Social Education 57(7), 1993, pp. 370
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Using Classroom Debates as a Learning Tool

Michael D. Evans, Ph.D.
Francis C. Hammond Middle School
Alexandria, Virginia
Student debates are effective ways to foster cooperation, critical thinking, and enthusiasm for learning among middle school students. Teachers can use debates in almost any discipline, include students of all reading levels, and, when properly orchestrated, help students comprehend important and complex issues.
Political debates during election years can help students assess candidates and issues, whether at the presidential, congressional, or local levels. Student debates, however, are equally useful at any time and in any classroom. The curriculum itself should be a good source of topics-competing theories or historical disputes, for example-or current social and political controversies, such as abortion, women's rights, unemployment, foreign affairs, AIDS, education, and taxes.

I usually schedule debates at the end of a unit of study. As students investigate their debate topics and then listen to the debates of others, they add knowledge to the foundation of classroom lessons. Holding debates at the end of a study unit also provides me with an alternative form of evaluation, in lieu of a test, to help assess how well students have learned the material. I choose three interrelated topics relevant to the study unit just completed. For example, following a study of events leading to the Civil War, debate topics might be: "John Brown: Criminal or Hero?" "States Rights: Should States Be Allowed to Secede?" and "The Kansas-Nebraska Bill: Pro or Con?"

To stage a debate, I begin by dividing the class into three groups. I select members of these groups systematically to distribute evenly students of varying abilities. I then divide each group into two teams, one of which will argue for their chosen topic and the other, against it. Each group then randomly selects a debate topic from among the preselected subjects. This random selection enables them to explore perspectives that may differ from their own.

Prior to the debate, students should spend at least one week investigating their particular issue and rehearsing opening statements and presentations. During this preparation phase, I provide research assistance appropriate to the aptitude of each class. For example, in some classes, it is enough to furnish students with magazines, newspapers, and other information. In other classes, I must highlight this material and explain how the students could use it effectively in a debate.

As homework assignments, I ask students to bring in any relevant information they can find about their topics. I also remind them to prepare for the unexpected by learning as much as possible about their opponents' topic.

After students have coordinated and gathered their information, they make posters and signs to illustrate their position and begin rehearsing their presentations. One or two days before the debate, I schedule a short rehearsal.

Another way to help students prepare for their debate is to show footage of political debates between local, regional, or national candidates. If such videos are not available, teachers can role play to demonstrate the mechanics of debating.

On the day of the debate, each group chooses a moderator from the audience. Moderators assume responsibility for maintaining the rules of the debate, including: honoring time limits, staying on the subject, showing respect for speakers, and maintaining decorum.

During each 15-minute debate, one group debates and the remaining two groups serve as the audience and scoring group. Each debate begins with opening statements by both teams of a group. The moderator then asks clarifying questions and allows time for each team to respond. Each team member is responsible for one part of the team's argument. Five minutes before time runs out, each team summarizes their position.

Following a debate, the audience or scoring group selects a winning team by assigning points based on a checklist I provide. Criteria could include relevance, delivery, politeness, strength of argument, enthusiasm, and interest. Creative signs or banners, as well as good sportsmanship, count for additional points. Students are scored individually as well as by teams, with each individual's score contributing toward their grade.

After the first debate is concluded, the groups rotate, with the debating group taking its turn as scorers and audience members. Groups rotate again after the second debate, so that at the conclusion of the three debates, all groups have debated once and critiqued twice.

I always videotape student debates and then replay them the following day to stimulate class discussion and evaluation. These videotapes can also be used in subsequent years to help other students understand the debate process.

Staging classroom debates is an enjoyable and effective exercise for students and teachers alike. It is a way to help young people learn about particular subjects, practice teamwork, and develop understanding and respect for viewpoints they may not even endorse. Debating also helps build reading, speaking, listening, and research skills. Students who have participated in classroom debates know how to argue a thesis, whether orally or on paper. Finally, debating teaches young people how to make the sort of informed judgments necessary to maintain a democratic society.