Ready to Reopen Schools? | Augusta Moore | 9 Min Read

In March 2020, the first schools closed. Since then, the debate has focused on whether and how schools should reopen. While the risks to keeping schools closed are great (such as “learning loss” and the mental health toll of social isolation), there are concerns that reopening might result in a surge of COVID-19 cases. Each side has multiple arguments and legitimate sources of evidence. Argument mapping can help us gain a greater understanding of the current state of this debate, as well as evaluate the most relevant claims at stake. 

Argument mapping is a visual way of breaking down an argument to better understand how the reasons provided work to support the main claim. A map illuminates the often-hidden structure of an argument, making it clear how all of the different parts fit together to form a comprehensive whole. By understanding other people’s arguments more precisely and more completely, we position ourselves to respond more thoughtfully. To learn more about argument mapping, check out ThinkerAnalytix. 

Imagine a discussion about schools reopening “in the wild.” Someone in favor of reopening might argue that doing so is necessary for the academic, physical, and emotional wellbeing of students as well as the overall economic health of the country. In support, they might cite research showing that students struggle to learn in online environments and that many students, particularly those from minority groups and lower socioeconomic classes, lack the resources needed to make full use of an online classroom (such as stable access to the internet). They might also cite the thousands of jobs lost when schools had to close (including most support staff positions). 

In response, someone who wishes to prolong school closures might argue that reopening will cause significant harm to students, teachers, and families by placing them at greater risk to contract the virus and exposing them to the mental health hazards of working or studying in a dangerous environment. 

At this point, someone evaluating the discussion might be at a loss. Both sides argue that the alternative to their position places people, particularly students, in harm’s way. How should we weigh these competing claims, or determine which harm is greater? 

While at first, the disagreement seems intractable, mapping both sides of the argument can help us better understand each side’s claims and how they interact with each other. For example, we can see that while both sides want to provide quality education to all children, they disagree about whether or not it is possible to do so online. Argument mapping shows us that there are values in common between discussants and gets at the heart of the disagreement regarding how we should act on those values. 

Here is a sample excerpt of two maps that evaluate both sides of the discussion above: 

Pro: Reopen Schools

Con: Keep Schools Closed

Moreover, a solution to the school reopening debate may seem impossible given the deep, emotional commitments that each side has to their own position. How can we find a solution to such disagreement that works for all when both sides deeply fear either the reopening or the continued closure of schools? Argument mapping is meant, in part, to promote rational solutions to often heated debates like the one described above. Emotions can run high when we debate about whether or not schools should remain closed, particularly when we consider the fear many have that their loved ones may contract a deadly virus and the economic stress that comes from the loss of income if schools remain closed. These fears and stressors may make it difficult for someone to clearly argue for their position or to effectively and fairly evaluate the arguments of those who disagree. While emotions are useful and ought to not be removed from the debate entirely, when they get in the way of rational debate and make it impossible to listen to the other side, it becomes important to evaluate our own positions and the positions of others in a systematic way. This is why it is important to ensure that reason structures our discussion and guides our chosen solutions.

Reasoning is the conscious and deliberate use of specifically defined principles to understand and evaluate information that is given to us by the world. Starting with a practical endpoint, a good outcome determined by reason to be our goal of action (in the case of the school reopening debate the endpoint might be something like the return to our normal way of operating in a safe and reasonable way), we then use logic or particular principles to weigh competing options to get to that good outcome. To us, our own process of reasoning feels completely deliberate and controlled. 

Emotion, on the other hand, in many ways seems chaotic and messy when compared to the process of reasoning. Emotions are powerful psychological forces that help us understand the world around us and can push or move us in particular directions. In other words, they have both a descriptive and motivational function. Emotions can tell us if a particular situation is good or bad, disgusting or pleasant, desirable or undesirable. Then, emotions motivate us to act in ways that get us closer to our goals. For example, if an emotion tells us that a particular situation is desirable then the emotion will also motivate us to act in such a way as to achieve that desirable state. Unlike reason, emotion does not necessarily tell us how we ought to reach that state. 

        It is important that when making decisions we incorporate both emotion and reason into our decision making and they should be considered to be two different (but equally important) sides to the same coin: agency. Emotion and reason often work hand in hand to appropriately guide our behavior: emotion influencing the kinds of end goals or actions that are considered to be reasonable and reason helping us to understand and use our emotions effectively to achieve what we desire. For example, emotions bind us together as a community (through our love, respect, and understanding of others) and it is that emotional understanding of the importance of community that can motivate us to act according to its overall wellbeing, even if those actions are clearly not in our own interest. That being said, if we only allow emotion to guide our reactions and behavior, particularly in political contexts, we will less reliably find and implement the most just and effective solutions to our problems. In other words, both are essential to effectively function in most situations, including political decisions, but there must also be a balance between the two.

When political deliberation becomes too heavily saturated in either reason or emotion, then we are more likely to make mistakes. For example, if the debate becomes too emotional (or less rational) we might start to see assumptions put forward as fact with little or no supporting evidence. We might also be swayed by evidence that is in fact unreliable or simply false. We can look to the school reopening debate to see such a mistake. There have been some claims regarding the nature of COVID-19 that have been labeled as fact and used to defend particular solutions that are, in fact, not true. One such claim is that children are immune to COVID-19 or at least do not pass it on to others. Those who only use emotion when approaching the decision to reopen schools might be too willing to grab onto this claim to justify their proposed solution and consequently fail to properly consider the mass of evidence that contradicts it. Children can, in fact, contract the virus. As of December 2020, more than 2 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 1.3% of those diagnoses resulted in hospitalizations and 0.01% of children diagnosed have died. 

On the other hand, if we fail to take emotion into account we will begin to discount those important motivating fears that underlie either side of the debate and might be more willing to choose a solution to the problem that is not a good solution for all (in the sense that it does not address or alleviate those relevant concerns). In cases like this, such proposed solutions would be less effective in part because those whose fears or emotions were not seriously considered might feel like the solution is not good for them and will therefore be less likely to take the steps to implement it. Thus, too much reasoning also makes it less likely that deliberation will be successful, but not in the same way as too much emotion. Part of what makes someone a good deliberator is their ability to understand where another is coming from so that they can better respond to their needs. A good deliberator understands the underlying emotions of those with whom they disagree. Having a greater understanding of the emotional motivation of others can help a deliberator tailor her response to their concerns, demonstrating that she also shares their concerns (or at least see them as legitimate), and is willing to incorporate them into her proposed solution. Through this demonstration of understanding, such a deliberator will be more likely to encourage the acceptance of those solutions that have been identified through reason as best able to meet our collective needs.

Argument mapping not only helps us better understand arguments but it also makes it easier to evaluate their strength, which can balance emotion and reason within a debate. It does this in two ways. First, argument mapping helps us pull out fundamental assumptions that play an important function within an argument but are unsupported by any evidence. Second, by making it more obvious exactly which premises are meant to support what claims we can better evaluate the strengths of those connections. To learn more about why and how argument mapping is so helpful, check out the ThinkerAnalytix interactive course

It is important to balance our emotions regarding particularly high stakes conflicts with reason within deliberation. Argument mapping helps us do this. Practicing argument mapping provides students with the opportunity to develop into effective citizens, better able to engage in political debate, and find solutions to communal problems that work for all.


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Augusta Moore

Augusta Moore is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she received her doctorate in philosophy. Her research focuses on civic education and, in particular, the pedagogical approaches that will best encourage future citizens to develop those civic virtues that will give them the skills to effectively participate in civic discourse. Moore is passionate about and advocates for equal access to quality civic education for all students.

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