Argument and Personal Efficacy: Authentic Process and Product

A longstanding mainstay of higher education, argument demands cognition, reasoning, and effective communication. A compass for the Common Core was feedback from colleges that incoming students were unprepared for building argument with evidence. Opinion-based writing and persuasive writing kicked up a notch across K-12 when new standards incorporated essential skill development for argument with evidence. However, the rationale for learning argument far outdistances the frequently repeated, but sometimes empty, mantra, “You will need this for college.”

Power of the Argument

Indeed, the rationale for argument stands on rigor and relevance. Higher-level thinking, reason, critical engagement, synthesis of information, drawing conclusions, and interrogating multiple perspectives are the ingredients for knowledge building. This level of cognitive work builds capacity for long-term formative knowledge (Todd 2012).

Challenging the learner who is going through the motions, argument pulls inert factoids into an interactive and authentic learning dynamic. Argument is personal. In a student-centered learning environment, argument empowers and students experience motivation, flow, agency, and personal efficacy. Argument defies absolutism, a belief that one right answer is out there waiting to be found. Argument redirects young people’s preference for peer opinion as the ultimate standard of judgment. Argument requires reflection on core beliefs and ethical principles, interrogation of contradictions, and a defensible claims.

Argument is not for lightweights. You cannot phone it in. Mary Ehrenworth of the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project convincingly argues that teaching argument is fundamental to literacy. As such, educators need to teach argument in all disciplines throughout a school year. Isolated or intermittent practice with the process of argument writing is inadequate. Critical to argument with evidence is the school librarian. Indeed, the very essence of building arguments is inquiry supported by professional teacher librarians.

Affirmation from Standards

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 Framework for State Social Studies Standards gain traction, building arguments with evidence is the protagonist in the new script for learning and teaching. The CCSS Anchor Standard 1 for writing states: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” Further elucidating that standard, the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices stated: “The ability to write logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning and relevant evidence is a cornerstone of the writing standards, with opinion writing—a basic form of argument—extending down into the earliest grades.” (Common Core State Standards).

Why has building arguments with evidence achieved such a prominent focus in educational reform?

  • According to Barbara Kurshan , the work force of the 21st century requires critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and information literacy. Argument develops all of these skills. Many employers cannot find candidates that qualify for available jobs (2017).
  • The very integrative levels of cognition, critical thinking, synthesis, and communication required for argument build long-term, deep knowledge and understanding. Additionally, argument that is relevant, meaningful, and engaging motivates students intrinsically and authentically.
  • Argument builds intellectual and personal agency and efficacy. It builds responsibility and confidence, while learners assimilate the higher-level skills they practice with guidance. Challenging work has repeatedly proven to result in successful learning as evidenced by the work of Fred Newmann, Anthony S. Bryk, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Willard Daggett.

Reality Check

A study in contrasts: in take one, we see the school librarian in the throes of argument. She has directed students to investigate Opposing Viewpoints in Context. A herd of adolescents grabs any easy way out to “argue” an issue of the day. Following a line of least resistance, the students hunt indiscriminately for quotes and usable points to paraphrase. Some resort to shortcuts that preclude any uptake of the issue at hand. Asking the cut-and-paste practitioners about their argument, after the fact, they respond with “you know”: “You know, sustainability,” “You know, separation of powers.” Their teacher could have anticipated dissatisfaction with the student products.

In take two, we witness students in a participation in government class engaging with a school-wide initiative to improve the school climate. The choice they made was highly relevant to them as, early on, these students chose to take action and make a difference. In teams, they investigated how other schools successfully reduced interpersonal violence and harassment. In teams, they explored their own reasons for working toward change. Developmentally, these students were ready to integrate their core beliefs and communicate with a high-stakes audience. Teachers, the school librarian, and student and faculty leaders insured their potential for efficacy. The students knew the door was open for them to take action.

Their authentic product was an argument. Their audience was a state education department hearing. They progressed through developing a claim, using supporting evidence, considering perspectives beyond their own, addressing counter-arguments, analyzing and synthesizing the strongest and most important arguments, and communicating those arguments to a decision-making body. The strategies they argued became a part of the Safe School Plan for their state.

Contrasting 10 Instructional Dynamics

Take One – Not Yet Take Two — Tapping into Argument Power
Teacher-directed task Relevant and meaningful choice, real world, authentic
Any viable argument/quote quest Purposeful use of strongest, most authoritative argument, authentic process
Any viable source, preferably short Comparing, evaluating, close reading, analyzing
Surface level, packaging for points Depth, drawing and testing original conclusions
Fast food for thought product Synthesis, sense of audience, reasoned
Working independently Working collaboratively
Restating the texts; “I’m done” Ongoing revision and refinement as depth of understanding evolves
Ignore bias, authority, counterclaims Open-minded interrogation of counterclaims and multiple perspectives
Little evidence of knowledge and skill growth Evidence and personal awareness of knowledge and skill growth
Got a C+ Personal agency and personal efficacy, civic action

Instructional Guidance

Quality instructional guidance for evidence-based argument abounds. Avoiding the daunting prospect of starting from scratch by test-driving some available models, creating a happy hybrid, or putting bits and pieces into practice make the challenge much more tenable. Some half steps to argument walk learners into the thinking necessary for success.

Many states have adopted the building of evidence-based argument as a core proficiency. As a result, state education department websites feature step-by step guidance for teaching argument. Teachers can access quality graphic organizers, rubrics, and explanatory texts that provide straightforward instructional overviews. Odell Education has created one such model, which is both practical and comprehensive. The materials have a generic quality for interdisciplinary applications. See, for example:

—Building Evidence-Based Arguments, Grade 6:

—Building Evidence-Based Arguments, Grade 7:

Argument and Instructional Strategies

Teachers and librarians can model arguments when teachable moments arise in any discipline. Students can build a sense of the ground rules for effective argument, the criteria for self-assessment and peer review, and they can experience personal agency in using evidence in relevant debate. They can make a choice of a claim based on evidence, support that claim, and consider other points of view and counter claims. They can refine their product with reason and strong and authoritative evidence. The following models of authentic inquiry processes and products offer guidance and inspiration.

Debate and Flash Debate

A first step on the path to building arguments with evidence is taking a side in an informal debate. Young learners can make a claim and defend it with evidence. Debate practice takes a relatively brief time commitment. Revisiting informal debate on issues relevant to learners at frequent intervals builds confidence in a risk-free setting. Reflecting and debriefing after students engage in debates can construct a model of how it works best.

Shifting from a straightforward delivery of information, teachers and librarians can mine content for the edges, the potential point/counterpoint opportunities. With the chance to make a claim and defend it in a simple pairing with another student, learners can try on the power of evidence, respond to opposing ideas, and make decisions with open mindedness. (For more information, see the Argument Talk Protocol in Mary Ehrenworth’s Educational Leadership article “Why Argue?”)

Debate drives inquiry. Questioning, investigation, synthesis, expression, and reflection propel debate preparation. Formal debate is a disciplined and structured model for argument. Highly engaged debate teams compete in many schools and never fail to amaze audiences with their contentions and supporting evidence. Web resources featuring an array of informal debate models include:

—“Student Debate Deepens Thinking and Engagement” by Ben Johnson:

—“Weaving Debate into the Writing Process” by Ashley Prophet:

—“More Resources for Classroom Debates” from Education World

Mock Trial

Thanks to the media, the drama of the courtroom is in Americans’ DNA. Presenting arguments before a judge and jury raises the stakes for effective argument. Taking a piece of history, policy informed by science, or civic issue into a mock trial exponentially increases the chances that learners will develop depth of understanding. When interrogating, analyzing, and questioning, learners take an active role, an active voice, and a stand. With a basic framework for this model, the participants can roleplay or define their purpose by choice. Even young learners can engage in this argument-driven model that depends on inquiry. Responding to opposing arguments and justifying their own requires students’ flexible use of knowledge and analytical thinking. For more information on mock trials see:

—iteracy & the Law: Mock Trials Meet the Common Core:

—Mock Trial” from Kids Discover:

Civic Action

Evidence-based arguments with real-world purposes promote personal agency. Indeed, students with a cause, so to speak, often exceed expectations for a particular project. Meeting with legislators, presenting arguments to public officials, engaging in community problem solving, and taking responsibility for change, graduates a learner to the status of active citizen. A generative writer/speaker who argues using digital media, public forums, or even the telephone or letters, is the mastery level learner of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards. The challenge of equipping learners for this kind of action stands before every school librarian.


During the Iowa Caucuses in 2016, one television network featured a caucus in a school gymnasium where participants literally clustered into groups for specific candidates. An eighteen-year-old college freshman had the responsibility to lead his cluster and argue effectively to convince more people to join his group and support his candidate. Whatever came up for debate, this young person had the evidence at the ready. Probably just out of high school, the confident young man knew he was effective, knew he had personal agency in an important role, and obviously acted on his own beliefs and values.

Do whatever possible to send learners into our challenging world ready to speak with conviction, ready to argue with evidence, ready to stand up with a carefully developed skill set.

Higher Education Guidance for Argument

Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning:

Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric:

Purdue Online Writing Lab:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center:

Works Cited and Further Reading

Ehrenworth, Mary. “Why Argue? Educational Leadership 74, no 5 (February 2017): 35-40.

Filkins, Scott. “Developing Evidence-Based Arguments from Texts.” ReadWriteThink. NCTE.

Institute for Personalized Learning. “Learner Voice Demonstrates Commitment to Building Agency.” Personalized Learning blog. October 28, 2015.

Kurshan, Barbara. “Teaching 21st Century Skills for 21st Century Success Requires an Ecosystem Approach” Forbes (July 18, 2017).

Marzano, Robert. “The Art and Science of Teaching Argument” Educational Leadership 70, no 1 (September 2012): 80-81.

Schmoker, Mike, and Gerald Graff. “More Argument, Fewer Standards.” Education Week (November 30, 2017).

Schulten, Katherine. “10 Ways to Teach Argument-Writing with the New York Times.” New York Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

Skantz-Hodgson, Leslie and Jamilla Jones. “Why Argument Writing Is Important to Teach.” MiddleWeb (August 20, 2015).

Todd, Ross J. “School Libraries and the Development of Intellectual Agency: Evidence from New Jersey” School Library Research 15 (2012).

Williams, Philip. “Student Agency for Powerful Learning” Knowledge Quest 45, no. 4 (March/April 2017): 9-15.

About the Author

Mary Boyd Ratzer, MA, MLS, is a writer of standards-based instructional guides for Rosen eBooks in social studies and science. She co-authored Rx for the Common Core: a Toolkit for Implementing Inquiry Learning and the two-book series Think Tank Library: Brain Based Learning Plans for New Standards for K-5 and 6-12. She is also a contributor to Knowledge Quest and SLC. Her real-world approach to inquiry, brain-based learning, and new standards springs from a 37-year career as a K-12 teacher and school librarian, adjunct professor at the University at Albany’s Department of Information Studies, and 13 years of professional development and advocacy work in New York and beyond, as well as contributions to the New York State Education Department’s initiatives with school librarians and curriculum and assessment. She was the recipient of New York State’s Life Service to Libraries Award in 2015.

MLA Citation Ratzer, Mary Boyd. "Argument and Personal Efficacy: Authentic Process and Product ." School Library Connection, March 2018,

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