Cognitive Conflict: Should Educational Debates Be Competitive or Collaborative?

To further epistemic and moral development, we must focus more on cognitive development through the cultivation of argument skills.
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I recently made the case for the importance of developing argument skills and explored various academic approaches to enhancing cognitive development. We must also explore whether we'll embrace a competitive or collaborative learning environment to further student growth.

While there is support for using dyadic argumentation as a means of cognitive engagement (Billig, 1987; Kuhn, 1991), there is debate about whether argumentation should be competitive, collaborative or a combination of the two. Others have framed this debate as being about "adversarial" versus "exploratory" discourse. In favor of collaborative learning, Lin and Anderson (2008) explain that "rubbing up against others with different points of view is one of the best ways to bring to light gaps in understanding, inconsistencies in thinking, and my-side bias, and hence, the value of collaborative discussion and reasoned argumentation." Students can collaborate by challenging each other but there are other models of collaboration to consider. Since argument consists both of "product" (propositions and conclusions) and "process" (dialogue about arguments) collaboration can come in the form of discourse (process) or in a shared goal (product). Walton (1999) termed it differently as "information-seeking" dialogue rather than a persuasive dialogue. Wegerif, Mercer, and Dawes (1999) have called collaborative learning "exploratory talk." Reznitskaya et al. (2001) suggests that "collaborative discussion appears to be an effective training ground for the development and internalization of generalized knowledge of argumentation."

Felton (2003) suggests that a "process of co-constructing arguments is accomplished through the use of discourse strategies" through "argument construction" and "discourse strategies." Others explain collaborative argumentation as "a social process in which individuals work together to construct and critique arguments" (Golanicks & Nussbaum, 2008; Nussbaum, 2002).

A strong basis for adversarial argumentation can be traced back to Piaget. Through cognitive conflict, Piaget suggested, conceptual change triggered by disagreement could occur (1963). According to Piaget, a learner constructs knowledge when receiving input from the environment. The learner's mental structures incorporate the new experience (assimilation). If the newly-assimilated information conflicts with a previously formed mental structure, then the result is called disequilibrium which motivates the learner to seek equilibrium. Reaching equilibrium results in what Piaget called accommodation leading to the development of new mental structures. Through this assimilation and accommodation, the learner adapts to the environmental input received. For Piaget, there are four primary stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, formal operational.

In Felton's competitive argumentation model (debate), there are three skills to argument construction: "producing justifications, producing counterarguments, and rebutting counterarguments." However Felton suggests that the skills of argument construction are learned at a young age and that our educational focus should be on discourse strategies; that is, "to construct arguments competitively in social contexts." Felton and Kuhn (2001) have even developed a system of categorization for strategies in argumentative discourse.

Keefer, Zeitz, and Resnick (2000) claim that collaborative argumentation enables deeper arguments than adversarial argumentation. However, it should be acknowledged that some claim that there is not one correct method (collaborative or competitive) for all students. Rather, each student's personality should be taken into consideration. Nussbaum (2002), for example, showed that "introverts tend to prefer collaborative over adversarial discourse" and may feel more threatened by adversarial argumentation.

While a comparison between the competitive and collaborative models can be quite complex, a more prevailing approach has been put forth. Kuhn, Shaw and Felton (1997) wrote: "In the case of argumentive reasoning, the conflict model of change has dominated, on the assumption that the power of dialogue stems from the discrepancy between viewpoints, creating the opportunity for each member of the dyad to be exposed to new perspectives that might potentially be integrated into their own thinking." Students collaborate through a dialogical adversarial approach to argument. Kuhn et al. (2008) distinguish between the "classical argument" goal (prevailing over an opponent) from "dilemma resolution" (resolving the underlying problem that the two sides address).

To further epistemic and moral development, we must focus more on cognitive development through the cultivation of argument skills. We also must determine the learning culture that will serve as a future foundation for how students view the other in the marketplace of ideas. The choice between a competitive or collaborative learning environment will not only determine the quality of learning but it may also help determine the nature of our future economies and political cultures.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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