In working with teachers who are running debating programs with their students, we’ve found that some teachers like to involve students in coming up with topics to debate. This is admirable and of course, when students are debating topics that are of interest to them, their enthusiasm, engagement and participation is much higher.
Although involving students in debating is wonderful, we’ve found that there can be pitfalls with having students choose the topics for a debate.
Brainstorming and deciding on topics with students can easily take up a full lesson. In Rise & Shine programs, we often only have 8 weeks of one-hour sessions and so to use a whole lesson on this is not effective. As such we usually choose the topics for the students based on things we think they will find interesting. In a class setting however, you may have more time to devote to this.
Another pitfall of allowing students to choose the topics is that in our experience, students are rarely able to phrase topics effectively. A good topic will be balanced (have sufficient points for and against), only contain one idea, be concise, be age-appropriate and meet the interests of the class. We strongly advise against allowing students to write their own topics because they are rarely able to write topics that are balanced, phrased well for a debate and uncomplicated. We do however, strongly encourage teachers to involve students in brainstorming ideas for topics, and there are a number of ways to involve the students in coming up with topics however, without requiring them to produce the final phrasing. 1. Students can come up with the idea of things they’re interested in, and teachers can then work out the final phrasing. For example, you can ask students to list things they’d like to debate about such as school uniforms, cheating in cricket or students having mobile phones in schools. 2. You could go through a process of elimination to arrive at a decision on the top favourite topics. It’s a good idea to tell students that they may not end up debating their favourite topic or consider what system you will use for assigning topics to students as you are choosing the final areas of interest. From there, you can develop wording around areas of interest that will create an effective topic. With the idea of ‘cheating in cricket,’ your topic could about whether there should be harsher penalties for people caught cheating in sports, or whether sports celebrities make good role models. There are a number of different ways you could develop and phrase a topic around this idea.
3. Ask students to look at the website “BTN - Behind the News” and explore the stories there, and make a list of the current affairs stories that most interest them. From there, teachers could develop the issues of interest into debate topics.
BTN is a current affairs program for primary school students. It discusses a range of issues that are relevant to young people and often provides links to sources of further information and articles which can be helpful. Choosing topics that are associated with a “Behind the News” story also allows you to show the video to the students as a great introduction to their topic. With these ideas in mind, you’ll be able to write great debate topics that your students will love exploring and feel that they’ve been involved in creating.