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Five Easy Ways to Integrate Debate Into Your Classroom

If you’re looking for ways to increase engagement in your classes, while getting your students writing, and increasing the amount of time they spend reading, analyzing, and evaluating texts: you need debate in your life. There are many structures debate can take in your classroom: from Socratic seminars to fishbowls to more formal Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, but don’t be scared off by the formalities! You don’t have to be the advisor of your school’s debate club to bring elements of it into your classroom. Today, Education World looks at easy ways you can integrate debate into your classroom, by giving students choice in what they debate about. Allow them to browse the suggestions below to find the subjects that gets them excited about argument.

1. Social Justice


Why it’s great: Social justice topics are always high-interest issues that require a lot of research and critical thinking. They’re not simple binary arguments “for” and “against”. They tend to be more complex than that: many elements to consider; multiple claims to take on. The real benefit to working with these “hot button” issues is that you can utilize whatever is currently in the news and being debates in social media outlets across the globe. Many of them are likely already engaged in these conversations online, and this gives them the opportunity to see the importance of fact-checking, evaluating sources, and comparing and contrasting claims.

Things to consider: Be very careful of your audience. On one hand, social justice arguments can be super engaging, but on the other hand, they can sometimes be much “too close to home” for students. We want to encourage students to take on real-world debates, but at the same time, we want to make sure we are not inviting trauma into the classroom. Always discuss your choices with administration and school support staff before having students dive into a heavy issue. Sometimes debate and argument can be empowering, especially when paired with an authentic audience. Other times, it can open wounds or dive into topics that students are not yet developmentally prepared to process.

Suggestions to get you started:

  • What is the one thing human being need to be able to do in order to make the world a better place for the future?
  • Protests and grassroots movements: are they the best approach to social change?
  • Is “taking a knee” during the national anthem patriotic or unpatriotic?
  • Should sanctuary cities in the United States be penalized?
  • Should we continue to fund programs fighting climate change?


2. Conspiracy Theories

Speak, See, Hear

Why it’s great: Sometimes diving into conspiracy theories is a great way to dive deep into source evaluation and checking the logic of one’s reasoning. Taking a student’s general perception of the world and its narrative and flipping it completely on end can be super fun for kids. Many kids love the challenge and the “counter culture” feel of it. Having students defend conspiracy theories they know not to be true also puts emphasis on the skill of argument: the strategies one uses to persuade. A master of rhetoric can win a formal debate, even when lacking in firm or reliable evidence. It doesn’t make the claim true, but it certainly does point to how easily talented speakers can manipulate an audience. Adding “logical fallacies” to discredit claims in this unit could also be fun.

Things to consider: Well, the problem here is that you could end up with students that take the practice too literally and begin to believe well-debunked conspiracy theories. If you choose to go this route, you need to be very clear: these statements are likely not true. Can we debate them anyway, just for fun? Can we, as a class, analyze an argument and identify where the logic of the conspiracy theorists falls short? Do they have any sound arguments to consider? You will need to frame it in a way that does not lend credence to faulty logic.

Suggestions to get you started:

  • Did the United States really land on the moon in 1969 or was it staged?
  • Is the earth flat?
  • Have alien lifeforms visited planet Earth?
  • Is there an organization known as the New World Order that secretly controls the world?
  • Is the Illuminati real?


3. Childhood Favorites

Disney Debate

Why it’s great: The great thing about doing debates related to childhood is that there is so much common background knowledge to pull from. The educator often does not have to do much “pre-teaching” at all, as the subjects at hand are things kids know all too well. This aspect of the debates put all students on a level playing ground. In many ways, too, even for older kids, these topics can be a relief from the constant barrage of frightening and stressful social and political argument. Sometimes it’s fun to practice rhetorical skills with a safe, easy-to-access lighthearted topic.

Things to consider: First, being culturally responsive to your school and community, you should not assume all students grew up with the same stories, characters, and sayings. You might start off with a survey to gather this information before you pick a classwide topic. And if you are able to capitalize upon the background knowledge childhood favorites sometimes provide, students unfortunately will often lean toward relying upon more anecdotal, personal evidence. If you are looking for students to use evidence “within the four corners of the text”, then it’ll just take a little bit more effort to get them to identify the difference between reliable or primary sources and their own personal experience. On the other hand, this sort of debate might be absolutely perfect recognizing that tension in everyday argument.

Suggestions to get you started:

  • Are the morals taught in fairy tales good for kids?
  • Are Disney movies good for kids?
  • Are cartoons and children’s television shows good for kids?
  • Choose a particular television show or movie students have seen, and ask if the lessons taught are good for kids.
  • Choose a common proverb or saying. Is this good advice? Is this always true?


4. School Policy

Groub Disscussion

Why it’s great: In some ways, having students debate school policies begins to ease them into the realm of real-world, social-justice-type debate, which really models political activism in life after school. Students can read the primary document of the school handbook. They can conduct interviews to research the rationale behind the policies. They can continue their research online to compare and contrast their school policies with other school handbooks, as well as analyzing the results of peer-reviewed studies. They can then develop a claim, and they have a very authentic audience, ready to listen: the policy-makers. The engagement is always high on these sorts of debates, and if they feel like they might be heard honestly, it only motivates them further.

Things to consider: The big consideration here is whether the school is authentically ready to listen to and consider a change in policy. If the entire process is just a show, the students will know it. Nothing is more disempowering than to have someone pretend to be concerned about your issue. As an educator, you likely know best how your administration would respond to such a request. The second thing to consider is that although we want kids to know that being informed and using public speaking and writing skills to support an argument and be heard can aid in changing the world around them, you also absolutely run the risk of their claims being shot down anyway. For some, this might be a part of the lesson: in the real world, you can work as hard as you can and still not get your way. But for others (especially younger students), such a rejection can come across as “my voice doesn’t matter”.

Suggestions to get you started:

  • Should students be able to listen to music when they are working?
  • Should we revise our dress code?
  • Should students have access to cell phones in the classroom?
  • Should lunch or recess be longer?
  • Does homework really benefit students?


5. Pop Culture

Celebrity Debate

Why it’s great: These debates, more than anything, are for the students that really struggle with academic engagement. They all aim toward teenage pop culture: music, movies, tv shows, celebrities, or sports. Not all students want to engage with larger social issues, but certainly most can connect to the mainstays of our entertainment industry.

Things to consider: In this case, feeding into our world’s media culture is the price you might pay for increased engagement. Also, it is likely that not all students are going to care about such things, and it might feel weird asking them to. Choice here is absolutely key. Allows students to choose a topic they feel really passionate about. Finally, finding credible text evidence with these issues might be a bit more challenging. Students will once again prefer to lean on their opinions, and pushing them to search for primary accounts and solid data – whether its lyrics, movie scripts, or fan polls – might feel like an uphill battle.

Suggestions to get you thinking:

  • Who is the most successful musician of all time?
  • Which celebrity is the best role model for young people?
  • What movie has had the most positive influence on our world?
  • Which basketball/baseball/football/soccer/hockey/etc. franchise has produced the game’s best players?
  • Check out the latest headline from TMZ or US Magazine that your kids might care about, and debate it.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.