It’s time for a good argument

Mrs Anne Byrne, Debating Coordinator and Teacher of Science

An alarmist article in a recent weekend newspaper (Brennan, 2015) highlighted the potential perils associated with arguing with teenage children. The author drew a strong negative correlation between the frequency and intensity of these arguments and children’s self-esteem and general emotional well-being. It made frightening reading for an otherwise pleasant Saturday morning and no doubt loaded another layer of uncertainty on to the shoulders of caring parents.

Fortunately, social psychologists (Dusenbury, 2014; Willott, 2011) rarely take such a dismal view. Most, in fact, actively encourage regular robust exchanges, claiming that a well-conducted argument is conducive to the maintenance of healthy relationships within families, attributing significant social benefits to frequent arguments (Your Tango Experts, 2011). Of course, this claim is underpinned by the understanding that mutual respect, courtesy and well-understood rules of engagement are always observed by all protagonists – somewhat of a challenge as parents know!

Still, as Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (2011) remind us, people argue passionately and effectively for a range of valid reasons, aside from a need to win. These include establishing a position in a relationship, getting what we want, reflecting shifts in the balance of power as well as setting out our beliefs and opinions. Well-conducted arguments invite others to understand and reflect on our perspective (Mercier & Sperber, 2011) with the most common goal being one of persuasion. Sounds like every family setting we have ever encountered, does it not?

But if arguments are so necessary to effective social functioning, the puzzle, then, is why people are so amazingly good at arguing in some contexts and so amazingly bad in others (Mercier & Sperber, 2011). And, why is this apparently successful form of argumentation so spectacularly unsuccessful in most professional settings? The answer to this conundrum lies with the general lack of understanding as to what an argument actually is.

A formal definition of the word ‘argument’ (, n.d.) describes it as an ‘oral disagreement’ or ‘an altercation’. Alternatively, an argument can be described as a discussion involving differing points of view or a debate. A third interpretation (Weinberg, 2012) concludes that arguments are a process of reasoning or a series of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory.  Similarly, Michael Gilbert (2008) defines an argument as ‘a claim that is backed by reasons’. But, somewhat confusingly, he then adds that ‘in arguments both parties could be interested in finding the truth, solving the problem or in just being right’.

Clearly, what emerges from these definitions is that there are different types of argumentative styles required for different reasons in different contexts. This discussion proposes that the two most common styles of argumentation can be classed as ‘social’ argumentation and ‘professional’ argumentation, each performing best when applied within well-understood boundaries.

Social arguments begin with a belief or an opinion and the ‘combatant’ then chooses evidence selectively to support this belief, structuring it logically (sometimes) and persuasively (almost always) to convince the opponent of the veracity of the belief.  In this scenario, arguing is not so much about establishing truth or even facts, but about convincing others and guarding against being convinced by others. Good arguments in this setting invite us to understand and reflect on our perspective, while our focus is on the confirmation and acceptance of our own ideas. Ironically this often drives us not to the right decision, but to the one we can best justify (Mercier, 2011). This form of arguing is most commonly seen in family settings, politics, playgrounds, reality television shows, sports commentaries and social settings.

In contrast, professional argumentation has a very different intent: that of reaching a previously unknown conclusion or ‘truth’ from the analysis of evidence. This type of argument begins with the accumulation of non-selective evidence and progresses through a logical selection process, to a stage of hypothesising in order to reach a bias-free conclusion. The authenticity and validity of the process itself provides the persuasive factor in this form of argumentation. The intent of most professional argumentation is to improve societal, scientific and cultural knowledge and to assist in the making of better decisions (Mercier & Sperber, 2011).

We accept that the quality of our lives depends on our ability and the abilities of those around us to engage in sound decision making practices, thoughtfully considering all alternatives while using appropriate evidence to select one alternative over the other. This set of cognitive skills is what many researchers (Leighton & Sternberg, 2004) describe as internal argumentation which requires a set of skills that are not innate but rather must be taught and learned. Lohman and Lakin (2009) refer to this process as reasoning, an attribute that goes beyond merely selecting information and is deductive in both nature and outcome. It is this reasoning capacity of humans that creates and sustains culture (Mercier, 2011).

But misconceptions about the role of reasoning in argumentation abound and can result in failure to achieve the goals of the argument. This is because, contrary to popular belief, reasoning underpins both social and professional arguments. Many exponents attribute non-reasoning and emotional features to social arguing situations and in the absence of these observable characteristics, assume that the argument taking place is ‘professional’ and ‘rational’ aimed at determining fact and truth. And this would be a dire mistake. This is because while the function of reasoning is argumentative (Mercier & Sperber, 2011; Weinberg, 2012), reasoning did not evolve specifically to pursue truth. Rather, it evolved to serve two masters; to win arguments as well as to seek the truth. Unfortunately, if the participant is not aware of which style best suits what context, poor outcomes are all too often the result.

Brisbane Girls Grammar students arrive in Year 7 well-versed in the art of social argumentation, but have had little opportunity and even less role-modelling through cultural experiences to develop good skills of professional argumentation. Why, then, do we spend time encouraging girls to develop these skills when they are already, from birth it seems, so proficient at social argumentation and quite often, effective reasoning as well?  One obvious answer to this question lies with the cognitive demands of their future career choices where professional argumentation underpins the interactions in most workplace settings.

As well, there is a cultural phenomenon recognised by social psychologists (Chodorow, 2012; Seelig, 2002) who have identified the quantum difference between how girls and boys argue from a very early age. Research shows that problem-solving boys demonstrate significantly stronger skills of professional argumentation by the time they enter secondary school, while their female counterparts are more likely to slip into the various forms of culturally endorsed (for girls) social argumentation, complete with the full repertoire of emotional overtones. While modern workplaces consist of similar numbers of both genders, males still dominate the leadership profiles of most organisations. Seelig (2002) postulates that one of the principal reasons women find it difficult to climb leadership ladders is because of their limited understanding of how men in key positions manage conflict and work effectively through team negotiations.

So, where does the development of professional argumentation skills occur? At Girls Grammar, these skills are nurtured in the academic curriculum of most subjects. Whether a student is constructing a History essay, shaping an analytical English oral or gathering evidence through laboratory experimentation to answer a research question, she is encouraged to build her understanding of how to harness reasoning and thoughtfully consider all alternatives while using evidence to construct a logically supported conclusion. In Science, this approach is explicitly developed as students are invited to question and investigate others’ claims, and to draw evidence-based conclusions (Hackling and Sheriff, 2015). The philosopher Patrick Stokes (2012) summed up this approach to education when he informed his students that they are not entitled to their opinion; they are only entitled to what they can successfully argue for. He reminds us that teachers owe it to their students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument, and to recognise when a belief has become indefensible.

Debating at Girls Grammar also offers the opportunity to develop skills of professional argumentation. From the robust interhouse competition in Years 7 and 8, through the congenial atmosphere of TriSchools and the Brisbane Girls Debating Competition to the rigorously demanding Queensland Debating Union competition, our girls are offered multiple opportunities to build an understanding of this form of argumentation in a challenging but supported environment. Furthermore, debating provides a unique insight into how one works as part of a team, how to manage competition and conflict and how to view and accept the perspective of others in non-judgmental ways.

It seems, then, that the challenge we have as teachers and parents is to determine how and when we can have a good argument without picking a fight.


(n.d.). In Retrieved from

Brennan, R. (2015, May 2). Not hard to argue with. The Courier Mail, pp. 66-67.

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Dusenbury, S. (2014). What’s to love about love: The benefits of arguing. Retrieved from

Gilbert, M. (2008). How to win an argument: surefire strategies for getting your point across. (2nd ) New York: John Wiley.

Hackling, M. & Sheriff, B. (2015). Language based reasoning in primary science. The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association, 61 (2), 14-24.

Leighton, J.P. & Sternberg, R.J. (2004). The nature of reasoning. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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Your Tango Experts (2011.) Why do we feel the need to argue? [Weblog]. Retrieved from