Single-sentence-structure for Analyzing and Presenting Arguments

Stephen Toulmin (The Uses of Argument, 1958) maintains that the basic form of all practical arguments can be expressed in a single-sentence-pattern. The following sentence pattern illustrates this point.

P stands for the principle being appealed to by the argument.

Q stands for the course of action under consideration.

R stands for the wrong that would be committed (by doing or not doing).

S stands for the consequences risked (by doing or not doing).


The single-sentence-pattern

Since we are committed to P, we must rule out anything involving Q; to do otherwise would be R, and would invite S.


Example 1

Since we are committed to having students learn to think as scientists, which among other things requires they decide for themselves the collection of adequate data (P), we must rule out telling them how and what to measure and the amount of accuracy needed. (Q); to do otherwise would give them the wrong impression of scientific work (R) and invite the formation of inappropriate authoritarian unscientific attitudes (S).


Example 2:

Since students should not learn incorrect or misleading scientific principles (P), we must rule out allowing them to make false conclusions (Q); to do otherwise would teach falsehoods (R) and invite criticism from scientists, parents, and educators (S).


Sample problems


Explain how the following fit or do not fit the argument format?

1. Instruction should be planned and implemented based on a constructivist theory of how the brain works to integrate new learning with what the person already knows (P) instruction must not teach only behaviorally since this ignores the function of the brain within the individual (Q). By only controlling facts and information externally teachers need not consider what the person understands or the student’s ability to transfer information (R), and in the process fail to engage students in meaningful learning and provide an adequate education (S).

2. Constructivist theory involves acknowledging how the brain works and creating experiences for students to relate what they know to an experience and create learning from there (P). Teachers should use the predisposition of the brain to search for meaning in experiences and the capacity to create that meaning (Q). By ignoring this capacity of the brain teachers fail to help students relate what they are learning to what they already know and value, and how learning and experiences connect (R). To not do so will result in learning which is fragmented, impossible for students to apply to everyday life, and view school learning as irrelevant to everyday life (S)/

3. Behaviorist learning theory invokes learning through external manipulation of students and observation of the subsequent behavior (P). There is no need to consider what students know prior to instruction or how they may interpret presented information (Q) since this would be a waste of valuable time and reduce the amount of material to which students can be presented (R). Thereby reducing the amount of learning as measured by a standardized achievement test (S).


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes