Who Discovered America? The Great Debate

Was it Christopher Columbus, the Native Americans, or the Vikings? Get ready for a lively debate with this question!

By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce


teacher standing in front of the class

On October 8, 2012, our country will celebrate Columbus Day to acknowledge when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. With controversy continuously looming over the holiday, we, as teachers, can capitalize on the opportunity by holding a class debate over who really discovered America. The big question being, who discovered America: Columbus, the Native Americans, or the Vikings?

One of my son’s teachers recently told me that the concepts involved in debating are beyond 6th and 7th graders. What immediately struck me was the memory that when I taught 5th grade, my class ate up the idea of a great debate. Therefore, this lesson is appropriate for 5th through 12th grades.


Learners in your class will devour the chance to conduct research in order to argue in a formal manner like lawyers do. Approach the topic step-by-step to ensure their understanding.

Ready, Begin!

To dive into this project, divide your class into three groups representing Columbus, Native Americans, and Vikings. Explain to them that they will be assigned questions to research, and they should write down the answers (note taking) in their groups.

Next, assign each person in the three groups one question to research. The number of questions can be tweaked to accommodate the number of students in your class. This particular debate is set up for a class of 24, thus three groups of eight. Here are the questions:

  1. When did your group first arrive in the Americas?
  2. In what present-day place did they first arrive?
  3. How did they get here?
  4. Were there other cultures of people present in the Americas when they arrived?
  5. Did they fight to conquer the Americas?
  6. Were they sent by order of someone else to find new land?
  7. Did they stay in the Americas for any length of time?
  8. Did they respect (take care of) the land?

Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Research is the next step. Talk with the class about what research entails. The subject of research is excellent to fall back on throughout the year, as learners will come up with many questions that will be quite appropriate for them to research and then share their findings with the class. Individual learners love the empowerment that comes with teaching their peers something new.

Hand out four index cards and a rubber band to each person. Have them write down the question they were assigned to research. Once an answer is found, that should also be written on the card. Their index cards will serve as their evidence in the great debate. Therefore, it is important that they have their name on all four cards, keep them together with the rubber band, and store them in their social studies folder. 

What Are Primary and Secondary Sources?

The topic of primary and secondary sources is relevant as your learners will be using their social studies textbooks as secondary sources. It’s important that they understand the difference between the two types of reference materials.

First, explain that primary sources include interviews, original documents, creative works, and relics or artifacts. Discuss that primary sources include:

  • The Declaration of Independence.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank.
  • Film footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Ask if anyone knows what secondary source might mean. If someone knows the general idea and/or can give examples, bravo! Otherwise, explain that secondary sources are one step removed from the original event such as textbooks, magazine or newspaper articles, or an Internet link, provided that it's from a reputable source. Ask pupils for examples of acceptable and unacceptable sources for research. As we all know, Internet sources can be iffy, so this discussion is very important. As a group, talk about how Internet sources are sketchy for many adults as well.

How Do We Debate?

Okay, now you’re ready to ask if anyone knows what it means to debate. If so, begin the discussion by inquiring if anyone knows how a debate works. Have the child(ren) explain to the class their thoughts on the subject. Next, using two large pieces of butcher paper, write-up the debate format. Run through the steps with your class, beginning with the explanation of a position presentation. This is a two-minute summary presented by one person in each group in which the general arguments are stated as to why their group should be considered the discoverers of the Americas.

Discuss how a position summary (see below in debate format) is a closing argument that touches on points highlighted in the debate. Explain that all position presentations and Summaries are to be presented by one person who is representing each group. 

Debate Format

  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Columbus: Pro (why group thinks that Columbus did discover the Americas)
  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Columbus: Con (why group thinks that Columbus did not discover the Americas)
  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Native Americans: Pro 
  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Native Americans: Con 
  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Vikings: Pro 
  • Two-minute Position Presentation - Vikings: Con 
  • Five-minute Work Period: All pupils will be able to review their research in order to prepare for the pro and con question portion of the debate. The Position Presentations will guide all groups in how they might respond.

Those who researched the eight questions will then present their responses (rebuttals) in pro and con format.

The moderator will read each question and allow two minutes for the individuals from each group to present their Pro arguments followed immediately by the Con arguments for that particular question. All three groups will present their Pro and Con arguments for each question.  This portion of the debate should last approximately 50 minutes to an hour, depending on time needed to review their cards and set up arguments.

  • One-minute Work Period
  • Two-minute Position Summary - Columbus: Pro (closing argument that touches on points highlighted in the debate as to why their group should be considered the Discoverers of the Americas. Refer to the Pro and Con questions referred to in the debate.)
  • Two-minute Position Summary - Native Americans: Pro 
  • Two-minute Position Summary - Vikings: Pro 
  • Five-minute Tallying of Ballots/Announcement of Winner

Leave the debate format posted in your classroom in a prominent place throughout The Great Debate process.


After running through the debate format, have your class begin their research. Make it clear that each person needs to use their textbook, one book source, and one Internet source. Everyone will be given ample access to the school library and computer lab for two weeks of social studies class time. Have learners research individually. Next, on a designated day, everyone gets in their groups to share their findings. At this point, the groups will decide on two people to serve as their spokespeople. One presents the position presentation and the other, the summary. It is important that the spokespeople work with the group to prepare their arguments ahead of time. It is best to provide class time for this crucial meeting of the minds. 

Ask your principal and media specialist if he or she will help you to judge the debate on the big day. When the day of your debate arrives, have everyone help move the desks into three separate areas. If possible, borrow a podium.

Explain clearly that each spokesperson is to present the group's ideas in the designated amount of time and then sit down. Shouting is not acceptable, and if the debate format is not followed, the person or persons who broke the rules will be disqualified. All group members are expected to participate in the research, development, and presentation of their debate position, and each participating member will receive the same group grade. Write down rules for the debate. They should include no personal insults, no put downs, no emotional appeals and everyone needs to do their fair share of research. Explain to your students that in debate, arguments are based on logic, so they must distinguish between fact and opinion.


Group presentations should be judged on the following:

  • Were the group arguments effective?
  • Did the individuals maintain their composure throughout the debate and argue respectfully?
  • Were the sources for research reputable?
  • Did all members of the team work cooperatively together and allow all members to voice their ideas?
  • Did all members of the group stick to the facts (the research) and not argue with opinions?
  • Did all members of the group speak with loud voices and in a non-distracting manner?

Set up a grid with all of the research questions, judging criteria, and students' names for voting. Spaces on the grid for position presentations and position summaries will be necessary as well.

Capitalize on the Perfect Year to Hold a Debate

As the 2012 Presidential Debates occur, your class will have background and much more interest in the whole process. Encourage your pupils to watch the debates, or even a portion of them, as they will now be aware of the process and preparation necessary for a great debate.

Other Lesson ideas:

The Land and People Before Columbus

Learners describe the major pre-Columbian settlements including their geography, customs, food, and systems of government.

The Children of Eric the Red Explore the West: The Norsemen Encounter Indigenous People of North America

Viking explorers reached the Americas ten centuries ago. Here is a lesson to help learners discover more about the Vikings.  

Debating: the Basics

Appropriate research materials and public speaking concepts are highlighted in this resource.