Note: This post is for teachers.
Debates are a great way to get students engaged. They can also help students develop a much deeper understanding of history. However, they take a long time to do properly (and if you don’t take the time you won’t get any of the learning benefits . . . you’ll just get your two most knowledgeable students arguing about their own personal beliefs). A solid debate will probably take at least two 45+ minute blocks of time. You need prep time where the students split up into groups, learn the background info and plan their strategy, time for the debate itself, and debriefing time. And ideally the prep and debate blocks of time would be on two different days, so students can do more prep for homework (or at least have the opportunity to do so).
Here’s how to set up your debate:
Step 1: Choose a topic.
You want your topic to be controversial, something the students care about (which can be more things than you think – approach is critical here), and something you can relate a lot of other topics to. If you’re going to spend two class periods or more on a debate, you’ll need to go over several other topics very quickly to make up the time. That won’t be a problem if you play your cards right. Here are some ideas for topics:
- Congressional vs. Presidential Reconstruction – This debate allows your students to pass judgement and decide punishments, and kids like that. Depending on where your curriculum starts, this topic could arrive a week or so into the school year, so it could be a great time to show your students that your class is fun and engaging. Debating views on Reconstruction also helps students understand that there was considerable debate at that time about how to deal with the rebellious South and the freed slaves. Plus, you can easily tie in topics like: Freedmen’s Bureau, black codes, barriers to voting (literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses), 14th and 15th amendments, Jim Crow laws/segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson, Johnson’s impeachment, Grant’s presidency and the military occupation of the South, and the Compromise of 1877.
- Roe v. Wade – Abortion is obviously controversial (so much so that you will probably have to be careful with this one). Students love controversy, though. Going into the backstories of each side of the case will help develop a much deeper understanding, and after all of that your students should at least remember that Roe v. Wade was about the legality of abortion. This topic could also come at a good point in the year – the third quarter lull when winter just won’t go away and everyone feels blah about school. After debating Roe v. Wade, your students will be primed to receive information on other Supreme Court cases like Miranda v. Arizona (for that one you could start our class by “arresting” one of your good-natured students and reading them their rights – or you could even have the school resource officer do it if you think you could get away with it!), Regents v. Bakke, Tinker v. Des Moines, Gideon v. Wainwright, civil rights cases like Brown v. Board, and the list goes on. Any one of those cases would make a great debate topic, actually.
Step 2: Group your students.
This brings up the elusive question of how to group your students. You can group based on so many things: test data, gender, personalities, homogeneous groupings, heterogeneous groupings, split the room in half, number off, random number generator in excel, let the students choose – there are so many ways to group students. Experiment and see what works for you. If you are using this debate for an administrator’s observation, choose something like data (and be able to explain in detail how you chose the groups).
Keep in mind that not all of your students need to be on the debate teams. You can have moderators, a panel of judges, etc.
Step 3: Provide background information.
Find (or write) an article or list of facts that gives the salient background information on each topic. Include as many related topics as you can. For the Reconstruction example, you could easily include things like the Freedmen’s Bureau, Black Codes, Reconstruction amendments, Radical Republicans, impeachment of Johnson, etc.
The DBQs/Mini-Qs from The DBQ Project as well as past AP US history exam DBQs can be a great resource for incorporating primary documents into the background info packets you create. They will also provide solid evidence your students can use to support their arguments in their debate.
After the packets are ready, plan how you will share them with your students. Based on the overall reading level and academic interest level of your class, you can have the students go over the background info in class (either led by you whole-group style, in their debate groups, or independently) or for homework.
Step 4: Decide how your debate will operate.
The best way to do this is to run through it yourself ahead of time. That way you will identify most of the pitfalls and be able to prevent them. It is very important that your debate is well-organized. In order for your students to focus on learning, the whole debate process needs to run like a well-oiled machine. That in mind, you will learn from experience after your first debate. Don’t beat yourself up if things go south. Just learn from it and make changes next time (even next class period). Also, remember that any particular group of students can react to the debate in an unexpected and totally detailing way. Just adjust on the fly as best you can and move on.
Here are some things to think about as you plan:
- what will be done in and outside of class
- what roles you want the students to fill vs. the roles you will fill
- what questions you will ask (or will you have a small group of students create the questions?)
- how long each side will have to respond
- how the winner will be decided (you could have your students write a paragraph explaining their stance on the issue after hearing all of the arguments during the debate – that will also help them synthesize what they’ve learned, just make sure they support their stance with specific factual evidence)
- what the winning side gets (if you can, get the students on board with bragging rights as the sole prize)
To answer all of these questions, think about your students and what they will respond best to.
Step 5: Introduce the debate.
Start by getting the students excited about the debate process and the topic. Get them to buy in. One way to do this could be to ask one of the hot button issue questions (like, do you think abortion should be legal?) and then play devil’s advocate when they answer. You could even have the students go into two separate corners that correspond to their yes or no answer (and then force the students who do agree with abortion to argue the pro-life side).
Next, go over the format of the debate. Tell them how they’ll be grouped, how they’ll get prepared, when the debate will take place, etc. Once all questions are answered, get started!
Step 6: After the debate: debrief, summarize, extend, assess.
This is your opportunity to go over related topics quickly, because your students will be able to connect that related information back to the rich experience they just had. Be sure to explicitly tell them how the related topics connect back to the debate.
Here are a few more quick ideas for main topics:
- Captains of Industry or Robber Barons?
- Prohibition/Temperance Movement
- Dropping the atomic bombs
- U.S. involvement in Korea and/or Vietnam
- Cold War strategies
- Civil Rights approach to protests: violent vs. non-violent
One variation on a debate is setting up a mock trial. The steps for that are pretty much the same as above, you just have a different format. Regardless of the minor procedural decisions you make, if you make sure to present everything in an approachable and relatable way (and if the debate is organized and runs smoothly), your students will get a lot out of the experience.
Best of luck on your next debate!