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Children’s Use of Inscriptions in Argumentation about Socioscientific Issues


Engaging science in everyday life often means not advancing knowledge or making new claims, but evaluating given claims with available evidence. In everyday situations, evidence is usually presented in some type of inscription (e.g. tables, diagrams, and other images). This study explores elementary students’ use of inscriptions as evidence in written arguments about socioscientific issues and how a school year of science instruction may play a role in that use.

Three science teachers and their 102 students in 5th and 6th grades at a progressive urban K-6 school participated in this study. I administered a written argument task at the beginning and the end of the 2013–2014 school year, in which students were asked to justify their personal decisions about either alternative energy use or genetically modified organisms. Throughout the year, I worked closely with the teachers to organize classroom instruction towards promoting argumentation and coordination between claims and evidence, and videotaped their science lessons.

Content analysis on students’ written arguments reveals that photos were cited the most in students’ written arguments, while tables were cited the least. Students tended to merely point to an inscription without articulate its relation to a particular claim, or to assert that an inscription “shows” a claim without saying how. They were also likely to credit inscriptions that aligned with their own position rather than discount those that supported counterclaims. From pre to post, these patterns did not change significantly. Analysis on science instruction further shows that the contestability of the claims students encountered in the classroom was low, meaning that they were not framed in arguable ways. The resources available to students for resolving these claims were also limited. The classroom discourse was not open enough for productive argumentation. These patterns may potentially account for the lack of change in students’ use of inscriptions in their written arguments.

This study extends previous research on what children think counts as evidence in arguing about everyday science. Findings suggest that while students learn to evaluate scientific explanations in school, they are put in a different position of having to justify their decisions when facing everyday science. School science should explicitly link the two tasks. Further, we need to frame the learning of science as stabilizing legitimately contestable claims, and provide relevant resources for students to argue with. Classroom discourse, lastly, should be open to argumentation and integrative with disciplinary and epistemic aspects of scientific practices.

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