The Great Debate: Easy or Difficult? How About Neither!

Equip your students with the lifelong skills of properly crafting and defending their beliefs.

By Bethany Bodenhamer


enter image description here So you have decided you want to facilitate a debate in your classroom? Great! Students typically have one of two general responses when tasked with this type of assignment. You have one group of kids rejoicing that “Yes, we get to argue in class; how easy!” and another group silently groaning to themselves, “Oh no, I have to speak out loud!”. Regardless of the types of learners that make up your class, debating is not meant to be a brainless task, nor is it one to be feared. I believe with the right amount of structure and the proper focus on the research element of making and defending an argument that all pupils can thrive with such an assignment. Furthermore, it is essential that we teach our students these skills because Common Core testing, as well as most universities require scholars to demonstrate their ability to do just this.

Types of Debate

The great thing about a debate is that there are so many different ways to organize the discussion that you can customize the assignment specifically to your subject matter, class personality, time restraints, and academic needs of your students. Debating does not always have to be the formal presidential type or even ones where debaters are speaking aloud. Here are a few different versions:

  • Individual: While this may seem a bit contrary to the concept itself, not all debates have to be physically argued out loud with an opposer. This type of assignment is a great introduction to the art of argument making, as learners are required to take both sides of a given topic. For example, in a United States history class, young historians may have to chart both the positives and negatives of the United States’ involvement in foreign countries during the imperialist era. They can then write a paragraph—supported with their recent research—as to overall whether the United States hurt or helped more via their involvement.

  • Written: This is a great step between an individual and a whole-class oral debate. This method can be done with a partner as well as with a small group. Give your class a topic or question, for example “In the Crucible, is Abigail a victim or a culprit?” One participant answers the question in a full sentence format, complete with two to three reasons for their belief. They then pass their paper on to their peer who writes their opening statement. After each partner, or member of the group states their belief, the paper gets passed back to the first debater who then has to respond to one of the other arguments. He can either further agree with a classmate and provide further supporting evidence, or he can disagree with an opposing viewpoint by specifying why. The most important factor is that students are writing as if they were speaking (full sentences, academic language, etc.) and that they are providing concrete evidence.

  • Oral: The most popular version, oral debates require participants to put into practice their public speaking skills. This can be quite intimidating for those who do not like to speak aloud or who do not often participate in class discussions. Things to consider with the verbal debate format:

    • One or a few people monopolizing the discussion
    • The debate turning into a verbal argument, rather than an educated and civilized discussion
    • Emotions superseding evidence
    • Participants merely stating their beliefs and not actually engaging in conversation or reacting to previous statements

These can all be avoided by establishing and enforcing specific ground rules.

  • Virtual: In the era of technology our children live and thrive in the virtual world, why not engage them in a virtual debate? Of course your campus needs to have the proper hardware and you must be able to sufficiently supervise the assignment. Fortunately, there are great education websites already set up to facilitate interaction with other classes and even other schools. Check out this site.

Teach How To Debate

This type of assignment is one that needs sufficient scaffolding, direct instruction, and specific steps for your students to succeed. I suggest that you incorporate the following requirements in your debates.

  1. Pupils must research both sides of the argument, before they decide what their position is going to be. They must take notes on supporting evidence for both sides of the topic.
  2. Know the counterargument as well as you know your own argument. Once debaters have chosen their position, they must know what the opposition is going to argue in rebuttal. They need to be prepared with tangible reasons why they disagree with the other side.
  3. Debaters should speak—or write—in confidence. Instead of using terms such as “I think” or “I believe”, they should state their beliefs as facts. For example, "Mr. Jones is the best choice for state senator because of his years of experience working in the private sector.”
  4. Show sample debates. Presidential debates are great in this respect. Some learners have had no prior exposure to formal debates and seeing one in action will give them a much clearer idea on the structure, format, etc.

Establishing Ground Rules

You must teach your class proper debate etiquette—especially when facilitating a verbal debate. There are obvious pointers to follow such as not being rude to peers, not speaking over others, and using proper tone and volume. However, it is up to you and your desired environment as to what other parameters you set. Such guidelines may include:

  • Raising your hand, and being called on to speak
  • Having in your possession a designated “talking stick” to speak
  • Staying within the set time limit (30 seconds, 1 minute, etc.)
  • Using academic language rather than street talk
  • Never insulting or attacking a person—instead, focusing on the argument being made

Grading Your Debate

The approach you take to grading your debate will vary according to the type of debate you have assigned. Assessing a written argument will be much more clear cut than evaluating verbal arguments. As with most interactive assignments, I strongly encourage using a rubric as it is not only incredibly clear to the class what they need to accomplish,but it also takes the subjectivity out of grading. Topics I would suggest including in your rubric are:

  • The quality and depth of the argument made—rather than the quantity of times spoken
  • Sufficiently addressing the counterargument, and being able to argue against it
  • Following the established ground rules: not speaking out of turn, sticking to time limits, being respectful, etc.

What is your experience holding debates in your classroom? Please share below!