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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Class Discussions - Debates

Students often love to talk. I'm sure you've met that person who will argue about the color of the sky just for the sake of talking. So how can educators use that verbal energy to enhance learning? Class discussions, in particular class debates.

Through class debates you can teach students how to
- support their arguments with evidence, 
- respond politely and respectfully to opposing opinions, 
- recognize and express their own opinions (or lack thereof), and
- reorganize their ideas in efforts to convince others.
These are all powerful, lifelong skills.

Let me walk you through Class Debate Type A.
Type A involves some document, video, passage, or event that all students are exposed to. Typically I've used Scholastic News magazines and selected the main article. The focus on Type A is the informational context. As a whole class we read the questions asked on the back of the magazine regarding the article. Students then take turns reading sections of the article, seeking answers to the questions. When any student believes they have found an answer, they use the "I Know" signal** (**see blog post about hand signals) and we pause the reading. That student now has the floor and makes their claim. (Ex: "I think the answer to Question 2 is B, they rode horse-drawn chariots, because the sentence says 'They found wheels and ornate wagons in the King's tomb.'") The student must be sure to support their claim with evidence, and it is especially helpful if the student directs the class' attention to that evidence.

We then open the floor for comments about this student's claim by asking, "Show if you agree or disagree." The students use their hand signals to indicate and if there is any dissent I ask a disagreeing student to make their argument. That student now has the floor and provides their evidence for why the first student is mistaken. (Ex: "I don't think it is B for Question 2, because in the last paragraph it says 'Few animals could survive in the harsh climate' and horses would be needed to pull horse-drawn chariots.") From this point I would ask if we have enough information to answer this question yet and we might decide that continuing to read the article is the best option.

Further into the reading a student might signal that they are "unconvinced" when asked to show if they agree or disagree. If this happens I would ask another student who has agreed or disagreed to convince this student. In this way, the decisive student must rephrase the argument in a way the unconvinced student can understand. This use of the "unconvinced" option helps students feel comfortable recognizing their own confusion and asking for clarification. The other student's job of rephrasing the argument helps them learn how to summarize and persuade an audience using informational evidence instead of peer pressure or force.

At the conclusion of the reading we would return to the questions and see which ones are still unanswered. Now students would raise their hands to provide claims about the answers, supported by textual evidence. Others would show their agreement or lack thereof. Students who are unconvinced would be persuaded in either direction and eventually a majority decision about the answer would be made. Occasionally I've had to step in, as facilitator, and call for a "best guess" answer. I avoid stating my own opinion that B is correct because the correctness of the answer is less important than the process of determining its accuracy and defending that belief.

Spending 45 minutes reading and deciding the answers to 4 multiple choice questions can seem tedious, but the benefits of this type of directed discussion and evaluation of arguments are that students learn to debate appropriately, and intelligently. It also teaches them to slow down and consider, instead of rushing through and slopping any answer down to be "done". The point of a Type A class debate is not the completion or correctness of the answers, but learning to communicate your opinions to other human beings.

As with anything, it takes time and patience to develop positive debate culture in your classroom. You will need to model how to summarize a previous speaker's point and continue with your own opinion from it. You will need to be very careful NOT TO VALIDATE any opinions given in debate. As the teacher your role is a facilitator, not a participant. Students may want to please you and knowing your opinions can skew them having their own. You are not a holder of all knowledge and being correct is not the focus.

Class Debate Type B is less clear-cut and more like a courtroom.
Type B involves separate documents, videos, passages, or events - usually two. Half the class researches the first piece, the other half a separate piece. The pieces are connected but provide distinctly opposing opinions and evidence. For example, Student 1's group learns about the colonization of America from accounts written by Native Americans and charts detailing the disease and death their populations suffered. Student 2's group also learns about colonization but from accounts written by European explorers and charts detailing the trade, resources, and personal wealth the settlers enjoyed. Both sides of the story are provided but neither group has the other's detailed evidence.

In this debate, students must provide evidence that directly counters the other side's claims. They must be careful to avoid the temptation of exaggerating their evidence and use emotional stories sparingly. In effect, the student groups are the prosecution and defense in a court of law. It can be decided (in a class meeting) whether a jury should be present (perhaps of parents or another class). Again, the point of the debate is not the end result - one side "winning" - but the process of determining important arguments and evidence, and the defense of those claims.

As a facilitating teacher, your job is to keep the debate going. The two sides can decide to make arguments back-and-forth or present everything at once. You can ask for clarification of details, opposing arguments, and play devil's advocate. Also, Type B debates do not have to be about intense topics - you can easily debate the virtues of chocolate vs. vanilla or American football vs. soccer.

Through Type B debates students learn that they can't have all the information, it's not possible. They learn to digest the opponent's arguments, connect them to their existing evidence, and make a counter-argument. Students learn to control their emotions in a debate and not rely on those emotional reactions to win them support. Instead, they use evidence and appropriate discourse to convince their audience.

Physical signals used in a Type B debate include the "I Know" hand signal when a student would like to have the floor, and stepping forward or standing when speaking. At the end of the debate, you can ask students to move to separate sides of the room to show where their final opinions lie OR leave the debate inconclusive with both sides shaking hands (like after a ball game).

I can't drive this point home enough: Class debates are not about being correct or winning, but about learning the lifelong skill of communicating your opinions in healthy, intelligent, appropriate ways. That is why I use class debates in my elementary classroom.

Let me know in the comments if you've used class debates and how your students responded.

Happy teaching and traveling,

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