Imagine that within 5 minutes of walking into your classroom, all of your students are engaged in an evidence-based debate. Sounds amazing, right? Not only will each student make a friend or two, but every person will know what level of self-direction and participation you expect every time they come to class.
Crash debates are a great way to start your class, because they immediately challenge your students to engage in pre-thinking about a certain topic or idea. They also help give you a sense of what prior knowledge your students have before you begin teaching about a new topic. The best part is that you don’t need any preparation to lead a crash debate!
Why not convey your expectations and agenda by asking students to step into the center of learning and perform as expected from the get-go?
How to Start a Crash Debate
To conduct a crash debate, choose a topic your students have not yet studied and ask a two-sided question about your topic. For this example, I might present my class with an object and use the debate question, “Is this a living thing?” to introduce the properties of life on the first day of biology.
You may need to gather props or other visuals. For the debate question “Is this a living thing?” I might gather some interesting things that are living organisms (a dried bean, an insect, yeast rehydrated in warm water with sugar). Then I might collect some things that appear to be living organisms but are in fact not (a cell phone, a lit candle, a mixture of vinegar and baking soda). However, if you want to skip the prep work of gathering props, there are plenty of debate questions you can ask that don’t require visuals.
How to Organize Debate Teams
There are many ways you can organize your class into teams for a crash debate. This method has worked well for me, so if you are new to crash debates I suggest you try it out. Later, if you want to organize your classroom differently, you are completely free to experiment with different set-ups.
- Divide the class into 3-person teams and place one item at each table (if you are using props). Each 3-person group has a different item about which they are answering the question.
- Randomly assign a role to each team member: one Judge, one “Pro/Yes” point of view, one “Con/No” point of view. If the class is not divisible by three, create a few 4-person teams. With 4-person teams, there are two students playing the role of the judge.
- Tell the Pro/Yes and Con/No students they will engage in a debate where they take turns speaking. They must support the position they have been randomly assigned regardless of their personal opinion. Each side, Pro or Con, will have 30 seconds to present an argument that supports their position. Following their argument, the opposite side (Pro or Con) will have 30 seconds to respond to the argument presented.
- The judge must act as a non-biased official who dictates the time constraints and determines the winner of the debate. You may require the judge to keep notes on each point as it is argued so they have documentation that substantiates the basis of their final decision.
- Ask the Pro and Con students in each 3-person group to choose one side of a coin. Flip a coin for the class. The winner of the coin toss in each group will speak first.
- The students playing the role of the Pro and Con positions will continue taking turns speaking to support their side of the argument using 30 seconds at a time to make their case (they may say, “I rest” if they conclude prior to the end of their 30 second time limit). Each 3-person team should continue until reaching a total time of 5 minutes or until both sides exhaust their arguments and neither side has elected to say more.
- The judge must declare a winner and defend their decision after the debates are concluded. Encourage the judge to include feedback on points made in the verbal argument and compelling aspects of the nonverbal communication. Ask the debaters to thank their judge for the feedback.
- Allow the students to then find a new 3-person group where they can play a different position (for example, each judge should play a Pro or Con role in their second 3-person group).
- Place a new object in the center of the group that no one in the group has discussed yet and repeat the debate procedure.
- Keep changing the groups, roles, and items until the students have assembled some useful arguments and ideas (in this example, the students will gather a list of the properties of life as they hear one argument here and another argument there).
You may find the students have covered all the main points of the topic, or you may need to supplement their information. Regardless, you now have a launch point for your next topic that the students have already begun to explore!