My students love debates. They are great for cranking up the level of enthusiasm in the classroom. Sometimes, though, they generate more heat than light. We just had a great debate in my World History class about the Investiture Conflict: after four years of doing this particular exercise, I feel as though I’ve finally got it just the way I want it. That got me thinking about what makes a debate work or not work as a tool for real learning. Here’s what’s worked particularly well for me:
1) The debates are best when students stay strongly in character. Otherwise, you get things like a discussion of the Investiture Conflict that focuses on the modern idea of separation of church and state. I usually do debates at the end of the time we’re studying a topic, I give them a position paper of some sort from the person or group they’re representing, I remind them of the importance of arguing from within the context and knowledge of the time (it’s also not fair to say, ‘Yes, but you’re going to die in three years, so it didn’t work, did it?’!!), and I charge student judges with watching for anachronisms.
2) Prep time, I think, is the single thing that separates happy shouting matches from debates that really dig into the issues. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time: I’ve used a debate as the driver for an entire unit, with students spending a week preparing their positions, but for this recent debate I did the whole thing in a single period–I gave students 20 minutes to build their case and look for information beyond what I had provided, but even that short time (coming at the end of a unit on the time period, so students were already well-armed) was enough to put the emphasis on facts and research rather than pure rhetoric.
3) Classroom debates need to be structured enough that everyone doesn’t talk at once, but they don’t need to be–maybe even shouldn’t be–as formalized as something in the forensic league. I’ve tried both extremes here: I’ve let teams police themselves and volley back and forth–which tends to produce chaos and favor the strongest students–and I’ve used a carefully timed system of speeches and rebuttals–which tended to shift attention from the topic to the process. I’ve ended up settling on a middle ground: I name a spokesperson for each group (usually one of the quieter group members) and ask them to present their team’s position at the beginning, with the others acting as advisors, but I then let all members of the class take turns speaking or questioning each other, with the judges keeping order. This seems–usually!–to make room for everyone’s voice without creating too much chaos.
4) I’ve started to name student judges, and so far I’m loving the results. I resisted the idea for a long time out of a concern that the judges might be left out of the learning, but it turns out to be quite the opposite. While the teams are preparing, I ask the judges to do a little research on what they might have known and believed at the time in the role they are portraying. (In the Investiture Conflict, for example, I made my judges minor nobility of the Holy Roman Empire who had to decided whether or not to respect the excommunication of Henry IV and withdraw their fealty). They are then the guarantors of accuracy as the debate goes forward: they can challenge a point of fact at any time and often do, at which point everyone turns back to the books to settle the question.
Debates don’t have to be hard to stage, but they do, I believe, require careful thought beforehand to be sure they will complicate students’ understanding of a situation rather than oversimplifying it. When set up right, though, debates can be magic. I recently had the pleasure of watching a student who has sometimes struggled raise an imperious hand and say to to the ‘Pope’, “Wait. Let’s go back to what you actually said.” After reading a few lines from the Dictatus Papae, she contrasted it to claims just made by its “author” and then asked all participants a probing question about the roots of authority. I suspect that, in a conventional discussion of the text, she would not have said a word.