The building blocks of argument

Written arguments take skill and experience to craft. They rely on a coherent grasp of data, as well as logic and diverse techniques of persuasion. As such, it is a skill that takes some time to master. It is especially difficult to teach. Often, students are asked to learn about argument through studying existing texts. It can be dreary! In the spirit of playfulness, I propose an alternative.

Accident Investigation: Jack and Jill

In this post, I will share a writing guide I have used with students for almost a decade. I wrote it at around 2am in the morning when I was having a fit of insomnia-fuelled creativity, so that may account for the playful approach. I was trying to think of illustrative examples I could use for students to learn from which would not draw on just another boring essay topic. I also was looking for a scenario they could engage with playfully, and consider different interpretations of events.

So I chose a nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water

Jack fell down and broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after!

This nursery rhyme was a substitute for a case study or example for students to use in constructing an imaginary argumentative essay. The subject of the essay was to be ‘Are hills dangerous?’ as this was an incredibly open question which could be interpreted in a wide variety of ways.

Developing a Thesis

So why is Jack and Jill a playful example to use in showing students how to develop a thesis, or argument? First of all, it links back to childhood rhymes and nonsense play – as such it highlights and challenges the austerity and seriousness of tone in academic writing. It also emphasises that developing an essay tries not only on specialist prior knowledge of the subject, but on further research. To direct that research, the lack of detail in the nursery rhyme invites curiosity and investigation: what hill did Jack and Jill climb? Why were they there together? What caused the fall? Were both of them equally hurt?

In my guide I present students with a range of possible theses they might improvise based on the question:

Thesis A Hills are dangerous environments, as evidenced by the accident and injury experienced by both Jack and Jill.

Thesis B Hills are not dangerous places when compared with urban environments where the majority of the population live; but they may pose risks due to being unfamiliar.

Thesis C Hills are dangerous places, but the resourcing of adequate emergency services such as first aid centres and search and rescue operations is sufficient to mitigate the risk to the public.

Thesis D Whether hills are dangerous or not, the regulation of public access to the natural environment is an infringement of people’s rights to leisure.

You can find my most recently updated student handout for download here.