Nothing kills a discussion-driven lesson like a roomful of students with one-sentence answers. Recently in studying Oedipus Rex, the following conversation took place in my class:
Me: What most significantly influences Oedipus’s outcome in this play, fate or free-will?
Student: I don’t know; it’s like he’s got no choice.
Scholars have written volumes answering this question, yet I can’t get more than ten words from a teenager. When discussion lags like this, I like to pull out a method of informal debate.
Debate can be used as a means of eliciting deeper responses in the classroom, a way to get to the “why” of a question. This method works beautifully for several reasons: it is a student-driven conversation, it naturally prunes lame responses, and it is highly adaptable, filling ten minutes or ninety.
Informal Debate Method:
1. Pose a debatable question to the class.
2. Give the class time to consider it individually.
3. Arrange students in two groups—for and against.
4. Give students time to meet to define their arguments.
5. The groups choose their first representative.
6. The representatives begin to argue their stance.
7. When the rep tires, the group substitutes a new student to continue the argument.
8. Afterwards, evaluate the conversation with the class.
In the course of one debate, the class begins to identify what types of arguments work. They recognize ethical, logical, and emotional appeals. They think independently, without the teacher serving up answers. They are forced to consider the “why.”
This type of discussion can be used for almost any subject: the
US’s involvement in History
class, the validity of Scripture in Theology, the theories of origin in
Biology, the relevance of math in everyday life—I’d like to hear an argument
for the quadratic formula. Vietnam
Some ideas for adaptations:
- Create a rubric to score students’ responses
- Introduce logical fallacies and tips for avoiding them
- Turn the debate topic into a writing prompt
So whether your class is considering fate vs. free will or the efficacy of a bi-cameral congress, if the discussion is lagging, try a debate and see what you can learn.