Argumentation vs Explanation With The NGSS

What is the difference between argumentation and explanation?

There are a lot of misunderstandings around when it comes to the Science and Engineering Practices, and the concept of argumentation definitely has its fair share.  At the middle and high school levels, the practice of Engaging In Argument From Evidence involves evaluating and critiquing arguments, evaluating the evidence and reasoning behind those arguments, and constructing their own arguments based on evidence and reasoning. But how is this skill different than constructing an explanation? What separates an argument from an explanation?

It truly is a challenge when working with this practice to help students differentiate between explanation and argumentation.  In fact, many teachers and administrators struggle with this difference themselves, and many professional development resources and trainings do not, in fact, differentiate between the two.  While it may be easier to simply not distinguish one from the other, there are drawbacks to this approach, and ultimately, students will likely be expected to differentiate between the two as districts and states adopt NGSS-aligned curricula and assessments. 


So what is the difference?

First, explanations are constructed from models or representations and are often focused on finding the “right answer.” According to scientific philosopher Stephen Toulmin, the “goal of scientific explanation is to provide a causal account of events in the material world”  Accepted scientific explanations are established and supported by a wealth of evidence.  They have risen as superior to all other explanations, considering all information currently available.  When constructing explanations, the student’s task is to construct coherent explanations for phenomena that incorporate what is currently known and accepted in the field of science. 

Argumentation, which is the focus here, is how you get there. When students are engaging in argumentation, there is a greater degree of uncertainty.  Students engage in argumentation to either clarify their own understandings or to persuade others who adhere to a different idea.  While argumentation may seek to find a “right answer,” that answer is more elusive and is still up to interpretation.  Argumentation supports the type of open-ended investigations and explorations that can help students develop their conceptual understandings, and it is best used when applied to the “muddier” or unsettled elements of science. (Or to concepts that are still muddy in your students’ minds!)


C-E-R And Argumentation

I’ve noticed that when teachers start talking about argumentation, inevitably C-E-R makes its way into the conversation. It seems that Claims-Evidence-Reasoning writing has become the catch-all for a “new scientific method” (PS: you shouldn’t be teaching that anymore!) as well as “constructing explanations” and “engaging in argument.” In reality, it’s not really any single one of those, but if I had to choose – I’d actually throw it in with Constructing Explanations. C-E-R is not argumentation, but I’m going to leave diving into that to another post. You can read more here, if you’re interested.