Communication Skills

From Debate to Deliberation

Debate has a place in middle and high school classrooms, but it can be divisive. Collaborative deliberation is non-adversarial and encourages sharing of diverse perspectives.

April 13, 2023
Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Classroom dialogue and discussion is a powerful and critical tool to support student learning. It’s an opportunity for students to try on ideas before finalizing their thinking. It’s also an opportunity for students to take on a larger cognitive load and process content. Finally, it’s a chance to practice effective communication and perspective-taking skills that promote cultural competence and empathy. All of these are important for long-term success in college, career, and civic life. 

There are many discussion forms and protocols that teachers use to promote student learning, one of which is debate. Discussing opposing viewpoints is one of the most dominant models for deliberation in the classroom. While debate can be a highly engaging discussion technique, there are potential pitfalls; here a few key challenges to consider.

  1. Decreased sense of belonging—zero sum gain, winners and losers 
  2. Potentially incomplete ideas or narrow interpretations
  3. Only “yes” or “no”—narrow answer, binary

As such, it may be worth trying a different type of discussion in the classroom that might avoid or mitigate these pitfalls. Personally, I’m a fan of the Structured Academic Controversy protocol and have seen its success in the classroom. With it, students address a question that lends itself to a contrasting viewpoint, such as “Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to defeat the Japanese?" or “Should we continue to explore outer space?”

Students are expected to learn about both opposing viewpoints even if they’re assigned or choose one for the actual discussion. They have the opportunity to share their voice, learn interesting and relevant content, and use evidence to create effective arguments. 

Collaborative deliberation

Keith C. Barton and Li-Ching Ho, both professors of curriculum and instruction, have researched how to create more inclusive classroom discourse, particularly in the areas of social studies. In “Collaborative deliberation in the classroom,” they propose, “Instead of having students debate contentious issues, encourage them to take a problem-solving approach.” This, of course, isn’t new. I’ve shared my ideas in the past about project-based learning and its process to engage students in authentic problem-solving. As many educators may not have the space for a full PBL project, shorter discussions that focus on a problem-solving approach may be more feasible. 

In the same vein, Barton and Ho define collaborative deliberation as non-adversarial problem-solving within a trusting, mutually reciprocal partnership, premised on common interests and involving diverse forms of expression and communication. In essence, instead of having binary “yes” or “no” discussion, the discussion is focused more on “how.” There’s focus on results while considering diverse perspectives and ideas. Below are questions as examples.


  • Should our democracy permit hate speech?
  • Should we continue to explore outer space?
  • Should the state provide universal childcare? 

Collaborative deliberation

  • How can vulnerable groups be protected against verbal attacks? 
  • How might we continue to explore space in meaningful and cost-conscious ways?
  • How can working families have greater access to childcare?

Setting the culture

Once you’ve designed a question, you’ll need to spend time norming or re-norming the way students will engage. These can include actual norms that help students communicate and work together effectively, but it also should include an activity that allows students to work together to identify the shared values, purposes, or interests they have in the question. 

Why is this important? While the questions focus on a common problem and are solution oriented, students will have vastly different ideas about why this issue is important and/or why they’re interested in the topic. It’s important to find common ground at the start to set a foundation as a collaborative culture. Before jumping into idea generation, have students spend time identifying these shared interests and values.

Diverse perspectives 

Solutions do, of course, need evidence. Students will need to research and back up their ideas with a variety of evidence, including statistics and data. Teachers should push students, however, to consider other data points that may not regularly be valued. Narratives and counternarratives matter. Often the stories and personal experiences that people share are not valued as much as a quantitative statistic.

To encourage the valuing of personal stories, teachers should ask students to find anecdotes, videos, and interviews to further illuminate their ideas. These ideas should include perspectives they’re familiar with, as well as perspectives that are more “distant” and push their thinking. This will allow students to continue to refine and sharpen their proposed solutions. 

Justifying solutions and weighing alternatives

It’s one thing to come up with possible solutions. It’s another to stress-test them to see if they’re viable and/or have alternatives. Teachers can use the Impact Wheel, found in How to Future, which has students identify intended and unintended consequences. It forces students to consider results and implications they may not have thought of. This, in turn, allows students to reflect on their initial ideas, revise, and/or consider alternatives. 

As you consider more collaborative deliberation, look at intent, limitations, and advantages of it and debate. Both have their place in the classroom; it’s up to the educator to determine the best tool or strategy for student learning. 

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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