If your students have not had experience with a debate format, you may want to begin with something basic such as, “Should students have to take tests in school?” or “Should students be allowed to chew gum in the school?”
Coordinate: (Approx. 5 min)
- Divide class: Randomly assign half the class to “pro” side and half the class to “con” side.
- Announce topic: Announce the debate topic and write it somewhere that is visible to the students. (Example topic: “Should it be a requirement for guns to have technology that would only allow their registered owners to use them?”)
Prepare: (Can range from 10 min – 45-min)*
*The lower end of the timing suggestions assume the entire lesson is taught in one 45-minute class period, whereas the higher end of the timing assumes the entire lesson is taught over two or more 45-minute class periods.
- Set norms: Before beginning, set norms for the discussion. You may even engage students in a pre-discussion regarding how they will interact with one another. Sample questions include:
- How can you show respect to one another during the debate?
- How might you show your classmates you are listening?
- How might you handle challenging emotions?
- How could you show empathy to students who are experiencing strong emotions?
- Provide articles in advance (optional): Provide students with articles about the topic that offer diverse and/or nuanced perspectives and have all students read every article. (Note: Can assign these articles for homework or as classwork. The number, length, and difficulty of the articles will affect the length of this lesson. Materials should be drawn from your ongoing curriculum.)
- Generate ideas: Both sides have 5 minutes (or more, depending on how long you would like to make the lesson) to write down as many examples as they can that support their position. (Note: Feel free to split the sides into smaller break-out groups for a few minutes and then have the entire “pro” group reconvene and the entire “con” group reconvene to pool their ideas).
- Select roles: Have both sides decide who will play the different roles, such as debaters, note-takers, and timekeeper. (Note: the number of debaters can range from one student presenting every point to a different student presenting each point, and there can be multiple note-takers).
Debate: (Can range from 12 min – 25 min)
- Reconvene as a class.
- “Pro” side starts the debate: “Pro” side gives their position and supports it with one or two examples.
- “Con” side responds: “Con” side summarizes (“reflects back”) what the “pro” side said and confirms with the “pro” side whether they summarized accurately (if they did not, the “pro” side can provide a corrective statement). The “con” side then gives their own position and supports it with one or two examples.
- “Pro” side responds: “Pro” side summarizes what the “con” side said and confirms with the “con” side whether they summarized accurately. (If they did not, the “con” side can provide a corrective statement.) The “pro” side then has the option of providing one additional example in support of their own position, if they wish.
- “Con” side responds: “Con” side summarizes what the “pro” side said and confirms with the “pro” side whether they summarized accurately (if they did not, the “pro” side can provide a corrective statement). The “con” side then has the option of providing one additional example in support of their own position, if they wish.
- Finish up: Give each group one more opportunity to ask a respectful question of the other group—and to add an additional example in support of their own position.
Switch: (Can range from 12 min – two 45-min class periods)
- Swap sides: Have the “pro” and “con” sides switch and repeat steps 4 through 11 with the same debate topic so that students are able to really push themselves to see the topic from a different perspective.
Debrief: (Can range from 5 min – 20 min)
- Discuss: Facilitate a conversation about the skill of “Perspective-Taking,” which is the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives. Sample questions include:
- Has your opinion changed at all about this topic from when we started? How?
- What helped you change your opinion?
- Did summarizing what the other side said and/or switching sides help change your opinion? What about the summary or switching was helpful?
- What lessons does this activity teach us about opinions we might have about issues in the news, or historical events?
- What did you learn from your classmates during the debate?
- How might debates like this help you start questioning your initial opinions and consider other perspectives about issues in history, current events, or dilemmas at school?
Additional Tools for Teachers: If a conflict arises during the discussion, you may use the following strategies to help students cope.
- Acknowledge emotions, review class norms, and problem-solve.
- Acknowledge the feeling in the room.
- Take a break and have students quickly write down or draw what they may be currently feeling, thinking, and/or experiencing.
- Reorient students to the class norms and skills including respectful debate, empathy, and responsible listening. Help students use these tools to communicate their experiences in a way that encourages understanding.
- Help students focus on solutions, not problems in conflicts.
- If a student attacks another student’s character (which is known as an ad hominem argument) rather than the argument itself, point this out, clarify the difference, and redirect the focus of the debate.
Note: You may even consider engaging students in an activity prior to the debate to help foster their empathy skills, self management, and self awareness.
This practice was developed by Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development (SECD) Lab as part of their Students Taking Action Together (STAT) project.