discussing important and controversial issues of war and peace
good teacher knows that the best way to help students learn is to allow
them to find the truth by themselves.”
teacher’s first task in approaching any controversial subject
is to help students develop a solid knowledge base from which to form
"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.
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
would we have been if everyone had thought things out in those days?”
Adolph Eichmann at his trial for Nazi war crimes
was there to follow orders, not to think.”
Defendant in Watergate trials
(From Educating for Character, Lickona)
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.
Where to begin?
A. Keep your ears, eyes, and mind open for interesting topics for
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
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!
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
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
D. Plan your debate:
---1. Choose sides: Sometimes this is done by choice, often by a coin
---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.
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
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
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.
OPENING DEBATE Exercise:
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
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
3. The current
sports schedule meets the needs of students appropriately.
other topics you would like Debate Class to investigate and debate.
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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
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):
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for Other Activities
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.)
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
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