3 Strategies for Hosting Effective Classroom Debates

As a teacher, the start of another school year means trying out new learning activities in your classroom. It’s an exciting time; you get to watch your students bring concepts from your lesson plan to real life and watch their eyes light up as they master another skill.

This year, you may be looking at hosting debates in your classroom to help students meet Common Core Speaking & Listening standards. Debates combine the best of critical thinking, communicating ideas and, of course, collaborating. They’re a fun way to mix up your lesson plan and let your pupils take charge of their own academic outcomes.

Here are three strategies for hosting effective classroom debates this year.

Same Principle, Different Topics

Debates don’t have to be life-and-death. The principles of rhetoric can apply to any topic if it’s clear cut and students understand what they’re arguing for or against. Debate topics can be school-specific (“School uniforms should be a dress code requirement”), nationally focused (“Democracy is the best form of government”) or philosophical (“Human cloning should be banned”).

Topics of debate can be as lighthearted or as serious as appropriate for your grade level. One of the goals of teaching listening and speaking skills is to make them applicable across a wide range of real world situations; mixing up debate topics can help reinforce the principles separately from how students feel about the specifics of the argument.

Involve the Audience

When we think of debates, we often envision one representative of the “affirmative” position and one representative of the “negative” position taking the stage to verbally spar. While that’s a viable model—just look at the historical significance of the Lincoln-Douglas debate series—it’s not the only one.

In a classroom debate, the audience shouldn’t be passive. As one teacher writes for The Guardian, “There is an opportunity for them to question the speakers, and to give their own opinions from the floor.” In other words, the audience needs the opportunity to cross-examine the presenters and ask them to further defend their points of view. The audience should also get to chip in their two cents. By drawing the audience into the debate, you’re making it less of a performance and more of a cohesive discussion.

Incorporating interactive presentation ideas like audience polling technology helps to quickly gather questions and feedback from the floor (without everyone trying to yell over each other). At key points during the debate, you can ask audience members to use internet-connected mobile devices or computers to submit questions for the presenters, provide feedback or vote on certain statements. Since the results update instantly to reflect responses, you can use this valuable input to shape the rest of the debate.

Long story short: passive is out, interactive is in.

Turn the Verdict into a Writing Prompt

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy for students to get caught up in debate outcomes. But what if the final arguments aren’t the end of the line? Asking your students to reflect on the debate and write thesis-driven essays based on the topic and presentations promotes even deeper critical thought. Separate from the power of vocal persuasion or a grading rubric, students can really reflect on their own views on the topic at hand and use subjective and objective examples to support their assertions. These essays don’t need to be long—500 words are usually plenty to get the point across.

Debates can boost listening and speaking skills in the classroom, both for those students on the stage and those in the audience. With the right topic and the tools to engage everyone, you’ll be well on your way to bringing the art of rhetoric to life.