Help for students who lack logic

Have you ever had to teach logical reasoning to teenagers?

I have — many times — and it’s very difficult.

A few kids are fairly logical already; building on that is easy. But teens who don’t think logically at all have a hard time even understanding the task. Asking them to construct an argument with evidence is like asking them to write in hieroglyphics.

I came across an article last week with a great strategy for helping non-academically oriented adolescents improve their reasoning. The article, from The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (2003) includes an excerpt from student work that reminds me of too many high school papers I’ve read.

See if you can follow the argument:

“People should stop hunting animals for sport because they may become extinct. How would you feel if animals started hunting us? People should stop hunting animals for sport because some of the animals may become extinct. For example the Tasmanian tiger. Its scientific name is the thylacine. [Fragments of information and pictures follow, including a timeline toward the tiger’s extinction.] The solution that I’ve come up with is that the government should ban guns except for the armed forces.”

What is the appropriate feedback in this case? Where do you even start? The student thinks they are making an argument because they wrote the word “because” and included some facts. What can a teacher say besides “This makes no sense”?

The researcher and teacher decided to see if students could learn argumentation by talking in chat rooms. The teacher assigned students high-interest topics, like “Should classrooms be segregated by gender?” and took them to the computer lab to argue with each other online. 

In that setting, the students started focusing on — and refuting — each others’ points in writing. They also started talking to their neighbors in the lab, trying to figure out what to say next and how to word it. Soon, they were talking about their own thinking and reasoning in a way they’d never done in class (or while writing a paper at home).

Afterwards, the teacher printed out the discussion, and the students analyzed the strongest and weakest points. It was a major turning point, and the students became much more positive about writing. They saw how their ideas could turn into written arguments, and they stopped going through the motions and started actually reasoning.

The teacher used this strategy several more times during the year, each time moving students toward more independent thought and preparation.

“Most students were coming to enjoy dialogic argumentation for its own sake, not just for point scoring or socializing,” the researcher concluded.

It’s a great idea and a good reminder that discussion — whether in person or online — can be an effective way to help students learn. I wish I would have read it years ago.