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Introducing Argument Mapping

Earlier this year, I introduced readers to ways arguments can be diagrammed, rather than just presented in words. One of the advantages of graphical methods of argumentation and argument analysis is that they allow you to map out large, complex arguments that might branch in multiple directions.

If you were to capture everything in a complicated argument or set of arguments (like those appearing in a newspaper editorial or campaign speech) using informal logic, that would likely require you to chain together several small arguments, each with its own premises and conclusion. In an argument diagram, however, multiple lines of reasoning, including objections to that reasoning, can all appear in a single chart.

The argument diagramming method I focused on previously was one created by philosopher Stephen Toulmin which you were walked through with examples here, here and here. But Toulmin’s is not the only method that can be used to map out a sophisticated argument.

In a different posting, I introduced one of the most popular alternatives to the Toulmin Diagram: the argument map. My guest for the next few posts is Nathan Otey, Fellow in the Harvard Department of Philosophy and Lead Instructor for the educational non-profit ThinkerAnalytix.

Since 2014, ThinkerAnalytix has been training teachers, developing online learning material, and advocating for argument mapping to be applied to the teaching of all subjects at all grade levels.

Take it away Nathan…

Thank you Jonathan for having me on!

As Lead Instructor for ThinkerAnalytix, I have the joy and privilege of helping teachers and students develop their critical-thinking skills with argument mapping almost every day. Our mission is to help students achieve academically and discuss current issues with precision and care.

Before I illustrate how mapping works, allow me to briefly make the case for teaching critical thinking in the first place, so that you know why I’m so fired up about this work and about Jonathan’s LogicCheck project.

A commitment to equity and justice means a commitment to providing everyone with skills to forge a life they find valuable. Right now, we face a critical thinking crisis. Students experience a world of broken communications in social and political discussion where name-calling, emotional appeal and blurred lines between fact and fiction eclipse reason.

But we’ve forgotten something amid the animosity and sloppy discourse that I would like to remind us of: Arguments are good. And not just good for teachers and students, good for everyone. In fact, as a species we basically have two options for resolving disagreements: we can argue, or we can use violence. One astonishing achievement of democracy is that we’ve (mostly) figured out how to use words instead of weapons.

As Jonathan explained in previous posts, an argument is when a speaker tries to persuade others by giving reasons to think, feel, or believe something. Arguments are everywhere: in the news, on TV and social media, and around the dinner table. The ability to dissect, evaluate and make arguments is central to critical thinking. Everyone needs these skills in order to succeed in school, career, and personal relationships. Not to mention that democracy depends on it!

Surprisingly, there are very few methods of teaching these skills that are supported by research. However, a growing number of studies show that learning argument mapping significantly improves students’ critical-thinking and writing abilities. In fact, meta-analyses find that argument mapping courses yield nearly double the gains of standard critical-thinking courses, and 5 or 6 times the gains of a standard semester at college.

Why is argument mapping so effective? Researchers cite many factors, including:

  • The visual representation of arguments reduces cognitive load and frees up working memory when analyzing arguments.

  • The process of identifying and exposing the structure of written arguments – including underlying assumptions and intermediate conclusions – demands precision and rigor.

  • Mapping naturally provides abundant opportunities for deliberate practice with targeted feedback – elements which are essential for developing any complex skill.

  • The activity of mapping prompts deeper and richer interactions than a standard discussion.

OK, hopefully I’ve convinced you that you should learn to map arguments, or at least gotten you interested. In fact, I did so by making an argument which looks like this when converted into an argument map:

Next time, I’ll walk you through how argument mapping works and begin to apply mapping principles to often heated, but perfectly reasonable and arguable debates from the news of the day.


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