Teaching Toulmin

As I have previously mentioned, I’ve found it difficult to teach Toulmin’s model of argumentation to my ENG 104 students. I tried it during my first quarter but decided that the time it took wasn’t worth it considering the disappointing results. Students could identify data and claims, rebuttals and qualifications in the writings of professionals, but warrants and backing eluded most of them, and they struggled to use the model in their own writing. But Hillocks’ article has caused me to rethink my anti-Toulmin stance (especially since I don’t think Toulmin is optional for 105, which I’m teaching next quarter).

Hillocks unfortunately starts his article about critical thinking in a less-than-logical way, basing his assessment of the current state of the teaching of critical thinking in secondary English education on one single textbook published 20 years ago. He then jumps on the “argument is better than persuasion” bandwagon, linking persuasive writing with propaganda and advertising while prioritizing argument because it is “logical.”

But Hillocks does get on track after this, offering a good overview of Toulmin, the strongest point of which was his reminder that a strong argument follows a close analysis of the data. Often teachers press students to come up with their thesis too early, before really considering the data, having students use the data as support for the thesis rather than having the thesis emerge from their analysis of the data. As Hillocks points out, “without analysis of any data (verbal and nonverbal texts, materials, surveys and samples), any thesis is likely to be no more than a preconception or assumption or cliched popular belief that is unwarranted and, at worst, totally indefensible.”

At the end of his article Hillocks demonstrates how he teaches the Toulmin model of argumentation to a class of 9th graders. By concretizing these abstract concepts–he uses a mystery picture puzzle book—he’s able to have remarkable success teaching Toulmin to high school students. So, did I immediately go to Amazon to see if these Crime and Puzzlement books by Lawrence Treat are still available? You bet.