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Classroom Activities: How to Hold a Classroom Debate

Janelle Cox

Are you looking for classroom activities to get your students to use their critical thinking skills? Then you should try having a classroom debate. Not only will you get your students thinking, but you will get them interacting and communicating as well. Using classroom activities like debates can also foster presentation skills, research, teamwork, and public speaking. So if you want to get your students excited about what they are learning, then try holding a classroom debate. Here’s how to get started.

Classroom Activities: What to Debate

The topic of debate will depend upon the age of your students. You will need an interesting topic to really get your students engaged. Here are a few topic ideas. You can choose the one that best suits your students’ maturity level.

  • Smartphones should be banned in school.
  • Children should be able to watch television more than two hours a day.
  • Wearing a bike helmet for all outdoor sports (bikes, hoverboards, skateboards, etc.) is mandatory.
  • Homework should be banned in all schools.
  • School uniforms should be required.

How to Prepare

After you have chosen your controversial topic, you will either have to present this topic and both sides to your students, or have the students take the topic and research both sides of it to find out what side their position is on. If you decide to have students listen to a statement, then decide if they agree or disagree with that statement. Then break them into groups. Once they are in groups, they can discuss their thoughts on the issue. If you decide to give students a topic, then send them off to research that topic. Next, have them work in groups to record information in support of their position.

The easiest way for students to prepare for a class debate is to get their thoughts onto paper. There are many ways that they can do this. They can write an essay where they write supporting arguments and show their evidence. Another option is to write a position paper where they take a position and must support that position with factual evidence. A third option is to use a graphic organizer to find their particular position on a topic. With this option, students must develop arguments both for and against the topic. On the debate day, they must choose which side they most strongly are for, or against. A final option is to create an argument outline, which is a basic outline of their position on the topic with supporting evidence of how they feel about the topic.

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Classroom Debate Format

There are many different formats that you can use for your classroom debate. Here are a few options.

The Fishbowl Debate – Randomly select a handful of students to come sit in front of the classroom in a half-circle facing the students. Pose a question or a statement to those selected students and ask them to discuss it. The rest of the classmates ask a question to the panel or take turns taking their spot in the fishbowl, but they are not allowed to speak otherwise. This format is used when students have prior knowledge about the topic.

Advocate Decision-Making Debate – Students are placed into groups of three and assigned a topic to debate. One person is in support of the topic, one is against, and one acts as the judge. The judge, or “Decision maker,” will create a list of questions to ask the advocates, which students will use as their debate outline. Then the judge will decide at the end of the debate who the winner is. This can be done in front of the class or in groups at the same time.

The Four Corners Debate - This debate will get students up and moving while using their critical thinking skills. Students are given a topic, then they must prepare a well-supported paragraph stating their position (they may strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, or just disagree). Next, students will move to the corner of the classroom where they see their position posted on the wall. The strongly disagree position is posted in the right-hand corner, while the agree position is posted in the left-handed corner, and so on. Once students move to their corner, they get 10 minutes to discuss their thoughts. Appoint one person the note-taker and one person the speaker. At the end of the 10 minutes, invite each speaker to state her case on the topic. If at the end of the debate a student has changed his mind, he is allowed to move corners. Then students get another 10 minutes to discuss. After that point, students take their seats to write a new paragraph detailing their thoughts on the topic.

Ball-Toss Debate – Students are given a topic and must take a side. Each student goes to the side of the classroom where their position is either for or against the topic. Move desks so that each side is facing each other. Have students sit on their desks and take turns tossing a ball to discuss their position on the topic. Only the student with the ball can speak. This debate is just like the mum-ball, except students are using it to debate an issue.

Grading a Debate

Grading a class debate can be challenging. The best way to get a grade is to use the outlines and persuasive essays from the students. You can also assign a paper after the debate. Grading can be as follows:

A – Well researched, paraphrases, acknowledges or refutes a topic.

B – Showed comprehension of topic, makes a good argument

C – Participates and takes notes

D – Does not participate in discussion, and shows minimum attentiveness

F - Shows unwillingness to participate in class debate

Do you hold classroom debates? What format is your favorite to use? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, as well as a contributing writer to TeachHUB.com and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators.