We Won’t Be Having Class Debates This Year

A MiddleWeb Blog

As we start the school year, I’m just not feeling the debating spirit.

Last November, I wrote about an electoral college debate gone awry in my eighth-grade history classes. The topic felt too stale and too political, and I didn’t include enough scaffolding or differentiation.

Then, just before school ended last May – emboldened by a unit on total war that also included the human dimension of refugees – I decided to try our second and final major debate of the year.

We had ample sources to consider, ranging from an excellent military journal article on total war to Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets’ reflections in 1945. Students had interacted with the topics for more than a week in class, and we were ready to take the discussions deeper.

And, after years of pounding my insulated coffee cup on the desk during debates – wishing for a gavel – I finally had the perfect one in hand, a holiday gift from a couple of thoughtful students.

So we dove in.

The case statements, which I developed with help from a history colleague, focused on the impact of war on civilians, the humanitarian consequences of large-scale violence.


Preserving civilian lives, property and way of life should be the highest priority during wartime.


President Woodrow Wilson told Congress in April 1917: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Such ideals should hold the highest priority during wartime, even when civilian casualties and/or property destruction result.

Students focused on research and writing during several class periods. Referring to Sherman’s March to the Sea from the Civil War and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, they created arguments such as “Total war ends wars quickly and ultimately reduces deaths” and “Total war destroys buildings and plants, similar to the bomb on Nagasaki.”

Then we launched into two days of debate, in the trustworthy format I borrowed from a seasoned English teacher years ago:

  1. Opening statements: 2 minutes each team (4 teams per class, 2 pro and 2 con)
  2. Time to prepare rebuttal: 4 minutes as team, or with fellow pro/con teams
  3. Rebuttal: 2 minutes per team
  4. Time to prepare questions for any group: 5 minutes as a team
  5. Ask questions: Each team asks a question and hears the response. Responses are 30 seconds. Two or three rounds of questions.
  6. Closing statements: 2 minutes each team

This time, I also wanted to suggest that students take care of each other even while arguing with each other, and so I put civility front and center on the rubric with this objective:

Aside from understanding the issues surrounding total war, the paramount (most important) goal of this debate is to model and engage in the kind of civilized, empathetic and thoughtful discussion we would ideally like to see in our national political discourse (conversation).  

During the debate, the eighth graders listened and worked together well. They seemed committed because of the time they had spent preparing in class. Some sections presented fierier arguments than others, but for the most part I was happy with the level of consideration and respect everyone showed. (Judicious and occasional use of the gavel helped.)

When I solicited written feedback afterward, the students’ constructive criticism was mild, with the vast majority of their suggestions proposing more time for the preparation and the debate itself.

  • “More time for the rebuttal to address both groups.”
  • “More time to speak.”
  • “Maybe a little more class time for preparation.”
  • “More time for people to think and absorb other arguments.”
  • And many similar comments.

And the eighth graders enjoyed the debate in general, with positive comments such as:

  • “I liked it because no one really attacked each other.”
  • “It was nice to debate something that doesn’t have one right answer.”
  • “I liked the topic that we debated on.”
  • “I liked how many facts were stated to back up each opinion.”
  • “I liked how during the questions, we were able to ask, receive a response, and then respond to that response.”
  • “I liked how there weren’t any outbursts where everyone was yelling over each other, format worked well to prevent this.”
  • “I liked the gavel.”

This level of engagement and critical thinking normally would earn a repeat for next year’s classes. Yet I left the two days of debate in three sections with an acrid aftertaste.

My students were so good at shoring up evidence for their perspective, at supporting the people on their team. But, as part of the definition of a debate, they had to tear down the other side.

And I realized: I don’t want anyone tearing down anything anymore in my classes.

Even in the name of critical thinking.

Even in the name of sharpening logical arguments.

I don’t want it.

What I want is civil discourse with the goal of shared common purpose and understandings. Conversation that leads to action and collaboration, not division and frustration.

Teaching Tolerance offers a curriculum on Civil Discourse in the Classroom that includes a chapter on Teaching Controversy. It suggests a variety of responses to high-octane current events issues, only one of which is a debate:

There should be something that students do with their current events information. This could be writing an informative or persuasive essay, working on a group presentation or project, engaging in roundtable discussions or debates, or any other activity that gives students the opportunity to synthesize what they’ve learned and discussed. Perhaps students could write letters to the editor of a newspaper stating their position on an issue, or write responses to an editorial that they read, agreeing or disagreeing with the author.

For now, I’m taking an indefinite break from the no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all style of debate in favor of more collaborative consensus discussions.

Ultimately, I want students to remember the satisfaction of productive decision making, and not the adrenaline rush they gained from taking their friends down.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is Associate Head of School at Flintridge Prep in La Canada, California, where she has also taught English Language Arts. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge, 2017). She presents at conferences and writes for a variety of educational sites. You can find all of Sarah's writing at sarahjcooper.com.

7 Responses

  1. Rhett Oldham says:

    Sarah, I use Socratic Smackdowns in my class and the kids love it. I would be happy to share the format and point system if you are interested. Great article!!!

  2. Kent J. Minor says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful article and I agree with your goal of collaboration. It is obvious that you are a dedicated teacher who gives a great deal of thought into planning your students’ learning.

    However, (you probably knew that “however” was coming), I do think there is a place for a debate format as well. Students should learn about how to deal with differences of opinion and even differences among historians when interpreting past events.

    Perhaps the debate could be set up so that there are not “winners” and “losers”. For example, students could share something that they learned from the other side in the debate. In addition, what if the topic for a collaborative lesson does not have a consensus in the class?

    I would encourage you to do both – collaboration and debate – as both serve useful purposes in helping our students become active, participating citizens.

    • Sarah Cooper says:

      Kent, this is such a thoughtful comment. The idea of students sharing something they learned from the other side during a debate is excellent. And you are right that consensus is not always – even usually – feasible in a class with many perspectives. Thank you!

  3. I think your idea, until you can find modifications, is a good one. Have a great school year, Sarah!

    • Sarah Cooper says:

      Mary, your sage comments are always appreciated. I’ll definitely be looking for other ways to stir critical thinking this year. Today was our first day, and last night’s nervousness has now been replaced by being fired up. Thank you!

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