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How Schools Should Kickstart Healthy Debates in the Classroom

How Schools Should Kickstart Healthy Debates in the Classroom

Spur engagement among students using active thinking and technology

Teachers are accustomed to wearing many hats. In addition to creating and teaching a syllabus, they're faced with the challenge of finding new ways to keep students excited as they progress in their early educational journey.

A 2016 poll by Gallup concluded that only half of adolescents feel engaged in school. And (perhaps) not surprisingly, this effect increases as students get older.

Fortunately, there are many classroom activities that can break up the monotony of lectures and give students fun, engaging ways to connect with peers and teachers alike.


Debate matters

One popular teaching strategy is peer debate.

Debates are used to get students to delve into real-world scenarios and stimulate innovative, active thinking. The skills learned are valuable both in and beyond the classroom. In fact, students who demonstrate effective communication skills are found to be more likely to find success in less structured settings. Want to introduce this into your classroom?

Try this very basic debate structure that’s easy to implement in most classrooms.


Conduct a Simple, Worthwhile Classroom Debate

1. Introduce a topic

The level of seriousness is entirely dependent on the learning environment and your students' maturity levels. Topics can be relevant to a trending headline, a political stance or event an important initiative that your school is running.

2. Assign the affirmative and negative

With any debate, there are always two sides. Students who are for the issue at hand will be grouped as the affirmative, while students with opposing views will defend the negative. Depending on the size of your classroom, try splitting up the groups into two or four sections (two groups for each of the resolutions).

3. Allot research time

Each side should get at the very least a few minutes (or perhaps if you want to make this a larger project, days) to research their stance and take notes. It’s important that they also know the right vocabulary so they can speak to the issue comprehensively. While they are researching, both sides should have the option choose a representative, or a speaker that will do most of the talking.

4. Present the resolution

Both sides will take turns presenting their case, with the affirmative side typically going first. After they’re finished, the negative usually presents their rebuttal and summary, followed by the affirmative.

5. Announce the winner

Though the teacher can decide who has made the stronger case, the class as a whole generally decides after weighing each argument. Students can choose a winner through voting or assigning scores based on facts presented. Get them to share their thoughts to questions like "who delivered a more convincing argument?"

Want to try your hand at a more innovative approach? Test out the Four Corners or Ball-toss method.


Alternative Debate Approach #1: The Four-Corners Debate

Here's a rundown:

  • Students should move around the classroom based on their position as it relates to the issue.
  • They're then presented with a topic and can either agree, strongly agree, disagree or strongly disagree. Depending on their stance, they are assigned to a corner of the classroom.
  • As students find their like-minded groups, they have a few minutes to discuss the issues of their side.
  • One speaker from each group will present their opinions, and if a student changes their mind they can move to a different corner at the end of the debate.

It’s always interesting to see how many students still remain at their starting position!

Read more about the Four-Corners Debate style here.


Alternative Debate Approach #2: The Ball-Toss Method

What this looks like:

  • An issue is presented and the classroom is divided into two groups – generally those who agree with the issue and those that don’t.
  • Each student can choose a side but can only speak when they have the ball


Technology in the Classroom

We all know how important technology is to students. These days, tablets have replaced textbooks and teachers are readily using mobile apps in ways that gamify the learning experience.

Since technology plays a such a critical role in changing the way teachers interact and educate their students, perhaps it’s time to consider using it to kickstart a classroom debate.


Make sure you're using it effectively

Technology is best used in the classroom when it allows kids to learn from both themselves and one other. While excessive phone use can be frustrating, it’s worth it to take advantage of this attachment and find clever ways of incorporating devices in learning -- rather than outright banning them.


Voting platforms = debate starters

Online voting software is a great tool that can be used either on desktop or mobile and will allow students to keep track of their decisions and how they change, during versus after a debate.

When researching a voting solution that works for your classroom, ensure that it’s accessible, fair, and mobile friendly. You’ll want all of your students to be able to participate to make the debate meaningful and you’ll want a solution that incorporates everyone’s opinions – without the possibility of being influenced by peers.

Here are some tips on how to incorporate e-voting into your classroom:

  • Build your ballot a couple days before the debate to give students enough time to cast their votes. You’ll want to present a topic as well as two opposing choices that students can choose from.
  • Activate the ballot and send out a notification email letting your class know that the ballot is live. Include a deadline for submission so all students can vote before the debate begins. 
  • As students submit their answers, you can keep an eye on the votes and get a better sense of how many students vote for or against the issue.
  • Once the ballot closes, give them a heads up that they should research their stance and come prepared with notes on the day of the debate.
  • The day of the debate, share the results with the class and set up your debate structure as you would normally. Ask for representatives from each side of the argument, and let the debate begin.

If you want encourage students to think on their feet, build a ballot during class and activate it right away! Have students vote in real time and gather like-minded students on the same team once the ballot closes.


Why Debate?

Debate breeds diversity, creative thought, and conflict resolution – all of which are opportunities to see things from different perspectives and learn something new.

In this digital age, technology that allows room for objective opinions and reflection may be just what you need to supplement your activities, bolster engagement, and bring excitement back into the classroom.

What's next for yours?

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