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Introduction to Refutation


Civil Discourse in the Classroom
Chapter 2: Building Blocks For Civil Discourse
Introduction to Refutation

If we want to live in a society animated by vibrant, civil conversations, it is not enough to teach students to have informed opinions. We must also teach them how to disagree with others. There is, however, a dearth of role models for civil disagreement. If we want young people to develop nonviolent conflict resolution skills, we must teach them more constructive ways to engage in disagreements.

Learning to disagree involves more skills than the simple refutation of an opposing idea. Students must learn how to speak in a measured way, how to understand which ideas are likely to be trigger points for escalation and how to choose reasonable and effective language.

Having a basic method for refutation is an important place to start. It can provide a framework and tools for the kinds of classroom debates and discussions that will prepare students for civil disagreement outside the classroom.

Start by teaching students a basic four-step method of refutation, outlined here. The method has the advantage of giving students a structure on which to hang their ideas – a structure that encourages students to substantiate their arguments without personal attacks or slurs.

 

Four-Step Refutation

  • Step 1: Restate (“They say…”)
  • Step 2: Refute (“But…”)
  • Step 3: Support (“Because…”)
  • Step 4: Conclude (“Therefore….”)

Step 1: Restate.

The first part of refutation is for a student to restate the argument being challenged. Students should concisely and fairly summarize the opposing argument; the cue “They say…” (or “Some say…” or “Mary said…”) is helpful. Discourage students from using the second person (“You say…) when restating arguments to avoid becoming too personal. Explain also that students do not need to restate in detail the argument they’d like to refute; a summary is fine. This has the added benefit of helping students practice summarization, a skill that is at the heart of critical thinking.

  • Speaker 1: “School should be year round.”
  • Speaker 2: “Speaker one says that school should be year round.”

Step 2: Refute.

Here, students state their objection to a point in a simple sentence. It’s helpful to encourage students to use the verbal cue “but….” For younger students, it is sometimes helpful to use the cue “But I disagree…” for simple disagreement. This second step functions as a kind of thesis statement for the counter argument, as shown by this example:

  • Speaker 1: “School should be year round.”
  • Speaker 2: “Speaker one says that school should be year round, but school should last for only nine months.”

Step 3: Support.

This part of refutation parallels the “RE” (reasoning and evidence) in ARE. Using the verbal cue “because,” students will try to provide examples to support their reasoning:

  • Speaker 1: “School should be year round.”
  • Speaker 2: “Speaker one says that school should be year round, but school should last for only nine months, because students need time off to do other things like play sports and go on family vacations.”

Step 4: Conclude.

Students should attempt to wrap up their refutations with a comparison, a contrast or some kind of statement that demonstrates their ability to resolve two opposing ideas. The verbal cue “therefore” in this part of the process helps students approach the argument logically. Beginners at this process are likely to simply restate their main point; that’s very similar to the approach we see in young writers trying to learn how to write effective conclusions to short essays or paragraphs. As students become more adept, they learn how to use “therefore” more effectively in disagreements.

  • Speaker 1: “School should be year round.”
  • Speaker 2: “Speaker one says that school should be year round, but school should last for only nine months, because students need time off to do other things like play sports and go on family vacations. Therefore, year-round school is bad for students.”