Manufacturing dissent: Constructive engagement in the classroom|
by Albie Sharpe (Kyoto University of Foreign Studies)
Keywords: Manufactured argument, debate skills, critical debate, discussion skills
It has become axiomatic that most students in Japanese EFL classrooms are reluctant to engage in discussions in ways that involve significant exchanges of opinions. There is a cultural emphasis on group harmony over individual expression of opinion, and thus Japanese EFL students often find it difficult to engage in debate in way that many Westerners do. While this may not apply to all language learners in Japan, teachers do need to find ways to enhance meaningful classroom interactions. This paper discusses one method of fostering in-depth interactions by developing the ability to constructively and responsibly argue and persuade.
Counihan (1998, n.p.) identifies the following condition as being necessary for in-depth interaction to take place:
- The L2s direct the dialogue at one another and not at or through the teacher.
- The L2s comment immediately on what another L2 has just said.
- The L2s disagree with or challenge another L2's statement.
- The L2s don't have to be invited (by the teacher) to speak.
- The L2s speak when there is a short silence indicating the end of someone else's turn.
- The L2s interrupt one another, diplomatically, to insert an opinion or question, etc.
- The L2s use the personal pronouns "I" and "You".
- They use paralinguistics, such as exclamations, gestures, body language and so on.
- The L2s are as relaxed as possible.
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This paper describes a lesson plan in which students are forced to confront each other's arguments, recognise differences of opinion, and engage in persuasive dialogue. This lesson can be called a manufactured argument since it creates the conditions for argument artificially, by forcing students to interact in ways that enhance the development of contradictory exchanges. In the process, students should also develop confidence in their ability to challenge other speakers in English. Students can also undertake tasks that involve argument role-switching (arguing from perspectives other than their own) and developing an understanding of issues through the creation of manufactured arguments on topics of their choice. The lesson can be used with any issue-based material, although it seems best suited to topics in which there are a range of different opinions – such as environmental, social and global issues.
This lesson plan can be adapted for students with oral proficiency levels ranging from lower-intermediate up through upper advanced. It can be used in classes with as few as 8 students to classes of 40 or more. With larger classes, it is often difficult to maintain an all-English atmosphere. This activity can be used in skills-based classes where the focus is on debating and persuasion skills or on discourse features such as turnover signals, back-channel signals, bracket signals and pre-empt signals (for interruption). This activity can also be used in content-based classes in which the use of a manufactured argument relates to the topic being studied. In such cases, most students will have limited argumentative skills.
Prior to the actual manufactured debate session, students should be given a sheet outlining expressions that are often used to agree/disagree with other people's opinions (see Appendix A). It is better to give this to students in a previous lesson, so that they have plenty of time for them to review it before practising manufactured argument. Appendix A is designed for upper-intermediate level students. The sheet may be simplified for those at a lower level by removing some (or most) of the expressions. While discussing the language on the sheet, students are introduced to the idea of "good" argument – where participants respect the views of others, while working to enhance others' understanding of their individual views on the issues concerned.
To prepare for the manufactured argument, statements reflecting a wide variety of opinions and attitudes regarding a topic are placed around the walls. Topics that have been used in the past have related to issues such as smoking (see Appendix B), the environment, Article IX of the Japanese Constitution, the death penalty, the "War on Drugs", and the best ways to learn English. Ideally, there should be between ten to twenty different statements per session. Each manufactured argument can take from sixty to ninety minutes, depending upon the number of statements used. Each statement is given a number. Some of the statements can be designed to be contradictory, so that students who have agreed with one need to be careful that did not agree with its opposite. Statements Number 7 and 10 in Appendix A offer an example of this.
Students are told that they have to circulate the room in pairs, spending about two minutes at each statement, discussing it, and using expressions from their language sheet. For lower level classes, the statements can be read out before the activity starts in order to check comprehension. Students can also be asked to distinguish between statements which are opinions and those which are facts. In the case of the manufactured argument on smoking, where there are 18 statements, students are told that it should take them 36 minutes to circulate the room. Teachers can then model this. In the case of the smoking manufactured argument, I usually choose to model Number 8 – "smoking is cool." It's easy for students to see both sides of this argument, and easy to argue from both sides:
Teacher: Number 8, smoking is cool. What do you think? Model Student: I disagree. Smoking is never cool. You have smelly clothes, yellow teeth, bad health, and you damage your children. Teacher: Yes, I agree with all those things, but think of all those great old movies Ð can you imagine Humphrey Bogart without a cigarette in Casa Blanca? What about Brad Pitt in The Mexican? He was really cool. I think smoking can be cool. Model Student: I see what you mean, but it's still not cool. It's cool in the movies, but not cool in your house. Dieing is not cool. Teacher: So you disagree? Student: Yes, I disagree. Teacher: Well, I agree with the statement, so I am going to write that.
[ p. 28 ]Just before the manufactured debate begins, students are given a sheet with two columns – one is headed "agree," the other "disagree." (see Appendix C). The teacher should show students that they should write the statement number in the column that matches their own opinion. They don't have to write their reasons or their partners opinion. They should then move on to the next statement on the wall of the classroom. In this first stage, depending upon the students' level, confidence, topic and statement, students do often choose to agree with their partner. In lower level classes, where I often use smoking or the environment, agreement with a partner at this stage tends to be about 90%. In higher level classes, where students are more confident about their language abilities, students are more willing to disagree.
The teacher's role at this stage is to check comprehension, ensure that the students are using English, and verify that students are circulating at a correct speed. Generally intervention should be kept to a minimum.
At the end of the first circulation of the room, students can be given feedback relating to their use of the target language, or relating to their comprehension of the statements. The teacher can also offer suggestions as to how students can use discourse features such as intonation (along the lines suggested by Corbett (n.d.), gestures, and body language. There may also be a need to deal with any problems that may have occurred – emphasising respect for the opinions of others may be necessary. Generally at this stage, students are not very confident about giving opinions, so there are few problems to deal with in terms of issues of respect for the opinions of their partner.
The second stage involves giving students a new partner. Students are told to compare their agree/disagree answer sheets. When they find a difference in their opinions, they are to go back to that statement and discuss it. They should state their reasons for believing that their answer is right, and they should try to persuade their new partner to change their mind. If they cannot do this within 4 - 5 minutes, then they can "agree to disagree." When the students have completed this stage, they can be given yet another new partner. Some of the disagreement at this stage is resolved through students developing a clearer comprehension of the meaning of the statement, so students are forced to clarify their understanding of the meanings of the statements, which is highly effective.
As a third stage, to make it more difficult, students could be asked to argue for opinions that they formerly disagreed with. Students should at this stage be more familiar with the arguments for and against each statement, so arguing should be within their ability.
As a way of wrapping up, I generally go through each statement once again, asking the whole class for a show of hands, agreeing or disagreeing, and choosing one student to give reasons for their opinion. This serves to expose students to a wider view than they may have been exposed to within their small circle of 3 or 4 partners.
Follow-up exercises for this activity can involve doing writing activities, where students are asked to choose two (or more) statements, create supporting arguments for each of them, and then give a conclusion showing which idea is better.
Issues and Concerns
Generally, if students are to develop the ability to argue effectively, doing a manufactured argument just once is not enough. Students need to go through the process several times to develop better argumentative language skills. A great way to do this is for students to develop their own manufactured arguments, by researching the issues and developing their own statements, and combining opinions and facts. The advantage of doing this is that students will develop the ability to see arguments from more than one perspective. They will also learn to differentiate between factual and opinion-based statements.
Only once has a manufactured argument really gone wrong. The topic was "the War on Drugs" and done with a small class. As part of each statement I included the statement "Drugs should be illegal because . . ." or "Drugs should be decriminalised because . . ." At the end of the first stage I found that all the students had agreed with the "drugs should be illegal" statements, and comprehensively rejected the "drugs should be decriminalised" statements. With everyone in complete agreement, the need for an argument collapsed. When I quizzed them about this, students admitted that they had felt they would be labelled "pro-drugs" if they agreed with decriminalisation. This situation could probably have been avoided had I increased the ambiguity of the statements, so that students could agree with pro-decriminalisation statements without appearing to support the whole decriminalisation platform. Also, students could have been better prepared for the argument before the day through background reading. Finally, I could also have used the option of giving students different argument roles.
Once students have got the idea of a manufactured argument, they produce a lot of target language, and do tend to work hard to get their meaning across. The interaction does tend to meet the criteria suggested by Counihan (1998), in that the students have a task that requires listening comprehension and response generation. It would be possible to have students sit in pairs with the arguments all on a page in front of them, but it would detract from the physical aspect of standing, moving and maintaining a higher level of energy. Manufactured arguments are a good way to teach the early stages of debating, where students can develop arguments and see how arguments can be used against them. It is also an excellent means of discussing social issues in a way that enhances real language use.
Corbett, J. (n.d.) Raising student awareness of intonation at discourse level. Available online at http://www.developingteachers.com/articles_tchtraining/int3_jeanette.htm. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2003).
Counihan, G. (July 1998). Teach students to interact, not just talk. The Internet TESL Journal, 4 (7). Available online at http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Counihan-Interaction.html. (Accessed Nov. 9, 2003).