discussing important and controversial issues of war and peace

Sample Introduction and LINKS
Sample Opening Exercise

Sample Formal Debate Instructions

Suggestions for Informal Debate Activities
“A good teacher knows that the best way to help students learn is to allow them to find the truth by themselves.”
Noam Chomsky

“The teacher’s first task in approaching any controversial subject is to help students develop a solid knowledge base from which to form their opinions.” Thomas Lickona

"Peace is a state in which conflicts occur frequently and are resolved constructively (war, in contrast, is a state in which conflicts are managed through the use of large-scale violence). Conflicts should occur frequently, because when they are managed constructively they have many positive outcomes, such as increasing the motivation and energy to solve problems, increasing achievement and productivity, clarifying one's identity and values, and increasing one's understanding of other perspectives."

David Johnson and Roger Johnson


Why and How to Plan Classroom Debates:

Allowing students to research both sides of an issue and then debate and debrief awakens their critical thinking in a powerful way. Further, debate formats provide a safe environment in which to discuss controversial issues.

• Allowing students to switch and re-debate on the opposing side, strengthens their command of the material and their ability to take multiple perspectives. (See research by Avery, Johnson,Johnson, and Mitchell in How Children Understand War and Peace and description by Lickona in Educating for Character, and see suggestions below.)

• In addition, devoting time for students to propose “solutions” to controversial problem, gives them practice in working with those who hold opposing viewpoints to face tough issues.

• Debates need not be time consuming, but are better when issues are fully researched. (Minimum: one class or one night of research prior to class debate; one period for debate.)

• Asking students to interview family members engages families and students. Family interviews help families feel that the instruction is fair and helps students feel safe about joining in the class discussion.

• Having students watch political debates is a way of encouraging their interest in civil dialogue as well as helping them think critically about candidates and the positions they take on important issues.

• As the teacher, share your opinion thoughtfully if you wish and if you are asked, while maintaining a safe, respectful, open dialogue. The teacher's role as a fair moderator is crucial to the success of debate as a method of instruction.

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Middle School Debate Class:

Students will choose controversial topics in current events, research both sides, and work with a team to prepare arguments for formal debates. The focus will be on critical thinking, active listening, and respectful dialogue!

“Where would we have been if everyone had thought things out in those days?”
Adolph Eichmann at his trial for Nazi war crimes

“I was there to follow orders, not to think.”
Defendant in Watergate trials
(From Educating for Character, Lickona)

  • I. Why debate? To learn how to think!

    A. Debate, the art of reasonable discussion of controversial topics, will help us all become morally aware and will enhance our ability to think critically. We will be better able take the perspective of others, and make thoughtful moral decisions for ourselves. We may often disagree—but we will learn to do so respectfully and civilly.

    II. Where to begin?

    A. Keep your ears, eyes, and mind open for interesting topics for debate!

    B. Talk to family members and friends about issues of importance.

    C. Start a file of articles, or make a list of topics that interest you.

    D. Introductory classes will get us into debating with mini-debates on topics we already know a lot about (e.g.: “Cats are better than dogs as pets for city dwellers.”).

    E. We will also view videos of competitions of debate clubs and political debates. For more information on the rules of debate, visit some of the websites listed below!

    III. How to debate? Become aware, select, research, and plan your debate!

    A. Become aware: Individually and as a group we will use newspapers, magazines, and websites to select topics of interest.
    --- 1. Keep track of current events by reading headlines, scanning news sources like,,,
    and other sites through School Library Website.
    ---2. Discuss issues of importance with friends and family members.

    B. Select: When a group of students has agreed on a topic of interest, we will determine the central question or topic to debate.
    ---1. Resolve: The statement that is debated is called the resolve. It is like a thesis in an essay: a statement containing an opinion that is debatable.

    C. Research: During this phase, you are trying to get as much information as possible on BOTH SIDES of the topic. You do not yet know which side your team will debate, so you need to understand the big picture and as many issues as possible that can be used as arguments for or against.

    D. Plan your debate:
    ---1. Choose sides: Sometimes this is done by choice, often by a coin toss!
    ---2. Continue research! Use encyclopedias, news sources, personal interviews, and other tools to accumulate an overwhelming amount of evidence to support your argument.
    ---3. Prepare your opening: When you know whether you are debating the affirmative (pro) or the negative (con), you and your teammates need to fine tune your arguments and begin to prepare your first speech.
    ---4. Debate: There is a fixed order to speaking and questioning during debates. Speak clearly, looking at your audience and opponents. Do not simply read your prepared remarks. Introduce your teammates, your argument, make your points, and sum up. As you listen to speakers, make notes! You will use these notes as you prepare questions and new points to argue.

    IV. Terms used:

    A. Resolve: A statement (e.g. “Cats are better than dogs as pets.”) to be argued in a debate.

    B. Definitions: The affirmative side defines words used in the resolve (e.g. "Pets in this case means animals to be kept in apartments or houses.”).

    C. Counter-plan: A new argument that concedes some of the points made (“Cats may be better than dogs in some situations, but dogs can be trained as helping animals.”)

    D. Conceding a point: Allowing the other side to have a point, but making a new one “on top” of it. ("Well, cats may be better in terms of size, but hauling all that kitty litter up to the apartment is going to be a pain. That's why a small dog would be better.")

    E. Rebuttal: The final argument, in which each team tries to sum up for the judges the reason their team has proved (affirmative) or disproved (negative) the resolve.

    F. Courtesy and respect: These qualities are to be shown at all times during the debate process.
Use topics with which students are familiar to give students practice in debate. After debating the merits of cats versus dogs as pets, move into the classroom and school environment. Then, ask students to generate their own debate topics.

Debate Class is debating these resolves:
Brainstorm arguments for and against each statement:

1. School unity promoted by school uniforms outweighs
personal freedom in dress.




2. The present discipline system provides clear guidelines for
community behavior.






3. The current sports schedule meets the needs of students appropriately.






List other topics you would like Debate Class to investigate and debate.

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Debate Class
Resolved: _________________________________________________________________________

Affirmative: ___________________________________
v. Negative: _______________________________________

Format of this Debate: 10-minute debate

1. A coin toss will decide the choice of sides, followed by a five-minute preparation period before the debate begins. Remember, you need to consider arguments and critiques for both sides of the proposal, even though you are arguing for only one side.

2. First Affirmative Speech is to be no longer than one minute in length.
(Affirmative defines terms used in resolve.)

3. Questioning by Negative team will last for one minute.

4. First Negative Speech is to be no longer than one minute in length.

5. Questioning by Affirmative team will last for one minute.

6. Three minutes to prepare final argument: Rebuttal Speech

7. Negative Rebuttal Speech 1 minute

8. Affirmative Rebuttal Speech 1 minute (note: in the Rebuttal, the speaker may not introduce new material that has not already been mentioned in the debate.)

9. Critique of Debate and Decision of Judges

• Your speeches should have logical organization and flow smoothly.

• Your team should show respect and courtesy at all times.

• Begin each speech by introducing yourself and your teammates.

• Take notes during all speeches and Q&A sessions to prepare your questions and speeches.

• Support your arguments with convincing evidence or detail.

• Aim to cast doubt on the opposing argument: point out the flaws and inconsistencies in the opponents’ arguments. Draw parallels to other situations. Offer counter-plans.

• A successful debater must consider both sides of an argument! Concede one point to better dispute another.

DEBATE CHART (for notes and questions):


1.First Affirmative




2. Negative Questioning

4. Affirmative Questioning




3. First Negative

6. Affirmative Rebuttal




5. Negative Rebuttal

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Suggestions for Other Activities

SIDE SWITCHING: Researchers Patricia G. Avery, David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and James M. Mitchell of the University of Minnesota recommend taking structured debates a step further. In How Children Understand War and Peace, they articulate numerous methods for staging academic controversies (structured debates) in a safe and well-managed classroom. They urge teachers to allow students to switch positions during the debate process, and to argue the opposite point of view. Further, they suggest that teachers ask student debaters to drop the pretense of debate and end the process by collaborating on a group set of proposals to remedy the situation debated. (See Using Structured Controversies Link for a consise set of directions.)

FISH BOWL: As a change, or when time does not permit a formal debate, invite two students to begin a discussion on a topic of their choosing. The rest of the class listens to the discussion, and one-by-one "taps" into the discussion if they have something new to contribute. Similar to asking, "May I have this dance?" one new member joins the pair while one of the fishbowl team departs. Short or long, this is an excellent way for students to share their thoughts. Monitor participation so that one or two dominant personalities do not monopolize the fishbowl.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: As a culminating activity, I often ask debate participants to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that might take interest in the issue debated. Participants are well qualified to lay out both sides of an issue, and I ask them to make concrete and constructive suggestions to resolve a conflict, whether it be one over school uniforms or on the invasion of Iraq by American troops.

Courtroom Dramas: In movies and in role plays: Watching excerpts of excellent acting and arguing often provides a risk-free way to engage in discussion of an issue. Examples of excellent movies include To Kill a Mockingbird, Separate but Equal, and Armistad with courtroom arguments that are both dramatic and articulate on issues of race. I have also had children role play courtroom dramas based on characters from books we were reading. Further, I have had students stage formal debates on the merits of including a book in our curriculum by having them take the role of curriculum committee members. They were covered by the school newspaper, and members of the administration attended the classroom debates.

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