Warranting Argument Across
the Curriculum: A Conversation with George Hillocks, Jr.
By Monica Luebke, Katherine V. Wills, and Rodney F. Dick, WR Assistant Coordinators
This spring, the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Louisville have had the opportunity to get to know Dr. George Hillocks, renowned composition researcher and Thomas R. Watson Visiting Distinguished Professor for 1999/2000. Dr. Hillocks, University of Chicago Professor of Education and English Language since 1985, has authored or co-authored over forty scholarly articles and five books during his career of approximately forty years. He instructs MAT students at the University of Chicago on how to teach 'kids', as he often affectionately calls primary and secondary students. Dr. Hillocks extends Schon's work on reflective practice and integrates the use of the Toulmin model of argument in the classroom. He agreed to speak to the WR staff writers on the issue of writing argument in the disciplines.
WR: What got you interested in argument in the disciplines?
GH: I got interested in the subject of argument in the disciplines in the 70's. I began looking at writing in other fields with the idea that we ought to be attending to arguments across those fields, not just in our own specialties. If we are going to be writing teachers, we need to make what we teach applicable to a wide area.
WR: Please tell us about your recent project with argument in the disciplines.
GH: Two of my MAT students at a Chicago high school presented an in-service for all of the English, social studies, and biology teachers on the teaching of argument with the Toulmin model. They had argument going across the curriculum so that all students got argument in English beginning with a unit where they learned the Toulmin terms, specifically, claims, evidence, warrant, rebuttal, and qualifier. All students had this in English, and some had it in social studies and/or biology as well. We did a pre-test and a post-test. The results were powerful. For example, in the Floodrock High test prompt, students are given a handout with sets of evidence such as quotations from various interested parties and statistical evidence. There were charts about the increase in different kinds of criminal activity and so on. They also had information about the increase in the size of the school. In this particular prompt, the rate of crime didnít go up any faster than the increase in population. Kids were having trouble handling those proportions. Some students argued in favor of the proposed security policy, and some argued against it because they could see how it wouldnít work. And then some argued that the school didnít really need it because the rate of crime wasnít going up any faster than the population. Using an analytic scoring system, we gave points for the major claim [major assertion of an argument that needs to be proven] such as, ďWe donít need a new security policy at Floodrock High,Ē then the subclaims, the evidence supporting those claims, the warrants [assertions that are held to be true], and so forth. When we analyzed the results of the pre-tests and post-tests, the mean growth was something like 14 or 15 points, which is pretty good. And this growth occurred even among the low-level kids.
WR: Your current research is based on the concept of argument as "inquiry." Could you explain this concept?
GH: Itís almost like saying that if I wanted to make this claim, what would I have to do to show it? What kind of evidence would I have to collect? Where will I find the evidence? If we think about it in classroom terms, a good discussion ought to work like argument as inquiry. The students are developing collaboratively an argument to support a conclusion. You set up these problems so that they find evidence; they try to draw conclusions from the evidence they have found; then they see if itís warranted. And then they look at objections because somebody else will have some [counter] argument, inevitably. Toulmin sets up the guidelines.
WR: What are some of the implications for using arguments in different disciplines?
GH: If you read Toulmin carefully, his book suggests that you can teach argument, but that the warrants are going to be field dependent. Field, to some extent, means the specialty. If you are making an argument in geology, for example, the rules of the field would govern what warrants are applicable. But at the same time, some parts of argument are invariant. You make a claim; you have evidence. What is it that warrants tying the evidence to the claim? That's where writing across the curriculum is important. The more I know about making arguments in areas other than English literature, or American literature, or whatever, the better I am going to be able to respond to real life situations. A lot of the evidence you use in literature is not the kind of evidence you use in other situations. So [students] need to know about how to use a variety of evidence. In one ninth-grade class at a Chicago high school, we focused on a driversí age change controversy. One of the Illinois Senators was sponsoring a bill to increase the driversí age to 21. We gave students fairly complex statistics, many in the form of tables. If you know how to read tables, itís not hard, but they just didnít know how. So I can see extending this into the math class.
WR: What connection do you see between argument and critical thinking skills?
GH: Critical thinking is learning how to argue: how to make an argument and how to examine an argument. We want our students to be able to think through whether the evidence supports the claim. Thatís the essence of critical thinking.
WR: Do you have any final comments?
GH: Years ago I was asked to look
at the writing of incoming freshman. Many teachers were saying how
awful it was, but I was thinking it was pretty good. The kids were
reasonably literate. They just didnít know how to write arguments--how
to make a good point. Joe Williams [professor of stylistics at the
University of Chicago] has done a lot of work with that, and I think heís
done a good job of it. What he does is just general enough that itís
applicable across disciplines, but it assumes that the students have the
content at their fingertips. Iím assuming that they need to learn
how to develop that [the content]. So I think that some of the things
you are doing here at U of L in your freshman composition courses, that
is, having some sort of thematic focus is going to provide enough background
to help students get the warrants and the evidence.
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