Classroom Debates Made Easy

By Doyle, Kathleen M. | Social Education, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Classroom Debates Made Easy


Doyle, Kathleen M., Social Education


Are you reluctant to hold a debate in your class because you are not sure how to organize one? Are you afraid a debate could turn into a "flee-for-all"? Or perhaps you don't know how to ensure an intelligent discussion among middle school students. Maybe you are already pressed for time and fear that a debate would take up too much time for preparation and follow-through. For years, I wanted to conduct debates in my classrooms, and for years I avoided them. When I finally decided to take the plunge, I "winged" it. After much trial and error, I am finally satisfied with my classroom debates.

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Debates are exciting and rewarding, for both teacher and students. (1) Today, debates are my students' favorite activity. I can conduct a quick and engaging whole-class debate through one homework assignment and one class period, or a more thorough debate over several class periods.

Setting Objectives

The approach you choose will depend upon your objectives. If you want a whetting of appetites for a new unit, or a break in the routine, or an alternative assessment at the end of a unit, a speedy debate can work. If you are aiming to teach research skills, analysis of bias, persuasive writing, and more in-depth coverage of content, a lengthier whole-class debate is in order. If teamwork, cooperation, and more individual accountability are your goals, a debate between teams can be effective.

Usually in a social studies class, the teacher will introduce a controversial issue in the form of a question, such as: Should social security be privatized? But in a debate format, it is important to have an assertive statement, which speakers will either support or oppose. Propositions my students have debated include:

* Social Security should be privatized

* Welfare should be the responsibility of the states.

* Dropping the atomic bomb was a war crime.

* Marijuana should be legalized.

* Creationism should be taught in public schools.

* The death penalty is just and effective.

* Affirmative action is necessary and effective.

* The Confederate flag is a racist symbol.

* An Equal Rights Amendment will increase equality for women.

Propositions can be about historical or current events, depending on the subject of the unit of study.

Motivating Students

I have worked as a special education teacher and as a "regular" social studies teacher in a variety of settings with students of varying abilities, from grade eight through twelve. In my 20 years of teaching, I have found that even the students who are truly afraid of speaking in class find debates exhilarating. All of the students quickly learn that the better their research, the more fun they have in the debate.

Often the first debate of the year is a little like the first pancake--a bit sloppy. The students are easily motivated after their first experience to work harder the second time around. Over the course of the school year, you will witness your students' research, critical thinking, and public speaking skills improve far beyond what they were before. Debates inspire students to do their best work. What more can a teacher want? Debates make teaching social studies easy!

Whole-Class Debates

Day one: Give some tips on finding and selecting appropriate sites, and steering clear of problematic sites. (2) The internet makes finding information on any given topic so much easier than "in the old days." Fifteen years ago, I had to allow at least a week for students to find appropriate articles or books to use in their research. Now, I simply tell my students to bring in four articles for the next class period: Two articles that support the proposition and two that oppose the proposition. The trade-off, however, is that the students need to be more sophisticated in their selection of sources.

Guidance from the teacher about sources is critical. …

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