Using Classroom Debates to Engage Students

Any teacher or parent of adolescents will tell you, kids love to argue! With some effort, you can harness this natural inclination in your classroom as a way to improve your students’ content knowledge and literacy abilities.

Two of the targeted initiatives in the Common Core standards are a focus on developing students’ speaking and listening skills and a focus on developing students’ abilities to support claims with evidence. Debating is a way to address both of these concepts in a fun and engaging way. 

Debates as Formative Activities

Odds are that when you think about a debate, you picture something akin to the prime-time presidential debates on television; there are podiums, timers, moderators, and structured formats. Debating in your classroom does not necessarily need all of these trappings.

While you could certainly opt for more traditional debate formats like a Lincoln-Douglas debate, there is much more to be gained by choosing formats that get as many students involved as possible. Some of the most effective class-wide debate activities include:

Fishbowls are a great way to get an entire class to debate an issue. The classroom is arranged in inner and outer circles of students. Inner-circle students are the “talkers” and can engage with the other students in the inner circle about the topic at hand. Behind each student in the inner circle is a student who is responsible for listening to the arguments play out. At regular intervals, the inner circles and outer circles switch.

In some variations, the outer circle students are required to take notes for both themselves and their inner circle counterpart. Another variation allows the outer-circle student to pass notes to the inner-circle student to help with their arguments. You can even add a “hot seat” for an eager outer-circle student to jump into if they have a thought they want to contribute. Whatever ways you choose to modify the fishbowl framework, student engagement will be up.

In this activity, students express their positions on a multi-faceted issue by moving to the corner of the classroom that displays a statement that they most agree with. One at a time, each student takes a turn defending their chosen position and then calls upon another classmate to respond.

Throughout the activity, students are free to move to different corners to reflect shifts in their positions; this adds a visual and kinesthetic element to the process. What makes a four-corners debate particularly empowering is watching support for a position evolve following a compelling argument made by a student. 

One of the hardest argumentative skills to learn is how to defend a position that is not your own. By assigning students particular roles or positions to play out in a debate, you help them consider opposing viewpoints. This can lay the groundwork for writing strong counterarguments in subsequent assignments on the topic.

In my literacy and social studies classrooms, I typically use debate activities like a these to help students prepare for argumentative writing. There is a noticeable bump in quality when students have been given a chance to play with their ideas in a debate activity prior to formally crafting and defending a written thesis. 

Debates Help Learners of All Learning Styles

Classroom debate activities give students with verbal, social, and auditory learning styles an opportunity to engage with content in a way that is more comfortable than working solely on paper. Some, like the four-corners debate, even play to your kinesthetic learners’ needs.

By adding a note-taking or written reflection component to your debate activity, you can help not only support your visual learners but build in an extra layer of student accountability. This also gives students something tangible to take with them from the activity as a reference for future classwork; everybody wins.

Ideally, classroom debate activities improve engagement by tapping into a wide range of learning styles and driving up student interest. Give them a try with your own students!

Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting focused websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings.