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Debating and other activities

Teaching strategies

Debating and other activities as a teaching and learning strategy

For teachers, teacher aides, school managers, instructional designers and curriculum developers

  • Debating
  • Brainstorming
  • Rehearsals
  • Role plays
  • Simulations

Debating

Debating – an interactive activity that requires 2 or more opposing groups to present arguments each from a different point of view on a concept, question or topic.

Two smiling students in a classroom.

Another well-known but infrequently implemented strategy is debating. Debates are a form of discussion that can provide several unique benefits including improved analytical skills and public speaking skills. The benefits of debating as a teaching and learning strategy are not necessarily in the debate itself, but in the preparation beforehand and in the review and reflection afterwards. The actual debate is usually no more than 10% of the total dedicated time for the activity (and sometimes less). The actual debate can be from 3 minutes to 30 minutes or longer. Rarely do teachers allow students to openly debate. Open debates are very risky and take a lot of preparation. They also require trusted mature students, mastery of the topic and a very dedicated and enthusiastic teacher who can easily prompt and facilitate further discussion.

Rarely do teachers allow students to openly debate. Open debates are very risky and take a lot of preparation.

For most debates, students take turns presenting and rebuffing arguments. Each team may be allocated 1-3 minutes of floor time and additional time can be provided in between for preparation. Students may be allocated specific roles within the group, however generally everyone is expected to take the stage at some point. A debate is based around a central question such as ‘should animals be given more rights?’. Avoid any topic or question that is potentially controversial or inappropriate. Best practice is to predict what students are likely to say to head off any inappropriate debate or comments.

Debates are usually highly planned, highly structured and timed activities, with robust rules and expectations that are strictly enforced. The teacher dedicates time and energy to explaining the rules – often on multiple occasions. Students might even be asked to sign a ‘pledge of respect’.

The explicit teaching of debating skills such as public speaking, analysing arguments, debating techniques and persuasive language is the modus operandi of best practice debating lessons. These activities can take up a large percentage of the total time devoted to debating. Common ways of teaching these skills is by employing strategies such as class discussion, board work or handouts, modelling, videos, questioning sessions, and a variety of lead-in activities such as pair work. The debate itself is often assessed in conjunction with other work submitted by the group such as research notes and rebuffs based on predictions of the opponent’s arguments. Templates may be developed by the teacher for these purposes.

As with learning to read, there are a range of pre and post activities that complement the main debating activity. Students should be given the opportunities to:

  • research the debate topic
  • collect, collate and summarise information
  • determine their approach, arguments and key talking points
  • predict the opposition’s responses and their key arguments
  • write rebuttals and rebuffs
  • rehearse in small groups
  • learn specific debating techniques such as body language, tone and facial expressions
  • develop interpersonal skills and stock standard responses for respectfully disagreeing.

Following the debate, students should be encouraged to reflect on their performance with questions such as ‘what could I have done better?’ and ‘did I predict my opposition’s arguments?’.

Debating in some respects is a peer-assessment activity – a group of students analyse and critique another group of students and vice versa. Because their ideas are subject to public scrutiny, students are more likely to develop stronger arguments, to phrase them better, to be better prepared, and to think carefully about whether their arguments and ideas will stand up to any challenges. Debating is also a game of sorts. Like the battleships game, students try to predict where their opponents will go – the winner is often the one who makes the best predictions irrespective of the strength of their own arguments. Whether it is necessary to declare a winner is up to the teacher.

It’s important to understand that debates may have a confrontational element. The potential risks include upset students, complaints, inappropriate language, discriminatory comments and even bullying. These risks need to be minimised in cases where they can’t be avoided altogether. While it is true that debating is a difficult and risky teaching strategy, it can succeed if you have an engaging topic question, a well-planned and structured debating system, and motivated students. Debating is generally not appropriate for groups of students who lack motivation or who are unlikely to fully participate. Other strategies may be best in these situations with the view to holding a debate in the future.

Because their ideas are subject to public scrutiny, students are more likely to develop stronger arguments, to phrase them better, to be better prepared, and to think carefully about whether their arguments and ideas will stand up to any challenges.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming – a group activity that involves recording thoughts, ideas and facts pertaining to a central topic (usually on a single piece of paper).

We’ve all been part of a brainstorm at some point whether at work, school or home. Brainstorming is a creative activity that is used to compile the collective knowledge and ideas of a group in a short, informal and open activity. It is a creative activity that aims to generate new ideas and solutions. The central topic or problem is written in the middle of a board or on a piece of paper and then circled. A scribe records each person’s contribution anywhere around the circle. Participants are free to say almost anything provided it is relevant to the topic or problem – there are no right or wrong ideas – the more ideas the better (within reason of course).

It is a creative activity that aims to generate new ideas and solutions.

Brainstorming helps a group of people to solve problems and generate ideas. It is a tool that allows participants to build on each other’s contributions – one idea leads to another idea, leading to another. The teacher contributes a few ideas here and there to ensure key points are added and to help students think about new ideas. While brainstorming is usually a group activity, it can easily be completed as a pair activity or individually.

Rehearsals

Rehearsal – students repeatedly practise a performance of some kind in preparation for performing in front of others.

A rehearsal is a type of drill that involves practising a performance in preparation for some form of public display. Rehearsals are generally thought of in relation to artistic performances. However, students can also rehearse for exams and tests, for public speaking, for social situations and for many other activities. Students could also rehearse reading a passage from a book in preparation for reading to their peers or younger students. Rehearsals are a more engaging way of learning a skill that requires tedious and often repetitious practice. The benefits of using rehearsals as a teaching and learning strategy include its relationship to overlearning and mastery learning, and the relative ease at which some skills and knowledge can be learnt and committed to long-term memory.

Role plays

Role plays – students pretend to be another person or character in a performance of some kind.

Role plays are similar to rehearsals however students pretend to be someone or something else. Role plays are often pair or group activities. They don’t necessarily need to be extravagant activities with sets, costumes and props – role plays can be simple, one-off activities that last for no longer than a couple of minutes. In most cases, students are each allocated a role (for example, farmer, shop keeper, police officer, politician, journalist or teacher) as the basis for a simulated interaction of some kind. Quite often students swap roles after a period of time. As an example, Student A is a journalist asking Student B 5 questions about the zoo excursion last week. Once all 5 questions have been answered, the students swap roles.

Simulations

Simulations – the teacher uses sets, props, costumes and scenarios to replicate a real-world setting and situation (either exactly or in part).

Simulations are related to role plays. They attempt to replicate a scenario or situation for learning purposes. Simulations are a bridge between the classroom and the real world – a halfway point. For example, a language teacher might simulate a market stall by setting up a shop complete with goods, pretend currency and costumes. A sound recording of a busy market can be played in the background. Posters and displays showing images of a market can also be displayed. Students can then practise their language skills in a safe and controlled environment with multiple aspects taken from the real-world context that the simulation is trying to replicate. One benefit of using simulations over pure theoretical or ‘paper-based learning’ is that content is learnt in a novel, semi-practical activity which makes it easier to recall in the future.

Simulations are employed in adult learning environments as well. They are extensively used when learning to fly, for medical training and in police training. Flight attendants practise emergency procedures in a simulated plane complete with a full-size fuselage and passengers. In fact, the simulation is so real that the fuselage moves around as if the plane was in flight. Simulations are a fun, engaging, memorable and effective strategy for all ages and abilities.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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