map for the debates between:
- Tories vs. Patriots
- Hamilton vs. Jefferson
- Lincoln vs. Douglas
Preparing the Next Generation of Readers and Thinkers
Today’s middle and high school students have grown up surrounded by astonishing levels of communication and technological advancements, and they’ve also experienced some of the biggest cultural shifts in recent history. They have news and opinions coming at them as quickly as they can think, so giving them the skills to read effectively, break down arguments, and think clearly and logically will pay dividends for years to come.