Why Teachers Should Add Debate to Their Curriculum

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

At the end of the school year this year, I looked at the list of causes of the Civil War. I’ve taught this once or twice, usually with just enough time to explain them. However, this year I finally got my curriculum in check and had time to ensure these topics were taught right. So how would I teach them?

I’d done projects, lectures, and plenty of other means of educating my students this year. What they were really looking for was another mock trial, but I didn’t have the time to plan something that large on short notice – nor did I think we’d have enough time to allot for that task. So I asked myself “what do students enjoy about the mock trial?”

The answer was students loved the cooperation, caution, connection, cooperation, conviction, and, most of all, the competition. But what had all of this besides a mock trial? A debate, of course.

Students love cooperation, caution, connection, cooperation, conviction, and, most of all, the… Click To Tweet

COOPERATION

Think of how much time students spend in a desk using only their ears and a pencil. I’m not saying there’s not an appropriate place for an awesome lecture. I think some of my best lessons that I can provide kids are stories and concepts that can and should only be shared. However, there is an innate need in students to work together. Sometimes this is with peers, sometimes it’s with total strangers. For as much as we love the insanely nice or brilliant student, we need to ensure they can and do work well with their peers. The future employer wants that, too. And, for as much as we like to drive the car of education, if the goal is to make students lifelong learners, we need to get the hell out of their way sometimes and give them the keys.

CAUTION

That said, students should learn how to debate one another. If the idiots on TV (I don’t care what party you belong to or what news station you watch) can’t get disagree amicably, we better teach the students how. Otherwise, to borrow a Benjamin Franklin quote, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again, expecting different results.” I’m tired of the blabbermouths; instead, I love an excellent, respectful give and take.

If the idiots on TV can't get disagree amicably, we better teach the students how. Click To Tweet

CONNECTION

Students often complain that what they’re learning has no bearing on their lives. When will they ever use trigonometry, Newtonian law, or the story about Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware? When we task students to work together while pitching an argument, they are forced to speak their peers’ language. I had students making references to getting in the lunch line, fighting with brothers and sisters, and changing technology while discussing causes of the Civil War. I want students to learn in their “native tongue,” but they’re much more proficient at that with one another than I am. In this case, I’m glad to take notes from my students.

CAPTIVATION

I don’t know about you, but I want my students enthralled with the lesson. When they’re still talking about it on their way out the door, when that’s the topic of discussion in the car with mom and dad or on social media, or if they just want to stick around afterward to learn their teacher’s thoughts on the topic, that’s real learning. That’s captivation, and I learn best when I love and am fully investing in what I’m learning.

I learn best when I love and am fully investing in what I'm learning. Click To Tweet

CONVICTION

Want to get a kid to believe in something? Ask them to argue a side. It doesn’t matter whether they believe in it or not. They just need to know the points of arguing that side. I remember as a senior being assigned to a debate where I was pro-capital punishment, to which I had deep personal opposition. The teacher told me its not about my feelings, it’s about the argument. If I were to oppose capital punishment, I should know what the other side was thinking. It made me uncomfortable to argue for something I didn’t believe in, but it made me a better student and teacher. It also fortified my belief stronger through conviction.

COMPETITION

This seems to be one of the most untapped and serious drivers of education. We Americans are born with a distinct sense of challenge and competition. Don’t believe me? Ask someone their favorite sport and then go sit on the couch with them while their watching it. Report back on just how relaxed they were that time. What if our students possessed similar zeal for – gasp! – a homework assignment?

 

When implementing debate in your classroom, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What’s something that’s inconclusive and arguable?
  2. Do I want students to work solo, or in small teams?
  3. Do I want to have a pro- and con- side (like the death penalty topic I mentioned above), or do I want it to be multifaceted (like the 14 causes of the Civil War I teach)?
  4. What resources will students have? What other resources will they need?
  5. What can I do to support the quiet kids?
  6. Will I grade the students? If so, how?

 

When bringing debate to the classroom, make sure that you teach students the following:

  1. Disagree with ideas and not people. Decorum is a crucial component of debate. Far too many TV talking heads needs this lesson.
  2. Have students state the positives of their argument first.
  3. Then have students attack one position at a time. It’ll be easier for them to track and helps keep the “defensive” group in defensive mode.
  4. When they’ve exhausted their thoughts on that topic, punt and change sides. Put someone else on the defensive.
  5. At the end, have students re-state a positive. End on a good note. Have them shake hands.

 

Debate is something that can be implemented in any class. While it certainly speaks well to the liberal arts (think English / Language Arts, painting class, social studies), it’s very much applicable to STEM.

Here’s a list of 3 debate questions I pulled from a variety of fields:

ELA:

  1. Who really was William Shakespeare? Was it one guy? Multiple people? Why do we know so little about him?
  2. Is grammar really that important in the 21st century?
  3. Which is better to help teach about morals – fiction or non-fiction?

Social Studies:

  1. Who is the most evil leader of World War II?
  2. Was America founded as a Christian nation?
  3. Which company’s stock is the most worthwhile to own?

Science:

  1. Which invention or innovation changed the 20th century the most?
  2. Have humans evolved from primates?
  3. Which type of pollution is most harmful to the earth?

Math:

  1. Are calculators a necessity?
  2. Are we properly preparing students for a financial world?
  3. Should teachers use project-based learning in mathematics?

Languages:

  1. Which not-perfectly translate word in [language] most describes their culture?
  2. Should we remove the masculinity and femininity in words (firefighter > fireman)?
  3. Which language is the most important to learn in our future?

Art:

  1. Which painter is the greatest in history?
  2. Which piece created during the Renaissance is most emblematic of its change?
  3. What makes art “art” and not just a collection of stuff and colors?

Computers & technology:

  1. Apple or PC?
  2. Should students learn typing skills?
  3. Which app helps / hurts students the most?

Music:

  1. Which of Mozart’s pieces is the most influential?
  2. Which Beatle has had the greatest impact in their lifetime?
  3. Should music always feature lyrics?

Shop:

  1. Which material is most worth its money?
  2. Should all students be required to learn a trade?
  3. What functions of the home are most important to learn?

Family & Consumer Science:

  1. Which meal is the tastiest and healthiest all at the same time?
  2. What’s the best way to make a chocolate chip cookie?
  3. What is a parent’s biggest struggle during ___ [developmental age]?

Health & PE:

  1. What time should the school day begin?
  2. Should sports substitute PE class?
  3. How do we solve the obesity epidemic?

 

Is this the best way to teach all these topics? Well… that’s up for debate.

 

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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