Updated: Feb 6
Have you ever attended a school debate where children were debating whether smoking should be banned? If you have, you possibly spent a lot of time cringing!
Banning smoking is NOT a good debate topic. Firstly, it’s not a balanced topic. The points in favour of banning smoking far outweigh the points against. The main valid reason for not banning smoking is freedom of choice whereas there are many reasons to argue for banning smoking. Secondly, it’s not an age-appropriate topic. Students tend to argue that smoking is good or bad, rather than whether it should be banned or not, and when students try to find reasons in favour of smoking – cue the cringing! Smoking is also already prohibited in many areas of society, so arguing that people in shops, restaurants, public transport etc shouldn’t be exposed to smoke from others is a moot point. There are other reasons that this a terrible topic for a debate with students, but the big question is – what makes a workable debate topic? Here are 6 tips for writing debate topics that work for primary and junior high school students.
1. Keep it simple! A topic that is phrased concisely and simply does not mean it’s an easy topic or of less academic value than a long, complex topic. Make the topic as concise as possible.
2. Only use one idea Never try to combine two ideas into a topic. For example, “that zoos are cruel to animals and should be closed.” There are two ideas and two separate topics here – “that zoos are cruel to animals,” and “that zoos should be closed.” A topic like this would be very difficult to argue as students would essentially need to come up with reasons and evidence for both of those ideas, as well as proving how each part of the topic relates to the other.
3. Check that the topic is balanced A balanced topic is one that has plenty of reasons for and against it. We discussed one classic example of an unbalanced topic above - “that smoking should be banned.” Topics should also be reasonable and not include exaggeration. Using words like “all people,” “everyone,” “must” and “should” are best used with caution. Ensure that the topic does not demand that students argue something that is essentially impossible to prove or police.
4. Check that there’s a range of opinions on your chosen topic in your class If students are keen to debate a topic about harsher penalties for cheating in sport, for example, you might want to check where they stand on the subject. If most of the class feels adamantly that there should be harsher penalties and no-one is opposed to harsher penalties, you will have trouble finding students to form a negative team and may be better off finding a different way to phrase the topic, in which there will be a greater range of opinions.
5. Ask a third party to check your topic Ask a colleague to look at your topic and to tell how they would interpret it and to give you a few ideas for and against off the top of their head. Sometimes we know what we mean when we write a topic and we therefore presume others will, but a neutral colleague may spot an imbalance or something that makes it too complex in a way that we hadn’t noticed.
6. Make sure topics are age-appropriate Topics should ideally be relevant to students in some way. When students are asked to debate topics about issues that as a 10-12 year-old they really don’t have enough life experience to fully understand, they can become discouraged and their debates are less effective. Euthanasia and abortion or even animal cruelty for example, are not topics appropriate for primary school. Other topics such as the legal age for driving or drinking, for example, may seem simple on the surface but are better topics for senior high school students, not primary school. On the other hand, a topic such as lowering the voting age may be appropriate for primary school students, as it relates to concepts such as how responsible students are, whether they have their own thoughts or not, the interest of teens in politics and other factors that students may have strong ideas about. It’s also best to avoid topics that may be inflammatory to parents. Topics such as vaccination (never, ever use this topic), vegetarianism and so on are subjects that touch on very personal beliefs. Parents may feel passionately that students who are arguing a certain position are giving false information to their child or attacking their values.
By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll be able to create great topics that will have your students eagerly engaged and keen to have their say!