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5 Effective Ways to Get More Out of Your Teaching Strategies with Debate

written by: Sylvia Cochran • edited by: Ronda Bowen • updated: 10/25/2012

Enlisting debate as a teaching strategy is as applicable in the K-12 classroom as it is in college. There is no need to greatly alter your tried and true teaching methods; augmenting them with lively discussion times actually flows quite naturally – if you lay the groundwork.

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    Why Critical Thinking Matters

    Should you incorporate classroom debates as part of your teaching strategy? The teaching methods currently employed in the K-12 classroom serve to convey must-have information and facts to young students. The big three – reading, writing and arithmetic – form the building blocks of knowledge for students who later on excel in science, physics, arts and music. Going beyond the subject matter of the curriculum, the teacher is also engaged in the process of developing young learners’ critical thinking and sound reasoning capabilities. By way of definition, the Journal of Technology Studies notes that critical thinking refers to the “use of cognitive skills or strategies to increase the probability of a desirable outcome."

    As critical thinking matures, students’ reasoning and verbal communication skills also develop. Analysis of data and the integration of new facts come naturally to these learners. According to Bloom’s taxonomy, “knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation" become refined. Use classroom debate when getting K-12 learners ready to develop critical thinking; teaching debate rules and methods to the students beforehand is crucial for success.

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    Debate in K-12

    Recognize the building blocks of a solid debate.

    • Active participation. Each student must be involved in the debate process. In large classes in particular, it is easy for the quieter students to stay on the sidelines. Being committed to have each learner actively involved makes debate more successful.
    • Incorporation of learned facts. Students should be successful in participating simply by relying on the material that has already been taught. Especially in the lower grades, it would be inappropriate to expect a lot of additional knowledge, which would normally be the result of extracurricular reading.
    • Problem-solving skills. Debate, by its very nature, is contentious. Children must learn how to work out differences logically and respectfully. In addition, youngsters must become familiar with cooperation, teamwork and contributing fairly to a joint effort.
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    5 Key Elements for Successful Classroom Implementation

    Charlotte Mehrtens of the University of Vermont’s Department of Geology explains that putting together an impactful class debate does not have to difficult. There are five steps to making it happen even at the K-12 level.

    1. Choose the debate topic. The trick to asking questions that lead to debate is in their open-endedness and limited scope. Since you want the class to stay on topic, narrowing the scope from the onset can prevent tangents and the introduction of anecdotes that have little – or nothing – to do with the material.
    2. Limit debate team size. Ms. Mehrtens recommends two people per side of an issue, but in a classroom with 30 to 40 students, this may be difficult to realize. Consider breaking up the children into work groups and hold multiple group debates at once. The maturity of the children, along with their willingness and ability to follow your directions, set the tone for the system you use.
    3. Teach how to debate. Young children are prone to make themselves heard by raising their voices. Older children may include personal insults. Teach each new class how to debate before actually using these teaching strategies in your classroom.
    4. Aim homework assignments at debate readiness. As students realize that the finer points of debating involve a good bit of strategy, use homework assignments to prepare debaters to know, understand and argue both sides of an issue.
    5. Model the separation of opinion from facts. Even young children can be very opinionated. Since the goal of this teaching method is active learning and critical thinking, it is vital that pupils learn how to differentiate gut-level opinions from fact-backed statements.
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    Overcoming Obstacles

    “2006 Stanford Debate Tournament There is no doubt that debates add to your class preparation. While no teacher wants to admit to recycling lectures, it is faster and easier to simply rehash the information you used last year when teaching the previous class. Other obstacles want for a solution as well.

    • Curriculum adherence. When class time is filled with debate, it is possible to fall behind with the curriculum. Plan on finding additional ways for students to learn the course content you are required to teach. For example, written homework is a good way for students to read up on the course content and then translate their knowledge into written statements of fact or essays.
    • Class control. When numerous teams are working together and against one another, it is easy for the noise level to go up considerably. When it does, children occasionally tend to act out in ways that are inappropriate for the classroom. Maintaining control of the class at all times is crucial for the success of this teaching strategy. Limiting noise level, pairing compatible students and keeping class clowns close by are just some of the steps you can take to keep the experience under control.
    • Sensitivity. Your classroom most likely has children from various backgrounds. Since youngsters are notorious for repeating what they hear their parents say at home, it is not uncommon during a debate to face stereotyping, scapegoating, and overgeneralization. It is your job to challenge unfounded statements that could be hurtful to other class members. At the same time, be prepared to do so diplomatically and kindly, with an eye on improving collaborative learning.
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    Debate as a teaching strategy is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication to the topic, a commitment to the learners, and a sense of humor to get started and keep going. Anticipate the visit of parents; do not be surprised if other teachers may not completely understand why you want to introduce debate into the K-12 classroom. Then again, in so doing you will be rewarded with being instrumental in helping children develop their active learning and critical thinking capabilities.