Friday, February 10, 2012

"Warrants" vs. "Reasons" vs. "Rules:" Understanding CCSS Terms

Utah has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as the state's math and language arts core standards. Jordan School District trained all middle school language arts teachers last spring and this year those teachers are working through the ups and downs of implementation. The learning curve is definitely a bit of a challenge, and the feedback is helpful in providing continuous support and professional development.

One consistent concern deals with College and Career Writing Anchor Standard 1: "Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence."

The Question: Recently Tami E., a teacher in our district, posed this question: 
We've looked through the core for 9th grade, and we are not sure where the term warrant comes from. All the papers we have been given use warrant, so I have been using that term, but Sadie [a colleague] said all the conferences she's been to do not use the term and use the term reasons; so she is using that. We are trying to write common assessments and want to make sure we use terms we are supposed to use. 
The Reply: Carolyn Gough, the district's Secondary Language Arts Consultant, responded with the following explanation. I think teachers will find it very helpful in distinguishing between or among the various terms.
You and Sadie are correct. The word 'warrant' never appears in the core. For that reason I have often taken issue with the many trainings where I hear it being used. The word comes from the Toulmin model for argument which nearly everyone follows. To me it is a confusing word that I haven't been able to get my mind around.

A much simpler way to describe a warrant is that it explains how the evidence supports the claim. Picking out the evidence is pretty doable, but identifying a phrase or comment that explains how the evidence supports the claim is less obvious.

Another word you could use to explain warrant or reasoning is 'rule'. I'm looking in the Hillocks book about teaching argument writing on page 18 (which readers can see by clicking on the above link):

The students are trying to provide evidence that the lady in the scenario is lying about her husband's cause of death.

At one point students list a piece of evidence in the case: Arthur still has a glass in his hand. (Yet Arthur has apparently fallen down stairs.)

So, the teacher is trying to find out from the students why the glass in his hand is an indication that the victim didn't really fall. The kids go on to state that usually when people fall they let go of things. But the students add that sometimes if the items are important people don't drop them; so they re-think their assumptions. Finally, the kids conclude that in a surprising situation a person who's falling is going to drop things that are in their hands. 

The teacher asks them to write it as a rule.
  • Here's one student's response: 'When you fall down the stairs, you drop what you're carrying unless it's really important.'
  • The teacher helps them clean it up to read: 'As a rule, when people fall down stairs, they drop what they are carrying to save themselves.'
Doesn't this seem super obvious? Yet the teacher just spent a long time helping students think out their assumptions about the evidence they listed. Students might have just said, "His wife is lying about his death being an accidental fall down the stairs because the dude was still holding a glass in his hand!" Claim and evidence, but no "warrant" or "rule" or "reason" for why the evidence supports the claim. It requires one more question: Why does having a glass still in his hand suggest that his wife's story is a lie? Now we have the missing link - the "duh" if you will - "Because generally people who fall down stairs drop the things they were holding!"

I don't know of any key word that will help students located the "reason" or "warrant" or "link" or whatever you call it, but it might help them to recognize it by turning the evidence that supports the claim into a question: 
ex. 'So, this author states that students' grades improved when they wore school uniforms. Why would grades be better as a result of wearing some type of clothing? What is the assumption being made about behavior when that particular clothing is worn?'
Hopefully, students can see the assumption is that uniforms influence behavior in a way that helps kids focus so they get better grades. Yet, how often in their writing would they give the claim that uniforms help in overall achievement at school (claim) and then list that grades are better (evidence) without ever connecting the two together. (That is a simplistic example, but I think it makes the point.)

While I hope that helps, I believe it will be an on-going point of clarification.

Bottom line: if you don't want to use the word 'warrant' you certainly do not have to.