Use debates to help students experience various points of view while developing critical thinking, discussion, and presentation skills
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About This Strategy

Debate is a discussion strategy that promotes student engagement through collaboration, critical thinking, and presenting and synthesizing various points of view. Debates allows students to research, analyze, and organize ideas around a specific topic while also putting new knowledge and thinking into action. Debates can be about specific content questions or about moral, ethical, or real-world topics. This strategy can be used in grades 3-12 in any content area.

Implementation Steps

30-45 minutes
  1. Present students with a content-related topic for debate or allow students to identify a topic they would like to debate in the class.

    • Provide students with specific Debate expectations or "do's and don'ts" for guidance during the debate. See Sample Debate Instructions in the resource section or consult the "Anchor Chart" or "Y Chart" strategies to learn more about setting expectations.

  2. Break students into groups based on the two sides of the debate. Students can either choose which side of the debate they would like to be on, or the teacher can pre-select and ask students to debate the side they are assigned to.

  3. Provide students with time to research or brainstorm their ideas. Students should be given an allotted amount of individual preparation time to research or brainstorm ideas. Students should then meet with their group to bring together their ideas into a concise explanation or talking points.

    • Consider having students complete a T chart with evidence that they collect to support their side of the debate and evidence that the students presenting the other side of the debate could use. This could be a great way to introduce students to the concept of developing claims, evidence to support those claims, and counterclaims. To learn more about how to help students develop claims, consult the "Finding and Evaluating Evidence to Support a Claim" strategy and the "Writing Evidence-Based Claims" strategy.

  4. Give the groups time to evaluate their talking points and eliminate any insignificant or minor points to more deeply develop the main talking or debate points. Each student in the group should take ownership of a piece of the talking points in preparation for the debate. Students should be encouraged to include reasons, evidence, and explanations for their talking points.

  5. Once students have prepared their group debates, they should move to opposite sides of the room. Each student should receive an allotted amount of time to present his or her ideas. All of the students in one group can present their ideas and talking points, or students can alternate between the groups.

    • Consider having students use accountable talk during this debate. To learn more about accountable talk, consult the "Academic and Accountable Talk Stems" strategy.

    • Optional: Designate a certain amount of students to be evaluators during the debate. Different students can be evaluators each time. The evaluators will fill out notes or a rubric on both teams throughout the debate and then present their findings. See Sample Evaluator Rubric for Debates in the resource section.

  6. Once all students have presented their ideas and talking points, students should complete a reflection and synthesis around the debate, also identifying their personal stance on the topic.

    • Consider having students complete a teamwork evaluation of their group's preparation for and engagement in the debate. To learn more about this strategy, consult the "Accountability Structures: Self/Group Participation Rubric."

Special Education Modification

One method for supporting students with disabilities in debates is to modify the rubric so that students can better understand the CCSS criteria within the rubric. Accessible language will allow students to engage at a deeper level and fairly judge or participate in the debate. 

Questions to Consider

  • How could you ensure students understand the CCSS language in the sample rubrics?

  • How could you alter these to fit the needs of your students?

  • How could a debate where students are able to share their opinions support students to frame their point of view?

  • What classroom structures, routines, and rules could you use to ensure a debate is effective?

  • How could you use debates to support students to revise their thinking?

  • How could you use debates to provide students with questions to revise their thinking?

  • How could you modify this strategy for your students?

Tech Tools

I Debate

  • This site provides students and teachers with over 1,400 debate topics focusing on international issues. The debate topic is described and includes arguments and information supporting both sides of a debate that can be used or researched in the classroom.

  • I Debate supports this strategy by helping the teacher and students find and research debate topics. This site also includes tips and articles for implementing and participating in successful debates.

Related Lessons

  • Explore the "Dress Code Debate" lesson by 4th grade ELA teacher Monica Brown included in the resources below to see how she uses a close read and research to debate whether or not students should have a dress code.

  • Explore the "Our Garden Problem" lesson by 3rd grade Math teacher Diane Siekmann included in the resources below to see how she uses a debate to help students solve a complex Math problem.

  • Explore the "A Transcendental Debate" lesson by 11th grade ELA teacher Leah Braman included in the resources below to see how she uses a debate to help students learn how to give and support claims in speech using text and world examples.