Essentials for Teaching Learners to Debate

Debating skills can help students in other areas of life.
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Debate is an ancient and respected form of argument that brings to mind ancient Greece and the skill of debaters to sway public opinion using well-crafted arguments. Sadly, many of today’s youth think argument is just a matter of who can yell the loudest or throw the best punches. Combating these prior belief systems is one of the toughest roadblocks that teachers face when teaching students the rudiments of debates. Teaching debate involves overcoming student’s ideas of what argument is and teaching them the structure of arguments, claims and counterclaims. Teaching students to research facts and to identify fallacies and illogical claims are some of the ways that they can learn to become great debaters.

1 Establishing ground rules

It is extremely important before starting any type of debate lesson with students to lay out some ground rules. Debating is a form of argument that is highly structured, with unique methods of presenting arguments that should be respected. Teaching students to respect both the process of debate, as well as each other, is just as important as the debate itself.

2 Issues and Counterarguments

The nucleus of any great debate is the art of the argument. There is no shortage of arguable issues available. Simply have students research the news, Internet or other media to find relevant issues. They don’t even have to look that far. Many issues they face in school, such as bullying, peer pressure and school policies, are great sources of argument. Choose an issue that most of the class is divided on and have students swap sides. For example, if one student is for the school uniform policy, have them research reasons why a school uniform policy isn’t a great idea. This expands your student’s perspective and gives them experience with formulating counterarguments.

3 Forming and addressing counterarguments

One of the biggest issues that students have when learning about debate is to even concede that the other side has any merit at all. Such stances lead to shouting matches instead of debate. It is important to teach your students that all arguments have two sides -- sometimes more -- and that they might even agree with some of the claims and arguments that are made by the opposing side and that that's okay.

4 Distinguishing beetween logical claims and illogical or fallacious reasoning

Perhaps the most difficult part of teaching debate is addressing errors in reasoning. Circular logic, fallacious claims and illogical arguments are tricky issues to uncover and address. But these skills will help students to be successful in many other areas in addition to debate.

Stacy Alleyne is a certified English teacher with a BA in English and graduate work in English, education, journalism and law. She has written numerous articles and her own dining column for the "Gazette."