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Small-Group Argumentation Diagrams

The teacher had previously prepared the students in the classroom teaching on the topic of nuclear energy in France. During a first lesson of 2-h duration, the stu- dents read additional material on the debate concern- ing nuclear energy and watched two videos on the Web, one arguing in favour of nuclear energy and the other against. Working individually, they were asked to identify the main arguments for and against. Students were then asked to create an argument diagram in small groups to represent as fully as possible the space of arguments for and against nuclear energy. We had planned that this activity would be a preparation for co-writing a textual summary of the debate during a subsequent lesson (abandoned).

Data and analysis method The data analysed comprises principally trace logs of chat interactions and shared argumentation diagram creation. Given the classroom situation, with often several groups discussing at the same time in the same room, it was not possible for us to video or to audio record spoken interaction. Our results and discussion also draw on participant observation in the classroom and planning/review meetings with the teacher.

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As stated in the introduction, our initial research aim was to create a situation whereby the educational tech- nology and its attendant pedagogy would be appropri- ated and to focus analysis on this aspect. Throughout the study, it became apparent that appropriation of the tech- nology – at least for pedagogical ends – was not the dominant activity in which the students were engaged. We therefore focused analysis primarily on the extent to which the students pursued the pedagogical goals, i.e. engaging in argumentation on the topic. Secondarily, we describe one aspect of appropriation, concerning ways in which the students ‘got round’ the software (‘catachresis’: see above) for ends that were other than educational.

In pedagogical terms, we analysed the chat debates of all seven subgroups using the ‘rainbow method’ that was specifically designed for understanding computer-mediated pedagogically ori- ented debates. This method distinguishes functional categories of communicative interventions, concerned with the debating task (expressing opinion, argument; negotiation of meaning of what is being debated) from those that relate to interaction management. For our purposes here, we only used the following five ‘rainbow’ categories:

• category 123: off-task, social talk, and interaction management

• category 4: task management (topic shifts of the debate)

• category 5: expression of opinions concerning the debate

• category 6: arguments for or against a thesis • category 7: broadening and deepening the debate

(discussing the meaning of related concepts, producing arguments on arguments, and discussing the links between arguments).

All data were analysed by the three authors, who resolved any disagreements. The students’ interactions were so little elaborated in terms of argumentation that there was little space for disagreement between analysts.

Students’ argumentation diagrams were analysed with respect to their quality, in terms of the number of arguments, their degree of elaboration (number of propositions), number of links [together with their (in)correctness] and depth of the diagram (mean number of sublinks and arguments moving outwards from the main thesis).

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