When executed well, classroom argumentation activities target the most fundamental academic skills. Critical reading improves when students are given a concrete reason to struggle with difficult text as they find evidence to support their side. Students’ writing skills grow as an effective debate speech mirrors a formal essay, with a thesis supported by succinct and evidenced arguments, and a persuasive conclusion that wins over the audience. Critical thinking and speaking improve as students develop and deliver arguments that engage their peers. Moreover, the competitive nature of arguing encourages otherwise disinterested students to become actively engaged in rigorous academic work. Students look forward to coming to class on debate days.
Participating EBA initiative teachers, almost none of whom were debate coaches or had any debate background, have reported that using debate in their classroom increases student understanding of class content (91%), student engagement (84%), and student reading and writing skills (85%). They further believe that if all teachers in their school used these debate techniques, the school would see an increase in overall academic expectations, test scores, and attendance. Somewhat unexpectedly, they also indicated that the program had a substantial impact on their identity as a teacher. Participants reported that learning how to use debate as a teaching technique made them more effective teachers (85%), better able to create a student-centered classroom (96%), and enjoy teaching more (70%). Comments like these were the norm:
- “The use of debate in my science classroom has increased the motivation and engagement of my most apathetic students – they love the competitive nature of debate and eagerly delve into texts that they otherwise typically avoid.”
- “Students love debate. Debate fosters the students’ natural curiosity, their ability to reason from multiple points of view and taps in to the creative energy of students’ minds and hearts.”
- “Debate… brings together reading, writing, critical thinking, and speaking skills in every discipline. The materials we were given are clear and lay the groundwork for intense curriculum development.”
- “The debate I did in class made up for every bad day of teaching I’ve ever had.”
Principles of Evidence-Based Argumentation
Evidence-Based Argumentation is not a curriculum. Rather, it provides guidance for organizing classroom argumentation activities and suggests a variety of activity models that have a track-record of building student skills and content knowledge. At its most basic level, Evidence-Based Argumentation asks teachers to regularly organize classroom activities where students:
- Make oral and written arguments. Students should be regularly asked to make and defend controversial claims. This principle prioritizes student voice in the classroom, increasing student engagement with the material along the way. Of course, all arguments are not created equal, and instructors will have to shape the questions and prompts students respond to in order to achieve particular goals. Nevertheless, preserving a space for students to creatively interpret classroom materials is an essential component of Evidence-Based Argumentation.
- Use text as evidence. When making arguments, students should reference and interpret supporting texts to bolster their points. To use texts effectively, students must first read them closely to determine their meaning. They then draw connections to the argument they are trying to build, identifying key quotations from the text that will be most useful. Finally, they must analyze their selected quotations to demonstrate their relevance to the overall argument. Thus, while fairly straightforward in theory, successfully using textual evidence engages multiple critical academic skills in practice. When students master this ability, they stop being passive receptacles of other peoples’ ideas and instead become active manipulators of the world’s collective knowledge.
- Engage peers. By their definition, arguments are not one-sided. Whenever possible, students should have the opportunity to share their ideas with peers, persuade others to their side of an argument, and observe their classmates publicly think through course content. The competitive nature of argument drives students to think fully about an issue, and marshaling this enthusiasm is critical to the success of Evidence-Based Argumentation. Naturally, untoward aggression must be kept in check. However, well-managed peer interactions teach students that their classmates are valuable academic resources.
Structuring a Debate
When designing the EBA™ initiative program, our initial goal was to address the roadblocks that undercut teachers’ ability to effectively integrate debate into their classroom. Across all content areas, the greatest challenge standing in the way of teachers using debate is their uncertainty about structuring the debate so that thirty or more students are actively engaged in an academically rigorous fashion. They struggle structuring a traditional two- or four-person debate so that all students are actively engaged. Some create tasks for the twenty or so students not directly participating in the debate, including taking notes, judging, or asking questions during or after the debate, but these students are generally not as engaged and do not learn the content or develop the skills as well as those debating. Some try group debates, but often a few students will take over and most will fade back. Even if teachers require all students to participate, debates can quickly become chaotic and leave skill-building and content objectives unmet. Group debates can also shortchange students who leave only understanding the content associated with their own group’s analysis and not that of the other groups.
While there are many ways to structure a debate to overcome these obstacles, we encouraged teachers to think about organizing their class on three levels:
The Format: Once a teacher determines the resolution that will be debated, they must determine the format for the debate. The BDL has developed a variety of debate formats, each of which is tailored to reinforce particular skill-building lesson goals. Examples include a two-sided debate where half the class argues Lenny is guilty of murder and the other half that he is innocent, and a multi-perspective debate with six groups, each arguing their assigned organ is the most important organ in the body, a committee debate where different groups (the Japanese, American soldiers, Allied leaders…) argue in front of a committee of students that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb on Japan.
Group Selection: Once the resolution and format have been determined, the second step is to decide how to divide students into groups. EBA initiative invites teachers to think creatively about how to divide up students so that large classrooms are still comprised of small enough teams to facilitate meaningful engagement from every participant. In a multi-perspective debate about which geometric shape makes the best house, one group could defend the rhombus while other groups defend kite, square, etc. In a two-sided debate about whether the North was justified in fighting to keep the country whole during the civil war, one group could be Southern farmers while other groups could be abolitionists, enslaved African-Americans, northern factory workers, or the British.
Student Roles: The final step is to make sure each student in each group has a substantive role. Roles can include an opener, attacker, defender, cross-examiner, closer, etc. Furthermore, in these debates all students, regardless of their specific role, are expected to be note-takers. No student is allowed to act solely as a note-taker as it is expected that all students will take notes as it will enhance the quality of the debate, increase core academic skills, and surprisingly, increase student engagement.
Students who participate in a debate structured this way also overcome the problem that occurs in many group debates where students only understand the content associated with their group. Students don’t just argue that their side is good, but that it is better. In order to make that comparison, they needed to understand the characteristics/arguments on the other side. In a debate about what method is the most expedient way to find the roots for quadratic equations, the student in the factoring group will also understand finding roots by graphing and the quadratic formula because they were forced to argue that factoring was faster than those other methods.
Scaffolding Debate Activities
While the full debates described above are fantastic learning experiences for students, most teachers find that their students (and they) are not ready to jump into a full debate right away. The EBA™ initiative program has found that doing a string of much shorter activities that focus on one or two of the above principles are great ways to help build both the confidence and skills students need to appropriately engage in a full, period-long debate.
A teacher who wants to help students understand how to use evidence to support an argument can do an evidence hunt activity where she gives the students a list of arguments and a list of excerpts from a text and ask them to match the evidence to the appropriate argument. A teacher that wants to focus on helping students use evidence to advocate for a position can do Soapbox activity, where he requires students make a 20 second argument with a piece of evidence from a text. He can ask students to argue that a character from Tale of Two Cities is a good person or that a particular type of radiation is helpful to society.
The BDL has developed many of these shorter activities that teachers can use to scaffold the skills that students need to develop before they can effectively and appropriately engage in debate activities. By beginning with these activities, teachers and students are able to comfortably embrace debate and develop the social norms to execute them appropriately.
EBA: Not Just for the Humanities
A common dilemma, often encountered by math or science teachers, is the feeling that integrating debate into their curriculum will crowd out other necessary topics which they must cover. Math teachers are told to have historical debates about mathematical figures such as Pythagoras and science teachers are typically told to have debates about global warming or other science-themed public policy issues, almost none of which are actually in their curriculum. They view debate as an additional “thing to do” in an already overcrowded curriculum.
Furthermore, some perceive argumentation as unsuitable for the seemingly objective topics found in math and science. For a debate to be successful, all sides must have the potential to win – there cannot be an objectively true answer. Thus, science and math teachers may encourage their colleagues in history and English, who acknowledge and teach their students to identify subjectivity or the reality of multiple perspectives in their curriculum, but often prematurely preclude themselves from using debate in their own classrooms.
The solution to these issues was both novel and obvious. EBA™ initiative helps math and science teachers create relevant resolutions that offered the subjectivity and difference in opinion necessary for exciting debates. In doing this the BDL focused on the content or methodology that the teacher wanted students to recall, compare, contrast, analyze, and/or synthesize first and then fit an evaluation, situation, policy, or application about a subjective topic to it that would allow for an engaging debate.
For instance, if a physics teacher wanted to have students review for a quiz on Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, instead of debating the interesting but curricularly irrelevant, “Is Sir Isaac Newton the greatest Physicist of all time” they could have three groups of students debate “the ability to violate which of Newton’s 3 Laws of motion would create the best superhero?” Not only is it more fun for most students to discuss superheroes, but also it gets the job done. Additionally, it leverages the prior knowledge of a broader range of students who would typically prefer drawing, daydreaming, or writing about superheroes than discussing the concepts of physics.
Teachers who use debate in this fashion also understand that debate is complementary, not supplementary. It does not have to be an add-on activity that crowds out other content already in their curriculum. Rather, debate is a teaching technique, like the lecture or giving a worksheet. In fact, in Boston, EBA™ initiative specifically does not offer to write curriculum for teachers who participate in the program. Rather it focuses training teachers to use this technique to teach the curriculum and content that they were already planning to teach. Once they understand this, teachers in math and sciences especially, begin to realize the potential for debate in their classroom.