Bad Arguments in RE; Arming our children’s minds

I have long wanted to introduce the online resource Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

We have already discussed in numerous posts the the importance of logic and critical thinking, and how these tie to rhetoric. An email from a Birmingham RE teacher seeking advice finally got me to do something about it.

I originally came across this little gem while scoping out materials for what has now become the identity and community building course for Muslim private schools 21c British Muslim; the Solution?

The aim of is, according to the author, to “help one realize the tools and paradigms that afford good reasoning and hence lead to more constructive debates: Since persuasion is a function of not only logic, but other things as well, it is helpful to be cognizant of those things. Rhetoric likely tops the list, and precepts such as the principle of parsimony come to mind, as do concepts such as the “burden of proof” and where it lies.”



“Hasty generalisations” p. 24.

Not only do the illustrations make Book of Bad Arguments suited even for Primary, but each argument comes with short explanation outlining key points to the teacher (What exactly is Equivocation? – in case you can’t quite remember).

Good CL for bad arguments

However, my point is of course that brilliant materials related to thinking are not very useful when taught from the board – they must necessarily be discovered through thinking, or there will never be ownership. This is where the careful classroom management afforded by Cooperative Learning comes into play – simple, shake-and-bake student-centred learning in small manageable blocks.

A full outline of my ideas connected to this material warrants a full newsletter. However, here is a very simple pointer using that most classic of all Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns called Think-Pair-Share:

First, break up your class into four-man teams and hand out a printed copy* of your favourite bad argument to each student, see example above. (Note that any necessary preparation in relation to context, vocabulary and so forth, as well as the duration of each step, depends on your best judgement as a teacher).

Then pose the question in a Think-Pair-Share, which is composed of four steps:

  1. The teacher presents a task with several possible answers (in this case “What’s wrong with this argument?”)
  2. Working alone, each team member muses over the picture and text, reflects on possible solutions for a given duration, taking notes. (Which will form evidence of learning later).
  3. Teams divide into two pairs of shoulder partners who discuss their solutions, arguing their point, possibly creating a synthesis. (Again decide if you want to support this process with a written element).
  4. Students share their best ideas within the pair in front to deepen their thinking and better prepare a final statement to present to class.

Do not forget the importance of unobtrusive monitoring during steps 3 and 4  as the candid verbalization of opinions during the debate gives teachers a unique insight into the knowledge and thought processes of each individual student.

If you want to present more than one argument simultaneously, try the Jigsaw Puzzle we have outlined. Simply choose your four best ones. More than four. Give one Argument to each team, let them Think-Pair-Share their way to a communal written statement and send out three students to explore other teams’ arguments, bringing them safely home to be discussed and shared in a Word-Round (Thursday’s course attendees should search for the Learning Process Domain “Thinking Skills” in their handouts).

The wider context: Bad Arguments outside RE

For anyone unsure about the relevance of getting the subject of rhetoric into schools should consider this example from the Daily Telegraph:

“Teachers and governors involved in the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ Islamic takeover plot face life-long bans from all schools in Britain under new powers being taken by Michael Gove.”

Mr Gove, the Education Secretary, wants to use the new powers to ensure that anyone found to have been involved in the plot – allegedly designed to Islamise secular state education in Birmingham – is prevented from working in schools elsewhere in the country.”

This text would be ideal for use in an introduction to thinking skills lesson, for two reasons. Firstly, the content itself exemplifies the kind of sloppy use of language and reasoning: How can someone be involved in an alleged plot? To be involved in something, it has to exist; if it only allegedly exists then you can only be allegedly involved, surely? But of course, the allegation by itself is enough for the hard of thinking, for whom evidence and argument are merely confusing.

The second paragraph builds on the license established by the first – notice that “the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ Islamic takeover plot” has become simply ‘the plot – allegedly designed to Islamise secular state school education’. One is reminded of a book on the richly fertile imaginary life of young children entitled, ‘Let’s Pretend this is a Snake – By the Way it is a Snake’. Now we have graduated to, ‘Let’s Allege there is a Plot – By the Way, There is a Plot’.**

By observing some of this discourse, one gets the feeling that a noticeable amount of it suffers from the absence of good reasoning. So is this Telegraph article using Equivocation? 

Thinking skills, it would seem, are not just for children these days.

I want to use more cooperative learning in school – want to start it – en masse – with lower school at the beginning of a year so it feeds upwards. …this has reminded me of the importance of structure being properly in place for them to work effectively

Sarah Cobbold, RE teacher, Sct Benedict’s Catholic High School
Islam in RE, Norwich, October 23, 2014 


For a an example of using Think-Pair-Share in relation to religious literacy, see Islam in RE#2 & Norwich High School for Girls#4

See these articles for more on Philosophy for Children and how it relates to the Trivium, which used to provide a anti-nihilistic safety-net against Mr Robinson’s Destructive Why.

For an example of winning a debate in the classroom, see Lefty child-centred teaching, indeed! It’s as odd as Sir Michael’s original comments.

For more on RE courses see other site.

Get notifications of related posts on twitter. is the business end of

* Note Book of Bad Arguments is shared under a Creative Commons BY-NC license, which means that you can freely share and adapt it for non-commercial use with attribution.

** This section is an extract from the co-authored article For Whom the Bell Tolls – The Trojan Horse Autopsy Toolkit to which I contributed on the Cooperative Learning importance of Higher Level Thinking skills.


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One response to “Bad Arguments in RE; Arming our children’s minds

  1. Pingback: “Outstandingly Simple”follow-up; an introduction to Cooperative learning |

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