The Great Debate

As teachers, we desire more for our students than to simply move through the curriculum.  We want to instill in our students the skills necessary to engage real world issues with discernment.  We hope to impart critical thinking skills that will allow our students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the information and ideas that they encounter on a daily basis.  A great way to facilitate this is by providing opportunities for students to examine, critique, and defend opposing sides of an issue.  In this issue of On Practice, we look at several debate formats that can be used to foster higher level thinking and engage students in the process of formulating and defending well-researched positions.  These formats are arranged by level of formality, with the least formal formats being presented first.

Opinion C2008-6-24-public-debateontinuum:  Great for use as an introduction or “hook” for your lesson, you start this activity by presenting the class with an opinion statement. (E.g., People have a responsibility for taking care of the planet.)  Ask all the students who agree with the statement to move to one side of the room, while those who disagree move to the other side.  Students who are not sure may move to the middle of the room.  Ask students to explain why they moved where they did, with the goal of persuading those who are undecided.  At the end of the discussion, students who were undecided should be asked to pick a side and explain their reasons.  (For a more nuanced version of this, students can move to a position that shows the extent of their agreement/disagreement with the opening statement, and can shift positions to reflect how the arguments of other students have influenced their thinking.)

Three Person Debate:   Divide the class into three equal groups.  Present a statement or resolution to be debated.  (E.g., The Treaty of Versailles was a fair and reasonable resolution of the European conflicts in World War II.)  Assign one of the groups to research the arguments supporting the proposed statement, one group to research the arguments against, and one group to prepare questions for both sides that will draw out the strengths and weakness of each position.  Allow time (between seven minutes to a full class period) for preparation.   At the end of the preparation time, re-divide the class into groups consisting of one judge and one advocate of each position.  Ask the judges to moderate the debate, with each advocate presenting a short opening statement, then fielding the questions the judges have prepared, and summing up their arguments in one to two sentences.   At the end of the debate time, bring the class back together, have the judges report on the results of the debate (i.e., who won), and then discuss as a class the factors that in each debate that lead to the final outcomes.

DebateFormal Debate:  Divide the class into an even number of groups (smaller groups of 3-4 people work well).  Present statement or resolution to be debated, or present two existing positions relating to the same issue to be researched (E.g., Position 1: Christian engagement in culture should serve as a light on a hill, with Christian culture makers holding themselves to a higher standard in all that they do.  Position 2: Christian engagement in culture works from the inside, meeting culture-makers on their own terms and works from there to be a transformative influence.)  Assign each group a position to research, and provide adequate time to research and prepare formal opening and closing statements that present positive arguments supporting the given positions.  On the day of the debate, pair teams of opposing positions to formally debate the issue.  (Debate format typically starts with the opening statements, followed by a brief time to prepare and then present a rebuttal to the opposing team’s arguments, and ending with the closing statements.)   At the end of the debate discuss the strengths and weakness of each team’s arguments, before deciding the result of the debate.

Formal Debate Surprise:  In this variation of a formal debate, teams research both sides of the given issue.  On the day of the debate, assign each team a position and give them 5-10 minutes to prepare their opening statements. The rest of the debate follows the above format.

Becky Hunsberger