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Hosting Classroom Debates that Revolutionize Student Learning

Posted by Alex Kurilin on July 10, 2014 at 9:59 AM



The First Debate

The first debate I ever hosted in my classroom was at the end of my first week teaching.  At the time, the big story in the news was the BP Gulf Oil Spill, so I figured that we would have a debate on the topic of offshore drilling.  I started to plan the debate and was more than prepared for it to be a flop.  I figured that my students not only wouldn’t know what offshore drilling was, but they probably wouldn’t be able to understand how complicated the issue at hand was.  I knew that I would need to provide them with on-level resources and information if this debate was going to have any shot at all.  I scoured the internet and eventually found a 6-minute long video explaining: the basic mechanics of offshore drilling, why companies use offshore drilling, what went wrong during the gulf coast spill, and what the consequences of the spill were.  It was pure gold; the missing piece the debate needed to have a fighting chance of becoming a worthwhile classroom activity.

The next day, I began by asking my students a question. “Should oil companies be allowed to continue offshore drilling?”  While the answer itself is much more complex than a simple yes or no, I made sure to keep it basic enough that my students could partake in meaningful discussion.  I wrote the question on the board, and followed by showing the video clip found the previous night.  

What happened next still astonishes me to this day.  I asked students to separate themselves to different sides of the classroom - left side for those who believed offshore drilling should continue and right side for those who believed offshore drilling should be stopped.  While most of the class split evenly to the different sides of the room, one student remained in his seat right in the middle of the classroom.  At first I thought he hadn’t heard my instructions, but he didn’t take his eyes off me.  

I asked him what he was thinking, and he responded “Well, I see a way that we don’t have to choose yes or no.  I think that the companies who want to drill for oil should be required to hire a team of scientists that develop antidotes for all of the animals and plants that could be hurt by an oil spill.  Then, they could keep drilling for oil and protect the environment.”  My jaw dropped immediately.  Did an 8 year old really just say that?  I watched the video again later that night and found that they didn’t even give a remotely similar idea in the video.  He used the word antidote!

From this moment on, I made sure to hold at least one or two debates a week.  They always brought out the best thinking in my students, and continued to be my class’ favorite activity.  Students learned how to stand up for what they believed in and how to use evidence to back up their claims.  They became critical and active thinkers, but even more, they became agents for their own beliefs.


5 reasons to host debates in your classroom

1. Debates help students become independent, critical thinkers.

While so much of our education system is based on abstract concepts, debates help to bring real world situations and events to life in the classroom.  By selecting debate topics that cover real-world situations and current events, students open their eyes to the world around them and learn how to navigate decision making.  Once the students have all the facts, they are forced to think critically and make a decision as to what they believe based on the evidence given.  They learn to think for themselves and become independent in their decision-making.

2. Debates show students that it is okay to change their opinions.

One of the most difficult skills to learn in life is to admit when you are wrong.  Many people are stubborn and would rather argue their way into the ground than accept that their point may be incorrect.  Debates teach students that when new evidence is provided, it is completely acceptable to change your opinion on a subject.  By showing students at a young age that it is okay to change your opinion, you are giving them an extremely valuable skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

3. Debates can be used in any subject.

I think that something often overlooked about debates is their flexibility within the classroom.  You can easily adapt your debate format for any subject.  In math, hold debates about whether it is smarter to save money for the future or spend money now on something you really want.  In reading, create a debate based around which character in a particular book made the better decision.  Social studies allows you to bring in debate topics about both current and historical events.  As long as you are creative (or really good at Google searches), you can host a debate in any subject.

4. Debates give you direct insight into how each student thinks.

Worksheets, assessments, homework and even writing samples don’t give you as much access to your students’ thinking as debates do.  By having students talk through their thoughts on complex issues with small groups, you get the opportunity to see how they develop and formulate their arguments.  Many students will be the first to share their opinions, but others will gather the information shared by other members of their small group before sharing.  Listening to these small group conversations shows you how each student thinks and makes decisions - giving you the kind of information that you can use moving forward.

5. Debates are both engaging and rigorous.

Is your lesson going to engage students?  Do you have to “up the rigor” in order to get the most out of class time?  It seems as if engagement and rigor dominate every discussion about teaching nowadays, with teachers struggling to design lessons that are both engaging and rigorous.  Fear not, debates will have your students completely engaged in a very rigorous activity.  They’re up and out of their seats, openly discussing their opinions on a complex topic with classmates - sounds like a great combination to me!



Image Credit: Tribune 242

Suggested Debate Format for Elementary and Middle School (Allow for 30-40 minutes of class time)

1.  Begin with a question on a controversial topic that is age appropriate and relevant.

2.  Support the students by giving them as much information as you can regarding the topic (videos, articles, etc.).  Make sure that the information provides rationale for both sides of the argument.

3.  Have students break into two different groups and physically move to different sides of the classroom based on their opinion.

4.  Form small groups (3-4 students) on each side and elect a speaker for each small group.

5.  Have each group of students develop an opening argument about why they chose to agree with that side of the debate.  These arguments can be written on note cards of pieces of paper for the speaker to reference.

6.  All speakers step forward and share their opening arguments (one at a time) with the rest of the class.

7.  The teacher then poses a secondary question related to the topic that may cause students to adjust their opinion.

8.  Students gather again in their small groups, and form an argument that answers the secondary question.

9.  All speakers step forward and share their group’s argument (one at a time) to the secondary question.

10.  Teachers have students group together one last time to form a closing argument on the topic.  The closing argument has students summarize their thoughts on the original topic and question, drawing insight from opinions shared during the debate.

11.  All speakers step forward and share their group’s closing arguments (one at a time).

12.  Once the closing arguments have been shared, have students move to the side they agree with most at the end of the debate.  Some students will switch sides because their classmates from the other side shared opinions that they agree with more.

13.  Students return to their desks and write a detailed answer to the original question, using arguments from the debate to support their thinking.


Teacher’s Preparation and Role during Debates

In order to prepare for the debate, the teacher will need to have selected an age appropriate topic and found resources regarding the topic (videos, articles, etc.) that are also age appropriate to share with the class.  The teacher will also need to have a primary question (question that the debate is based around) and a secondary question that may cause students to adjust their thinking.

Sample Primary Question: Should students at this school be forced to wear school uniforms?

Sample Secondary Question: What if the students got to vote on the school uniform that will be selected out of 5 different options?

As you can see, the primary question will have students answer a simple question, while the secondary question causes them to adjust their thinking and back up their original thoughts with further reasoning.

The teacher’s role during the debate should be to present the topic, answer any clarifying questions, and to moderate/observe.  While introducing the topic, the teacher should remain unbiased and provide reasoning and clarification for each side.  Throughout the duration of the debate, the teacher should be checking in with each group and asking them questions that will further their thinking.  The teacher should always point out the good arguments students formulate during the debate, and help redirect students when they get confused or go off-topic.  When it is time for the speakers to share, the teacher should make sure that the speaker has the floor and the attention of the class.  Most importantly, the teacher must ensure that every student’s thoughts are treated with respect by every person in that classroom!

Ways to spice up the debate!

1. Include yourself in the debate.  Especially when the majority of students move to one side, join the unpopular side and participate in the debate.

2.  From time to time, encourage students to try to join the side that they disagree with.  This will help them to see the other side’s perspective and cause them to think more critically about the topic at hand.

3.  Keep score. Award points for the side that you think provided the best arguments (not the one you agree with most) during each round of the debate.  Make sure you explain why that side earned the points.

4.  Recognize one student as the “King/Queen of the Debate”.  Whether he or she provided the most unique and thoughtful response, had the best writing summary, or was the most spectacular teammate, show that you are paying attention to who is putting forth a full effort.

From a very young age, students can benefit from participating in structured debates within the classroom.  I encourage you to give it a try this upcoming school year!  Do you have any good debate topics?  If so, let me know in the comments!

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