Holding Debates in Middle School Classes

Benefits and Challenges for Teachers

middle school students in classroom
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Debates are wonderful, high-interest activities that can add great value to lessons for middle school students. They provide students with a change from the norm and allow them to learn and use new and different skills. They have the natural appeal of watching controlled disagreements while 'scoring points'. Further, they are not very challenging to create. Here is a great guide explaining how to hold a class debate that shows how easy it can be if you plan ahead.

Benefits of Debates

One of the greatest benefits of using debates in class is that students will get to practice a number of important skills including:

  • Learning about the topic assigned. Obviously, researching the topic involved provides students with more information than can be gleaned during in-class lessons. Further, by having to argue for or against a proposition, students have to dig deeper into a topic and look at it from both sides.
  • Using important research skills as they prepare for the debate. Researching information is a learned skill. While many students will have been exposed to library use, encyclopedias, and Internet research during their elementary years, they will need to have these skills reinforced and expanded upon. Further, students will need to learn about ways to judge the validity and accuracy of web resources.
  • Working together as a team both before and during the debate itself. Having students work together as they research and then perform the debate can help them learn important skills about cooperation and trust. Of course, as teachers, we have to have methods in place to ensure that all students are working. If one or more student is not pulling their weight, then the grades of the other team members should not be penalized.
  • Practicing public speaking skills. Debates provide students with necessary practice for public speaking made easier by passionately arguing their point of view. This skill will be important for them the rest of their educational and possibly work career.
  • Using critical thinking skills in a real world setting. Debates require students to 'think on their feet'. When one team makes a valid point, the other team needs to be able to marshall their resources and come up with an effective response.

    Challenges for Middle School Teachers

    For these and other reasons, teachers often want to include debates in their lesson plans. However, implementing debates in middle school classes can sometimes be quite challenging. There are a number of reasons for this including:

    • Varying maturity levels. Students in middle school are typically between the ages of 11 and 13. This is such a transitional period for students. Personal behavior and maintaining focus can be a challenge at times.
    • Students may not have the necessary research skills. In many cases, students will not have had to research information in the way needed to do a good job in a class debate. Therefore, it is very important that you spend the time helping them prepare.
    • Students may be self-conscious. Public speaking can be daunting. Having them act as a team can help.

    Creating Successful Debates

    Debates are a great part of a teacher's repertoire of activities. However, there are a few caveats that must be remembered to make the debate successful.

    1. Pick your topic wisely, ensuring that it is acceptable for middle school students. Use the following list for great ideas in middle school debate topics.
    2. Publish your rubric before the debate. Your debate rubric helps students see how they will be graded.
    1. Consider holding a 'practice' debate early in the year. This can be a 'fun debate' where students learn the mechanics of the debate activity and can practice with a topic that they might already know a lot about.
    2. Figure out what you are going to do with the audience. You will probably want to keep your team down to about 2-4 students. Therefore, you will need to hold a number of debates in order to keep the grading consistent. At the same time, you will have the majority of your class watching as the audience. Give them something upon which they will be graded. You might have them fill out a sheet about each side's position. You might have them come up with and ask questions of each debate team. However, what you don't want is 4-8 students involved in the debate and the rest of the class not paying attention and possibly causing distractions.
    1. Make sure that the debate does not become personal. There should be some basic ground rules established and understood. The debate should focus on the topic at hand and never on the people on the debate team. Make sure to build consequences into the debate rubric.