Classroom Debate

In its ideal form, debate is a tried-and-true way to get students engaging more purposefully with their readings. Not only does it allow them to see multiple perspectives on an issue, it allows them to hear those perspectives as inhabited by their peers, and encourages them to listen more intently to each other before responding.

Preparing students to have the most meaningful debate possible, however, can prove difficult. Many students may come to the classroom with preconceived notions about what it means to “debate,” derived either from the high-intensity world of high school parliamentary debate (which can privilege speed and dominance over careful listening, generosity, and reflection) or from political campaigns (in which “debates” have become something closer to performance art than to intellectual discussion). Unless instructors address these preconceptions head-on and structure classroom debates with these possible preconceptions in mind, they risk simply encouraging their most pugilistic students, while discouraging exactly the kind of thoughtful dialogue they were seeking.

At the Bok Center, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History, and Erika Bailey, Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater, to develop some ways that instructors can help their students become more proficient at classroom debate. In her General Education course The Democracy Project, Prof. Lepore takes care to train her students in a set of common rhetorical “moves” and argumentative patterns that can make extemporaneous debate easier and more fluent. By cultivating habits of speaking and arguing that allow students more consciously to articulate and structure—and not merely report—their thought process, instructors can level the playing field among students with different degrees of expertise in debate and to keep the focus on the quality of their ideas.

Three Activities that Help Students Think to Speak

In order to help students articulate their arguments, we developed three scaffolded activities that can be run as a single hour-long workshop, building from

  1. a low-stakes “warm-up” round that uses a silly proposition to introduce students to the general idea of using a rhetorical toolkit, to
  2. a second round that gets students to translate these basic rhetorical gestures into a set of more sophisticated “moves,” and to apply them to a more serious proposition, to
  3. a final set of rounds that lets students apply the unpacked moves from round two to a debatable topic from their course, with the added goal of sequencing these moves effectively in order to create the narrative arc or syntax of a persuasive argument.

Below you’ll find a brief round-by-round guide for running the activities, together with the “deck” of moves we printed out and cut into individual decks of playing cards for each student.

First Round — with a “silly” proposition

  • Download our deck of simple rhetorical gestures and think of a silly (though debatable!) proposition—e.g., “Tacos are delicious” or “Mondays are the worst.”
  • Arrange students in a circle, with you in the middle.
  • Introduce the silly proposition, and let students know that you’ll randomly present them with a “move” to which they’ll respond.
  • Move around the circle, prompting students at random to continue their peers’ line of argument with the next card from the deck.
    • E.g. if the first student says “Tacos are delicious,” and the second student is dealt “However…,” she might say, “However, burritos are even more delectable.”

Second Round — with a “serious” proposition

  • Download our deck of sophisticated moves and prepare a higher stakes proposition. We’ve used:
    • That single-gender clubs should be abolished at Harvard.
    • That it is contrary to the academic spirit to deny controversial speakers a forum on campus.
    • That Russian athletes should be banned from participating in the Olympics.
    • That all first-year students should be taught meditation to reduce stress on campus.
  • As in the previous activity, arrange students in a circle, with you in the middle; introduce the proposition; let students know that you’ll randomly present them with a “move” to which they’ll respond; and move around the circle, prompting students at random to continue their peers’ line of argument with the next card from the deck.
    • This time, you might want to call time-out after a student responds and ask him/her (or a peer) how they might hone that response to make it more memorable, e.g. by rephrasing it with more parallel structure.

Third Round — order the argument

  • Download our deck of sophisticated moves and our simplified guide to the parts of an argument.
  • Pair students and assign them / have them choose a real debate proposition from your course.
  • Have them arrange the cards of debate moves in the order in which they might use them to build an argument for their proposition.
  • Have them practice speaking their way through the argument to each other.