The Bow Tie Boys

The Bow Tie Boys

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Utilizing Debates in a Classroom

Debates are something that I personally see implemented some what often in classrooms yet in many cases, the debates are forced and rushed, in addition to being heavily guided by a rubric, notes, etc. There has been very few examples, if any, that I can remember a truly good debate occurring.

One example of a debate I have seen very often are Socratic seminars. Now, these are lovely ways to discuss a topic but I have seen Socratic seminars poorly implemented. The Socratic seminars I have participated in have had a topic that doesn't resonate well and  one on which students are not passionate about taking sides. The questions asked to me during a Socratic seminar have been incredibly specific, and not open ended. These Socratic seminars have resulted in my fellow students not being passionate about what they are discussing, and just doing the bare minimum of what is required.

There are several key aspects that make a debate transcend to one in which students are actively engaged. These include...

1. Topics/Questions:

A good debate has to have good topics. Without a strong topic, a debate will collapse. When choosing topics for debates, choosing topics that can relate to current issues and issues that resonate with both the audience and the debaters. The questions should also be clear and concise, and allow room for debater interpretation.

2. Moderator:

The moderator of the debate has a difficult job. They have to jump between intervening with the debate and letting the debaters take charge. A good moderator isn't constantly intervening, but instead inject propositions at points where the current questions run out of steam or when the debaters get out of hand. The moderator also has to let the debaters shape the debate to an extent, a debate run by only the moderator doesn't account for the differences in the debaters.

3. Preparation:

Both the debater and the moderator have to be prepared, the debaters to arguably a greater extent. The debaters should be prepared to offer up and defend their points against a variety of opponent counter claims. The debater should also be able to poke out weak points in their opponents argument that could sway the balance of power toward them.

These three aspects are integral to a debate. However, in my history of debates in classrooms, the preparation and topic are usually not adequate. The topics have to be precise and specific to a certain degree. If too precise, it forces students down two or three paths, with not much choice. This can force the students down a certain path they aren't proficient with. “Forcing students through a process to mimic a structure they are reproducing with little understanding is not the responsible teaching of writing. It has to be about more.” (Write Beside Them, 2008). Students need options, but not so many options that the students are confused. That is why the topics cannot be super broad. If this is the case, there are so many angles of attack the student can just get lost. Using To Kill a Mocking Bird as an example, a question that would be too broad would be, "Discuss Jem as a character". On the other hand, a too specific question would be, "Discuss Jem's feelings toward the tree house from the beginning of the story". A question that is specific enough, but not too broad would be, "Discuss Jem's relationship with Scout and how it changes through the book". In addition to the questions, preparation is also important, as the debater has to be well prepared. In a classroom setting, the method of preparation should vary from person to person, as everyone has different preparation comforts and limits. Students could be offered three ways to organize notes for a debate, with a fourth option of a teacher approved method. This way, students can custom create their own methods. This creativity can spark tremendous results. In the words of Linda Rief, "Creating is the highest form of intellectual development" (Seeking Diversity, 1992). Students creating their own methods can not only help tailor the debate to them, but also further their intellectual development. Combining a solid topic and questions, with a good moderator and preparation, a debate can be a successful one. However, a great debate has to have a twist. This can be a multitude of things but one possibility is that the debaters ask each other the questions, with the moderator keeping the debate under control. The questions would have to be approved ahead of time, but this would provide a fun twist on the standard debate format. Another way to spice up a standard debate would have the audience ask questions, and provide more points of view. In a classroom setting, both of these modifications could be done, and could make an unconventional debate that is more interesting than a standard debate.

Works Cited:

Kittle, Penny. Write beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. Print.

Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational, 1992. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reflecting on this important topic Joe and especially for providing specific ways that will impact the success of debates/socratic seminars. It reminds me that WHAT is less important than WHY and HOW so I love your perspective!