It sometimes feels like society is permanently at loggerheads, divided over any number of issues, from genetic engineering and vaccines to euthanasia and religion, and unable to engage in productive exchanges across ideological divides.
Consequently, if education is to develop the next generation, it must nurture children as future citizens with the capacity to have productive conversations across these barriers of opinion and discipline.
We are often faced with big questions. But beyond the eternal questions concerning how life came into being and its purpose, there are more immediate concerns about which there will need to be decisions from citizens and leaders – both now and in the future. How should we respond to climate change? Should government be allowed to quarantine people to prevent the spread of disease? Should euthanasia of terminally ill children be allowed?
Responses to questions such as these can be informed by science, as well as by ethics, philosophy and religion. But how can we generate a well reasoned argument using a range of diverse – and often contradictory – sources? And how can we develop children’s ability to do so, too? Children, after all, are the future.
Learning to argue
First, children need to explore what an argument is, and what a good argument looks like within the subject they are studying. Put simply, an argument is a claim or set of claims supported by evidence and reasons, while a good argument is one justified by strong reasons and evidence that are relevant to the claim. But how do these arguments differ when it comes to the study of science and religious education (RE) in school?
The teaching and learning of arguments in science subjects has been extensively researched over the past 20 years. Academic textbooks and practical resources for teaching have been produced to support it.
But while RE curriculum documents often cite the need for students to produce well reasoned arguments, there has been far less research on and fewer resources for the teaching and learning of arguments within the subject.
One distinguishing feature between arguments in different subject areas is what is considered to be an acceptable reason. In the case of arguments in RE, what counts as a reason can be less defined and evidence-based than in the sciences, particularly when the focus may be on providing a “safe space” for expressing beliefs and respecting diversity, rather than on constructing persuasive arguments.
So what can be done about this – and how can we ensure that children studying the two subject areas can better argue with one another? The Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science (OARS) project brings the expertise of working science and RE teachers together, in collaboration with academic researchers. The project is exploring potential approaches for cross-curricular work across these disciplines, producing resources to support the teaching and learning of argument and reasoning in schools.
Why we should argue better
Our project team suggests that there are at least three good reasons to engage in cross-curricular teaching of argument and reasoning.
First, the subject groups can learn useful lessons from each other. Science teachers can draw on the skills of RE teachers for whom discussion, debate and dialogue are core features of their curriculum and daily work. RE teachers, on the other hand, could benefit by drawing on the well established resources and structure for teaching scientific arguments. They may also draw upon science teachers’ expertise when exploring scientific ideas and worldviews in RE.
Second, for the range of issues that might draw on both scientific and religious arguments – for example, abortion, end-of-life decisions, evolution – cross-curricular teaching could help develop a student’s capacity to discern the difference between those based on scientific evidence and those based more on faith and belief. It could also further their ability to accept and learn from other worldviews.
Finally, this work could extend across the whole school curriculum and bring greater coherence between school subjects. Learning about arguments in different subjects can make clear what is distinctive about each subject area (for example, highlighting the features of scientific arguments that make them distinctly scientific, as compared to other subjects). It can also highlight what features of arguments are common across specialities, showing how different subjects across the curriculum are related.
There is no single way that this cross-curricular collaboration could be rolled out in schools. Indeed, our participating teachers are innovative in finding approaches that work within the bounds of their busy, and often different, school lives.
In one example, an RE teacher and a science teacher are exploring the same question in their separate subject lessons: Why should we act on climate change? Students are asked to construct arguments using information that they have been learning in each subject, before combining these separate arguments from religion and science to present a convincing and coherent answer that draws on both disciplines.
We do not have all the answers and our work is ongoing. But we are convinced of the importance of learning how to argue and how to engage with others’ arguments for the sake of better scientific literacy, better religious literacy, and to create better citizens. Ultimately, it is about having productive discussions about what often appear to be unbridgeable divides and unanswerable dilemmas – and to bring people together in the process.