The Ultimate Classroom Debate Guide

Engaging students in their learning can be a challenge in any classroom, but there is one tried-and-true strategy to rev up their interest:  a classroom debate!  I was first introduced to this activity back when I was in Grade 11, as Mr. Deery, our English teacher, scheduled a class debate every Friday.  No one ever wanted to be absent on a Friday, because those classes were the best of the week!  When I became an elementary school teacher I knew that with careful planning, younger students could successfully participate in debates.

How do debates address curriculum expectations or academic standards?

I live in Ontario, Canada, where our provincial Ministry of Education provides a curriculum guide for each subject.  Teachers plan activities that address the expectations in these documents.  At a quick glance, debates can be planned that meet expectations in the following subject areas for Grade 6:

  • Language Arts: 
    • Oral Communication:  1.2 – Demonstrate active listening strategies
    • Reading:  1.4 – Demonstrate understanding (by summarizing & explaining important ideas and citing relevant supporting details)
    • Writing:  1.3  Research (gather information to support ideas)
  • Social Studies:
    • Strand B:  Canada’s Interactions with the Global Community
      • B1.2:  analyse responses of Canadian governments and NGOs to an economic, environmental, political and/or social issue of international significance.
  • Science:
    • Understanding Life Systems – Biodiversity
      • Analyse a local issue related to biodiversity, taking different points of view into consideration.

If you teach in other areas of the country or world, you most likely have very similar standards which can be met through the use of class debates.

What are the rules of a debate?

Debates offer a specific structure that make lesson planning quite easy.  (Click here or on the image to the right to download a FREE debate schedule!)

  • Students are placed in teams of 3.
  • Two teams are involved in each debate:  three students each on the affirmative and negative teams.
  • A debate topic is assigned or chosen for each debate.   For a unit on government, for example, the debate topic statement could be presented as “All citizens should be required to vote.”  The affirmative team supports this statement, and the negative team would dispute it.
  • Each team member is given a specific responsibility:
    • Student 1:  Give initial statement AND summary statement.
    • Student 2:  Give a rebuttal to the other teams initial statement.
    • Student 3:  Gives a rebuttal to the other team’s rebuttal. 
  • I have all students not actively participating in a specific debate complete an evaluation form after each part of the debate.  At the end, each students vote for the team they felt presented the best argument.

What are some debate ideas?

Because I love to teach with a cross-curricular approach, I look to science, social studies and health for debate topics.  Here are some ideas to consider:
  • The voting age should be lowered.
  • All restaurants should eliminate the use of plastic straws and cutlery.
  • Children under 14 years old should not be allowed on any social media site.
  • Companies should be allowed to use animals to test their products on.
  • Virtual learning is as effective as in-class learning.

There are many websites that have hundreds of great debate topics for you to consider!

What else should I consider when planning a debate unit?

  • Allow students to watch some online debates by students their own age!
  • Invite a high school debate team to your classroom to conduct a mini-debate and answer your students’ questions.
  • Allow the “audience” to become “stakeholders”.  Stakeholders are individuals who have a specific reason for being interested in the topic.  If one of your topics involves the use of plastics in restaurants, for example, some of your students could watch the debate from the perspectives of restaurant owners or staff.

Where can I learn more?

I’m glad you asked!  Check out my 4-day complete debate unit for Grades 4-7, which has complete lesson plans, organizers, and assessment tools to help make your class debate a highlight of the school year!

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