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Classroom Debates: Shifting the Focus
by Vivian Chu
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While debates can be a useful means for language learners to practice fluency and exchange opinions, they can easily turn into disastrous sessions where hostility run rampage out of adamant views and unexamined preconceptions. When there is risk of the latter happening, particularly with complex and controversial debate topics, it is necessary to balance spontaneity with structured pre-debate activities and controlled language practice to facilitate a cooperative learning experience. This article offers suggestions and classroom materials to shift the focus of debates from winning arguments to appreciation of diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and language skill development.

Key Words: critical thinking, multiple perspectives, functional language, debate strategy.

Have you ever witnessed your classroom turn into a battlefield, where your genial students become aggressive extremists with unyielding opinions, and wondered what happened to your role as an educator and what on earth were the students learning and experiencing? While clashing opinions are inevitable during class debates on contentious topics, balancing fluency practice with an organized structure can shift the focus on winning an argument to sharpening critical thinking skills, developing multiple perspectives, and gaining a better command of functional language.

The following is a method of facilitating debates, for mid-intermediate to advanced students, that may be adapted for use in your teaching context. It was developed after I experienced the ineffectiveness of trying to offer error correction or redirect conflict in midstream, as students obstinately argue for their views in incorrect language. The method focuses on critical thinking and functional language, and offers a structure for students to think through and create a strategy for opposing debate positions. In the process, students gain broader perspectives on both sides of a debate topic. In addition, it addresses the common situation of dominant students taking up much of the speaking time while more reserved students hardly get a word in edgewise.

Before getting to the ‘debate table,’ the sequence of activities could be:

  • Selection of a debate topic via a vote on the topics provided as well as topics students suggest.
  • Pair work: creation of an outline of issues and major reasons for taking each position of a debate topic.
  • Teamwork: creation of a debate strategy that identifies a challenge and defense for each of the reasons for each position of the debate topic.
  • Review of function language for debates: to present a view; to support someone’s view; to disagree and present an alternate view.
  • Random assignment of a debate position for each team.

Creating a Debate Outline

With a sample class of 12 students, the pair work activity could simply be a random pairing of two students: 1 and 2; 3 and 4; 5 and 6; 7 and 8; 9 and 10; 11 and 12. Students brainstorm their ideas on issues and reasons for each position of the debate topic, and outline them on the worksheet (see Appendix 1).

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