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What Does “Defining the Topic” Mean?

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Defining the topic is a very important part of a debate, but one that is often misunderstood or overlooked entirely.

A definition isn’t about providing a dictionary definition to the audience. The audience knows what each word of your topic means. What they don’t know, is how your team is choosing to interpret the topic. The way a team chooses to interpret the topic makes a difference to the whole debate.

“Defining the topic is explaining to the audience what your team considers the key words and phrases in the topic to mean. Sometimes you will need to define a phrase, not just a word. For example, in the topic “that children need more free time,” defining “free” and “time” separately does not make sense for this topic, because “free time” is a phrase referring to having time to pursue leisure activities of your own choice.” - Rise & Shine Level 1 Student Handbook

Students often find it hard to understand why they need to define their topic. Don’t the audience already understand the words they’re saying? In our debating programs, we do activities so that students come to understand that defining the topic is not just about telling the audience what the words literally mean, but about explaining to the audience what their interpretation of the topic is. An example you could use with students is in defining the topic, “that Perth needs a good newspaper.” If one team defines a “good newspaper” to mean a newspaper with truthful reporting of current affairs and the other team defines a “good newspaper” to mean a newspaper that reports only “good news” or “feel-good” stories, we essentially have two different debates. In a beginner debate with young students, we find that it’s enough for each team to define their topic, even if their definition disagrees with the other team. As students become more advanced or experienced, we teach them that the negative team needs to listen to the affirmative team’s definition and decide whether to agree or disagree with it. We teach students that they can incorporate the opposition’s definition into their rebuttal and refer to their own definition to help support their debate. This is addressed further in the Rise & Shine Level 2 and 3 Student Handbooks. For beginners though, the first step is to simply learn to define their team’s topic. Although it is the first speaker in each team who will state their team’s definition, we insist that all team members are involved in creating the definition together, as it’s important for team members to all be in agreement about how they interpret their topic.

Some students will initially only be able to define the key words and phrases and restate the topic, and won’t have the capacity to elaborate further or add any more in-depth information about how their team is interpreting the topic as a whole. That’s okay! This kind of thinking takes time to develop and skills develop over time. The important thing is to introduce the idea of a definition and have a go. Having some form of definition provides a starting point that students can then improve on in future debating experiences and it’s also a skill that is used in essay writing and other areas of adult life such as writing or interpreting policies, reports and so on.


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