We often tend to cringe when we see poor debates. But, are we teaching students how to debate properly? Students must learn discussion and debate skills for discussing important topics.
But how do we do this without turning our classrooms into imitations of this news clip?
History Tells Us That Debates Are Contentious
Before we go any further, let’s call it for what it is.
Great debates throughout history elicit passionate responses. For a classic example, take a look at the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Passionate debates about important issues promote democratic republics.
So how do we make sure that our classroom debates stay civil? Teachers must plan the debate and teach students proper debate etiquette before the debate begins.
Proper debate etiquette focuses around four main points in “Friendly Controversy”, which are debate guidelines listed in Robert J. Marzano’s Becoming a Reflective Teacher. Look at Element 30: “What Do I Typically Do to Use Friendly Controversy,” for these pointers. First, listen to others before jumping in with your opinion.
This can be so difficult when you are dying to say something. But, it pays to wait for your turn before speaking your mind. Second, critique people’s opinions, not the people who give them. This rule allows students to disagree passionately and still be friends after class. Third, when others speak, focus on the reasons behind their opinions. Finally, when you give your opinion, support it with researched facts.
When debate ends, students should walk away with Elizabeth Beatrice Hall’s famous quote in mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (from Hall’s book The Friends of Voltaire). If you want to read a fascinating story, read up on the controversy behind this quote.
Choices, Choices… Proven Classroom Debate Styles
Once students learn debate skills, teachers can choose the debate style.
Education World provides many debate format resources, as does Marzano’s Becoming a Reflective Teacher.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format provides a classic debate format. A teacher chooses a policy, such as school uniforms are mandatory. One student takes the affirmative side, to advocate for uniforms in schools. Another student takes the negative side (that school uniforms are unnecessary) and they provide researched facts supporting that side. Each side has a time limit. The back and forth format, with proper time limits, can continue for as long as the teacher permits. An exemplary Lincoln-Douglas style debate comes from this HWDebate link, which shows the 2010 Lincoln Douglas Debate National Finals. Other classroom debate styles exist as well. Let’s look into all the debate styles provided by Education World.
Four Corners Debate
Four Corners debates work for any topic and across disciplines.
Teachers need four signs: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. Post these signs on different corners of the room.
Once you introduce the debate topic, students research evidence to support their opinion. Next, students take a position by moving to one of the four corners. The teacher can choose individuals from each side to give evidence for their stance. Allow students to move from one corner to another if their opinion changes. Follow the spoken debate with a written reflection on their stance(s) and the reasons behind them.
This Teacher Training video from “The Fourth R” shows how easy it is to engage in a Four Corners debate.
Socratic Seminar debates allow students to see the intricacies of a debated issue. “Socrates believed that enabling students to think for themselves was more important than filling their heads with ‘right answers'” (Shakopee Public Schools AViD Program).
There are four critical parts of the Socratic Seminar. First, decide what text or media will be used for the debate Second, create an opening question that holds no right or wrong answer; it is open to debate! Next, choose a leader who knows the text well. That leader will ask the follow-up questions from all participants. Finally, all participants study the text prior to the debate.
if your class holds 15 to 20 students, you may create a circle with a “hot seat”. The hot seat is where a person who wants to contribute may sit. As people contribute their opinion, the person in the hot seat changes. An alternative “hot seat” method is to create a laminated card showing who is asking the question(s). As different people ask questions, one participant hands the card to the next student. When classes exceed 20 students, you may create an outer circle around the inner circle. Outer circle participants observe and take specific notes about the debate, while the inner circle students debate.
Before starting a Socratic Seminar, be sure to emphasize the difference between debate and dialogue. Once completed, set up the debate and let it begin!
For a complete Socratic Seminar guide, watch this debate on “Social Media” from Adam Stevens Middle School.
Devil’s Advocate or Opposite Sides debates are honored rites of passage for law students.
Each person takes the opposite side of what they believe. In law school, students do this to promote insight into what the other attorney may argue in court. But preparing for the Bar Exam is not the only place for using this debate style! In any classroom, learn in confidence where each student stands on a major issue. Then, assign students the opposite side of what they agree with and ask them to be the “devil’s advocate”.
Educators may choose one issue or allow students to choose their own issues in small groups. Afterward, allow students enough time to research the issue. Once they research their position, set a time limit on each debate and proceed!
shows an award-winning University of Southern California team debating global trade issues.
Teacher Debate Planning = Golden Keys to Great Classroom Debates
Teacher and student collaboration creates proper debates that engage everyone! Well-planned debates build powerful critical thinking and analysis skills. Use the resources in this article to begin your powerful debate journey.
Now, imagine your classroom fostering healthy debate skills. Make it so!