Subjects to Debate

If you have spent any amount of time in schools (especially secondary), you know how much students can love to argue. As students grow and progress through school, they find their voices and opinions on a variety of topics. As a teacher, you could spend your time correcting students in class for arguing amongst one another or you could harness that energy and teach your students a useful skill: debate.

Learning how to successfully debate a topic is not only useful for debate teams, but it also teaches students how to articulate their thoughts in a meaningful way. Students also learn how to accept other points of view and even anticipate the other side of a topic in order to engage in a more meaningful conversation with another party.

One of the most important things to consider when planning a debate in your classroom is to decide on what students should debate. You must make the subject matter interesting for students or the activity will go nowhere. Think about topics that hit close to home for your students such as: dress code, whether or not homework serves a purpose, school vouchers, metal detectors at school entrances, etc. I worked with a wonderful English teacher several years ago. She brought up school zone regulations. She found a newspaper article that detailed the story of a single mother that got into trouble because she lied about her address in order for her kids to go to a school in a different district because she believed her children would get a better education. Our kids were really engaged in this topic. Do you know why? At my school we had families that falsified their address in order for their children to attend our school. Talk about a relatable topic!

How to Prep for a Debate

Once you have settled on a debate topic for the class, you will need to prepare students for the debate. Many students are self-conscious about speaking in front of a group, so it might be a good idea to place your students in small groups the first couple of times you hold a debate. You could bring up a topic and poll your students to decide on which side of the debate they fall. Next, split the students into small groups for each side of the debate. Allow students to research their positions and make a logical argument with sequential notes (this would need to be simplified for elementary students).

Make sure to suggest that each side research possible counterpoints to their points that may surface during rebuttal. A debate team that can argue both sides of a topic is better off. As student groups prepare their points for the debate, circulate the classroom in order to certify that the students are using reliable sources for their arguments. You may need to conduct a mini lesson on how to substantiate sources.

Finally, give students pointers on debate etiquette. Stress to students that they need to keep their composure during the debate, dress appropriately for public speaking, pay attention as both sides talk, and shake hands or give some sort of congratulatory gesture once the debate is over.

How to Grade a Debate

I would suggest that in order to properly grade a debate, you should create or find a rubric to share with the students that are involved in the debate as well as the students in the audience. The debaters should know what, specifically, you are looking for as they prepare to debate to ensure that they are on the right track as they research and structure their positions. Topics in the rubric could include the following: the points made by team members are well researched, team members make eye contact, team members do not rely too heavily on their notes during the debate, the rebuttal points address the points made by the opposing team, and the presentation is clear and concise. These are just a few points to consider.

Before the debate begins, show the class a video of a debate in order to allow students to ask clarifying questions and calibrate so scoring is consistent. Allowing the student audience to score the debate along with the teacher will give the class a sense of ownership and keep audience members accountable. At the end of the debate, collect the scoring rubrics from the class, add up the points and discuss the scoring with the debate teams.

Debate Formats to Consider

Policy Debate

In a policy debate, each side is represented by two students. Each side has a set amount of time to give their speech (one side affirmative, one side negative). After each speech, there is a set amount of time given to the opposing side for cross examination. After the speeches and the cross, each side has a set amount of time to give a rebuttal.

Lincoln-Douglas Debate

In the Lincoln-Douglas debate model, each side gives a speech followed by a cross examination from the other side. This series is followed by an affirmative rebuttal, a negative rebuttal, and then a second affirmative rebuttal.

There are other forms of debate that might fit your class and purpose more aptly. It is a good idea to show the class some examples of different types of debate and come to a consensus on the format that works best.