I have a class of year 10 students who are often quite vocal with their opinions. Not all of them of course, but about 3/4 of the class are happy to tell you whatever is on their mind, at any point in the lesson.
What better way to tap that ability than through a debate!
The topic we were learning about over those few weeks was limestone – the chemistry of it, mining techniques, uses, etc. Part of this was to be a section on the environmental impacts of limestone mining, and I wanted to make it more interesting than simple facts.
I found on TES a few great resources for creating classroom debates and fused them together into a single, 100 minute lesson.
We started out with reading some opinion pieces written by ‘local citizens and other concerned parties’ about a proposed limestone mine near a community. Each student had a worksheet where they would write down their opinion on the matter, and whether it changed after being given a new opinion to add.
I had them do this individually so that they could really form their own opinion without being influenced by their peers.
We then went through and discussed what they had written, specifically if there were pieces of information that caused them to change their own opinion or if their opinion stayed the same regardless of what they were presented with.
It was interesting to see the students debating already against each other about their opinions. They were comfortable supporting their opinions with the information they were given, and we had very few instances of ‘this is my view just because’.
They were quick to jump on the bandwagons of environmental impact and increased job opportunities, depending whether they were for or against the mine. This was the perfect lead in to the class debate.
I then divided the class into groups of 3 or 4. Each group was given a particular character in a different hypothetical community that was also proposing a new limestone mine site.
I made sure that not all of the groups received characters whose opinions matched their own – I wanted to see how they would cope having to debate against their own view.
Initially many of the groups rebelled against their character, either because they were ‘lame’ or because they didn’t agree with the character’s opinion.
I told them they were to think of themselves as lawyers, there to represent what their character though, regardless of whether they agreed with it or not. This worked incredibly well – they were all more than happy to play lawyers arguing for their ‘client’.
Each group was also given an information sheet about the local area as well as limestone mines in general, including impacts and benefits. We discussed explicit rules of debating to ensure it wouldn’t dissolve into a messy argument with no real purpose.
After about 20 minutes of preparation time, myself and the TA sat to one side of the room as the ‘judges’. The students now had to convince us to agree with their client as to whether or not the mine should go ahead.
We gave each group a few minutes to present their case (no specified time limit as we had plenty left in the lesson). We stopped other groups from interrupting until they had given their case and we’d had a chance to question them. Then we opened the floor for others to also question them.
This may not be a traditional debate format, but it worked really well with this group. They all stayed in their guise of lawyer and debated their points using the information given, often adding personal spins in line with their character.
We were all surprised when a few of the quietest students in the class spoke up (some with a bit of encouragement from me or the TA) and presented brilliant cases, often with points no one else had thought of.
Pulling It All Together
Once everyone had run out of things to say and debate, the TA and I discussed with them whether or not we thought the mine should go ahead.
I surprised the whole class by saying that while I initially had been against it, the ‘for’ groups had argued their points so well that I had to agree with them.
This sparked a discussion about how other may or may not have changed their opinions. Some students had wavered back and forth throughout both activities and still wanted more information, while others stuck with their initial view and could not be swayed.
We developed this discussion into one about opinions in general, sliding in a little bit of sneaky ethics and morals about free choice. We also discussed the need for evidence to back claims, with many students pulling each other up for having no real basis for their views (rightly or wrongly).
By this stage the lesson had come to an end, so we did no official plenary.
Why It Worked
This sort of activity would not work with every class of course. This one has a good overall dynamic, which goes further than anything for whole-class activities.
The students seem to understand each other quite well (being an older group helps with this), and seemed to genuinely want to hear what the other groups would come up with to go with or against their own ideas.
Discussing explicit debating rules also helped, as it made it clear that I would not tolerate any personal attacks or rudeness of any kind.
I really think the idea of being lawyers helped keep them on task and be more engaged. They understood that they could still have their own opinion while representing someone else, and that it didn’t mean having to sacrifice their own beliefs.
Having a longer lesson to do the activity in, while not dragging it out unnecessarily, meant that the students remained engaged for longer than I had expected. I only had to pull them back on task occasionally, but even then it was during times when they were ‘finished’ and waiting for others.
Overall it was a very enjoyable lesson for myself and the students. They have asked to do this sort of activity again and I am happy to oblige in this case – the skill building and benefits are clear in this case!