Make the argument: new tools for learning in the classroom

Make the argument: new tools for learning in the classroom

At a recent talk, Jan Bulgren referred to an editorial cartoon when she explained the need for new tools to help students and teachers grapple with higher order learning.

In the 2006 cartoon by Steve Kelley, a child approaches his mother, who is reading a newspaper that says “Iraq” across the front. 

“Mom, what’s a civil war?” the child asks.

Her answer: “A contradiction in terms.” 

“There’s so much to unpack there,” said Bulgren, who is a research professor at the Center for Research on Learning. “Think about everything that has to be discussed to have that conversation, everything that has to be defined, if you’re not going with that simple answer.”

And, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding.

Similarly, students and teachers need tools to help them unpack the topics they are trying to understand and achieve the higher order thinking required to make an argument, compare and contrast, and make decisions. 


A grant from the National Science Foundation that she is leading aims to help students and their teachers meet next-generation standards for learning. The project focuses on higher order thinking for middle school students and is being implemented districtwide in Santa Clara, California. The grant focuses on learning in general education STEM courses such as earth, life and physical sciences.

The grant brings together two instructional approaches to teach those subject areas. One is a set of tools called Content Enhancement Routines that will support science learning and reasoning. Routines focus on organization and understanding of information, analyzing causation, making comparisons and developing answers to critical questions, as well as argumentation, decision-making and problem-solving collaborative skills.

The second type of instructional approach the grant will fund brings instructional technology in the form of a Google App that supports cloud-based application functions. It will build on the Content Enhancement Routines developed at KU to ensure students have access to graphics, videos, models, and background knowledge. The suite of interventions will be co-designed with educators and experimentally tested. The application is being led by Jose Blackorby at CAST, a Boston-based nonprofit education research and development organization.

“What we heard from students and from teachers is that they needed new ways to explore learning and teaching in today’s world,” Bulgren said.

She noted that students at risk — including students with learning disabilities — needed different tools to achieve the new standards, including Common Core, state and national standards.