Arguing for Messy Solutions

One of the most common genres we ask secondary students to write is the argumentative essay (thanks, Common Core!). State tests ask for it, ACT and SAT, the AP tests…it’s everywhere. In the last fifteen years or so, I think we’ve all done a pretty solid job of prepping students for that type of writing (go team!), but the last few years teaching AP Seminar have me thinking that perhaps we have one more step to think about. 

My AP Seminar students are currently writing one of their major portfolio pieces for their final submission to the College Board. It’s called the Individual Written Argument and it’s a 2000 word, research based argument that offers a solution or resolution to a problem they identify. 

My students have had years of solid instruction in claims, evidence, and reasoning. They can pretty confidently attend to counter arguments within their arguments. That’s wonderful and all very necessary, but what happens when they bump into arguments that don’t have a clean answer?

Every year, my students hit that exact wall with this essay. The problems they’ve identified are messy, thorny ones that simply don’t have solutions. The deeper they go with their research, the murkier it gets. I’ve written before about helping students recognize these murky arguments when they’re researching, but lately I’ve been focusing on the next step–dealing with them as writers. 

These are the questions we keep returning to:

  • How do you argue for a solution that doesn’t completely solve a problem?
  • What do you do when your solution causes other problems?
  • How do you justify choosing one path over another? 

Messy is Okay

One of the key parts of helping my students make these more sophisticated arguments is looking at models of them in the real world. They need to wrestle with the idea that the world has very few problems that are neatly solved by pro/con lists. 

Today, for example, we started with a discussion of the problem of virtual learning and, specifically, student engagement. Quickly, we could all agree that there’s no clean solution that magically makes it better.   We brainstormed, and I pushed them to think about how we could at least try to address the problem. How could we make steps in the right direction?  We talked about requiring students to turn on cameras or training teachers differently for virtual learning. In each case, though, it was clear that neither solution was great. 

So what do you do with those messy problems? Some students were quick to say “pick a better problem” but I reminded them that this is a real problem we are living with right now. There are all kinds of thorny, messy problems in our world– immigration policy, climate change response, healthcare, police reform– and as our students move into adulthood, we need to help them to engage with them.  

Students were a little confused after this discussion:

“So it’s okay if we don’t actually fix the problem completely?’

“What if my solution doesn’t really move that fast?”

“What if my solution is going to make a lot of people angry?”

These are the questions that lead to the next step. 

Weighing the Impacts

Once we’ve encouraged students to lean into those messy problems, we need to help them figure out how to weigh the impacts of their arguments. Obviously, this is where research and careful reading comes into play. If they’re hypothesizing about a potential way to address a problem, they need to research with these questions in mind and record their observations as they go:

Whose voice or perspective is represented in each source?

How are you valuing that voice in comparison to another in the discussion?

Whose voice matters most to you as you make your decision and why? 

Who will be impacted in positive ways? 

Who will be impacted in negative ways?

What additional problems might this cause? 

How do I weigh the negatives against the positives? 

These are all questions that we return to continuously as students research and think and process what they’re finding. If these questions are at the center of their research process, it soon becomes clear that there isn’t always a “right” answer or the right answer for one person might be the wrong answer for someone else. 

Making a Decision

That concept is really difficult for most students. 

Today in a writing conference a student walked me through his research, told me about his findings and shared his nuanced solution. It was lovely. He had done all of that careful research work, had continuously attended to all of those questions, and had crafted an argument for an imperfect yet productive solution. He was unhappy, though, and revealed a huge problem:

“I don’t know what to do because my paper is all opinion.” 

I was a little taken aback. He had a rich variety of credible sources and was backing up his claims with high quality evidence. I pressed him to tell me more and learned that he simply thought he couldn’t have an opinion. In an argument! This incredibly strong writer was stumped because he didn’t feel like he had the right to make a judgement or come to a conclusion.  

“There are lots of good counter arguments to my solution. And they kinda have a point.” 

We talked some more and I think (I hope) I convinced him that all of this was quite normal and actually pretty reflective of the real world, but now I realize that I need to be even more explicit about this messiness right from the beginning with my students.

As our students shift into the adult world, this is a skill they need. Beyond all the test-prep-style argumentative writing, they need to know how to grapple with the complex messiness of our world, how to research thoughtfully, how to think critically, and how to come to conclusions that reflect their values. I think research and writing is the best way to prepare them to do that. 


What are you doing to help your students deal with complexity in their arguments? How do you push their thinking beyond pro/con? Connect with me on the Moving Writers Facebook page, on Twitter @TeacherHattie or in the comments below!

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! I’m not personally in the teaching gig, but I have some kids in my life who won’t stop “playing school.” I still love your spin on things to highlight important writing messages. Thanks 🙂

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