Saturday, January 12, 2013

Informal Debate: A Way to the Why

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: Fate.
Me: Why?
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 Vietnam 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. 

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. 


  1. Awesome. Someone should tweet this. I just wish I had a class where discussion was a part of it.

  2. Do you have an example of a discussion rubric you can post? That might be helpful. Sometimes it seems as if the 10 word answers come from students who really do not know how to debate or discuss. Having specific guidelines to share with them might be useful.

  3. We did this activity last week for the third time this year. Here's the breakdown I used:
    Preparation notes = 10 points
    Debate Participation = 10 points total*
    Participation/written reflection - 7
    Presenting an argument - 8
    Responding to an argument - 9
    Responding with textual evidence - 10
    *I do allow some students (EL and super shy ones) to write out their arguments instead of speaking.
    The beauty of this activity is in its flexibility. It can be informal or formal, quick or long, surface level or deep. Usually my rubrics get more specific as the year progresses. As students know more about argumentation and logic, then I hold them accountable for the types of statements they're making, logical fallacies, etc.