How to Have Classroom Debates

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Classroom debates can be a valuable tool for teachers of middle school students, high school students, and college students. Debate topics will vary depending on the school level, from debates about video games or school uniforms to debates about more controversial topics like euthanasia or the death penalty. Debating lets students participate in discussions while practicing their public speaking skills, forces them to conduct independent research and, according to researchers quoted in Parenting Science, improves critical thinking skills. However, running a classroom debate can be complicated and ‌requires some early legwork‌.

1 Define the Topic

Writing a good debate topic is essential for a productive classroom debate. An excessively vague topic can lead to meandering discussions that ignore the material you want to cover, but overly specific topics may shut down room for debate. ‌The best topics tend to be sentences that clearly define affirmative and negative roles.‌ For example, if you're teaching a class on evolution, the topic "Punctuated equilibrium is a more accurate theory of evolution than gradualism" is a good wording because both sides in the debate know exactly what to argue. Phrasing such as "Punctuated equilibrium is a flawed theory" is more ambiguous and may create problems.

When defining the topic, it helps to start broad and work your way toward a more specific topic involving the broad subject. ‌Some examples of broad subjects for debate include:

  • Climate change
  • Social media/cell phones
  • Freedom of speech
  • Vaccines
  • Healthcare
  • Euthanasia
  • Homeschooling
  • Private schools vs. public
  • Grading system
  • Peer pressure
  • Celebrities as role models
  • Animal testing
  • Zoos
  • Beauty Pageants
  • School uniforms
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Obesity
  • Foreign language
  • Mental health
  • Birth control
  • Human cloning
  • The death penalty
  • Corporal punishment
  • Violent video games
  • Student loan debt
  • Income/minimum wage
  • Voting age
  • Performance-enhancing drugs
  • Junk food

Once you have decided on the broad subject, you can make a more specific topic involving this subject. Let’s use homeschooling as an example. A good debate topic surrounding homeschooling could be “homeschooling is better for children than traditional schooling.”

Again, the debate topic should be suitable for the grade level. A high school debate and a middle school debate will likely not cover the same kinds of topics. Similarly, topics for high school debates might look a little different from the topics in college debates.


Note:‌ you might encourage students to brainstorm their own topics for debate and develop their point of view on the topic before participating in a debate. Other times, you can assign each team a stance to take and develop solid arguments for whichever side they get. Either way, It’s a good idea for them to ‌explore various points of view on a given topic aside from their own to see all angles and know how to prepare for any rebuttals when they are debating.

2 Define the Format

Many debate formats are available, depending on your needs. ‌You could include the whole classroom in a congressional-style debate‌ in which each student gives a short speech on the pro or con side. Alternatively, you might ask two students to support the topic and two to oppose the topic while the rest of the class watches. Define how long each student can speak, and in what order. Most debates start with an affirmative speech and then switch back and forth, but you could have two affirmative speakers followed by two negative speakers instead.

To revisit our homeschooling example, the affirmative side’s claim would be trying to prove that homeschooling is, in fact, better than traditional schooling. The negative speakers would make a rebuttal to this claim, stating and explaining all the reasons why the affirmative side is not correct.

3 Establish Expectations

For students with no experience in formal debates, it's helpful to establish clear expectations. ‌A useful strategy is to create a grading rubric for the debate, assigning points for speaking style, research and overall effectiveness.‌ For example, to make sure students do adequate research, you might require five quotations from different authoritative sources for full credit on the "research" section of the rubric. You should also set rules for keeping the discussion civil. For example, you might prohibit raising voices above a level necessary for hearing, or you might require debaters to address the audience instead of each other.

4 Keep Everyone Involved

If only a portion of your class will be giving speeches in the debate, you'll want to keep the rest of your students involved. There are two good strategies for making sure everyone pays attention. First, you can allow the audience to "cross examine" the speakers by posing questions. Award extra participation points to audience members who ask particularly pressing and insightful questions. Alternatively, you could ‌have the classroom audience decide the winner of the debate by asking them to write decisions.‌ The decisions can be short essays explaining why they think one side won and the other lost.

Nick Robinson is a writer, instructor and graduate student. Before deciding to pursue an advanced degree, he worked as a teacher and administrator at three different colleges and universities, and as an education coach for Inside Track. Most of Robinson's writing centers on education and travel.