Sometimes it feels like the art of debate is dying, but considering the benefits, it’s surprising that educators don’t employ the debate process more often across grade levels and content areas. Debate doesn’t just enrich content; it provides a way for students to deeply engage with what they’re learning, and they also gain profound skills. Through debate, students have the chance to do the following:
- Improve their written and oral communication skills
- Exercise their critical thinking and collaboration abilities
- Heighten their research, organization, and presentation skills as they work with team members to develop their best arguments
- Find and use their voice through public speaking
- Learn how to think objectively about an issue
- Practice tolerance, humility, and patience as they listen to the different perspectives of the opposing team, and take turns listening to each other’s arguments
Debate offers an ideal setting to instill confidence in our students so they learn how to use their voice effectively. Every subject area offers an opportunity to engage students in debate and to help us create an outlet that enables them to learn how to discuss issues in a constructive way that’s less ego driven and more about working with others to develop the reasoning behind a stance they take.
Debate can almost be considered a way to gamify learning. Students love being a part of a team and having the chance to “win” through strategy, presentation, and sound argumentation. Students don’t need to wait for the high school years to practice debating—even at the elementary level, students can practice the basic premise of debate.
Regardless of age level, it’s a matter of posing a relevant question or prompt and creating a space that challenges students to apply their learning.
Debate-Topic Ideas for All Grade Levels and Subject Areas
Throughout our curriculums, there’s often ample opportunity to generate prompts that provoke inquiry. I like giving students prompts, as it helps them to understand that statements aren’t always facts. Just because it has a period at the end doesn’t mean it’s something you shouldn’t question.
Also, it’s not always necessary to place students on the affirmative or opposing side based on their preferences; sometimes it can be an academic challenge to place them on the side they don’t agree with.
The following examples offer ideas for how to develop angles in each subject area that facilitate debate:
Literature: Help students use debate to explore societal norms, character flaws, or ethical issues. In the elementary grades, students can read Three Little Pigs vs. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by A. Wolf and discuss the prompt: The big bad wolf is innocent. For middle or high schoolers reading 1984, the prompt might be: Your privacy is protected.
Health: Have students explore the pros and cons of healthy habits on individual and societal levels. An elementary school prompt could be: Vending machines in the school cafeteria are a good idea, and in middle or high school, students could debate: There should be a law banning soda (or other foods with too much sugar).
Science: Have students apply concepts from class, like biodiversity, and relate them to current practices. Elementary students can debate: Zoos should exist. Middle and high school prompts include: Recycling is enough to reduce plastic pollution, or Mowing should be banned.
Math: Have students explore how numbers and data are used in everyday life. An elementary prompt is:Students should have to show their work to demonstrate learning. For middle and high school: Statistics are reliable.
Social studies: Have students explore perspectives on people, places, events. Elementary students might debate: Superheroes (e.g., Batman) are good citizens. In middle or high school: Textbooks accurately reflect history.
You can also run a debate that captures the broad view of your class. For instance, have students form teams around the prompt, “Students need to learn algebra” (or any other subject). You could also select a relevant current event, book, or article assignment, and provide a prompt.
Here are a couple of other general examples for debate: It’s important for students to memorize basic facts, and Homework is beneficial to students.
How to Run a Debate
Consider the age level of your students. It’s OK to modify this process. What’s important is giving the students the opportunity to work together to craft and deliver their arguments in a structured manner. Here’s a sample of how you might structure a debate.
- Introduction of the topic and teams (3 minutes).
- Arguments (3 minutes per team per round):
The claim: Have students state their position.
The data: Have students cite proof or evidence that backs their claim.
The warrant: Have students interpret how the data supports the claim.
You can have students repeat the claim-data-warrant cycle as you see fit. I recommend two claims (an opening presentation and an additional argument).
- Prepare for rebuttals (5-minute break).
- Rebuttal (3 minutes per team)—No new information should be added at this time.
- Closing statement (3 minutes per team)—This might include additional rebuttal statements.
Set some ground rules for the debate, so that students understand what it looks like to politely exchange ideas—for instance:
- Model civility.
- No ad hominem (personal) attacks.
- Listen carefully to the arguments of your opponent.
- Do not interrupt. Let the other team finish their arguments before you begin.
- Manage your emotions. Don’t let your feelings get the best of you.
- You may not agree with the stance you have to take. Try your best and be objective.
To be able to debate is a life skill. It equips us to be good citizens, to advocate for ourselves and the issues we care about, and to be effective in the workplace. Moreover, it encourages students to engage in content in a whole new way.