Implementing debates in the primary classroom

  • Implementing debates in the primary classroom

Get some verbal sparring going between your pupils and improve their grammar, vocabulary, critical thinking and confidence

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the Prime Minister is at the dispatch box arguing that we should reintroduce the death penalty. The atmosphere is unusually hushed as the leader of the opposition puts forward his point: the electricity used in the electric chair is a waste of energy and therefore bad for the environment. The room seems convinced, can the PM recover? It’s okay, he says, we’ll use renewable energy.

You may have guessed that this is not PMQs in the House of Commons. This is a Year 5 classroom debate in Tower Hamlets.

Why debate?

Debating is gaining in popularity in England’s primary schools, both as an extracurricular activity and as a teaching tool in the classroom. So, if your view of debating is that belongs in public schools and elite university unions, it’s time to think again. The format allows children to practise developing an argument, then support it with evidence and defend it against attack. It teaches the vocabulary and grammatical structures of making your point. It enhances critical thinking and active listening. It builds confidence in speaking and, if done regularly, the skills quickly transfer to written work. And most of all, it’s fun.

How to get started

First, you need a topic. For early debates it’s good to choose something that is in your pupils’ direct experience, for example banning homework or allowing mobile phones in schools. As they gain confidence, you can debate controversial subjects such as outlawing zoos or abolishing the monarchy. You can even set topics to support your curriculum areas, for example: ‘It was better to live in Victorian times’. And if you want to add to the theatre of debate, you can use parliamentary language. Call your topic ‘the motion’ and phrase it “This house would…” to mimic the political process.

Then, you need two teams, the Proposition and the Opposition, who will argue for and against the motion. The format is flexible (at Tower Hamlets we have even done 20-speaker-per-side debatathons!), but we recommend three or four speakers on each side. You can allow the children to choose their own sides, but personally I like to allocate them a position. Discovering that every issue has two sides is a powerful lesson of debating.

Finally, you need a chairperson to keep order and call on the speakers to speak in turn, a timekeeper to make sure nobody speaks too long (we recommend two- or three-minute speeches for Key Stage 2) and an audience (the rest of the class) who will listen, make points in the audience debate and ultimately vote to carry or defeat the motion.

Getting ready to debate

You can prepare two topics at a time with a class of up to 30. Divide the class into four groups and give each group one side of one of the topics to prepare. Then follow the five steps:

1 Brainstorm ideas

The aim of this is to gather as many points as possible. Successful group brainstorms often start with some silent time to allow individuals to think, followed by a group collection of points. You might want to appoint a chair and a secretary for each group, and using Post-it notes can be an effective way of capturing the ideas. The group may need some stimulus materials if the topic is unfamiliar to them.

2 Organise ideas

Each group needs to identify six points to use to make their case. They need to scrap insignificant arguments and join similar ones together to make larger points. They also need to number and label these six points, and divide them between the first two speakers. Initially, pupils may need support in this process but they soon become skilled prioritisers.

3 Structure the speeches

If it is their first debate then the class need to learn the structure of a speech and how to fill in pro forma sheets (see tinyurl.com/TPDebateForm for an example).

4 Prepare the speeches

The speakers need to make some notes to flesh out their three points. They need to explain the point persuasively, and use some evidence to back it up. However, they should be discouraged from writing copious notes to keep the debate as a spoken-word activity. The third speaker on each side summarises the debate, so they need to decide on key points of which to remind the audience.

5 Prepare the rest of the class

While the speakers are preparing their speeches, the rest of the group could be anticipating the other side’s points and preparing rebuttals, drafting questions for the audience debate or designing posters to hang behind the debate. There is plenty of room for differentiation here. At this stage you also need to appoint a chairperson and timekeeper for the debate and provide them with their pro forma sheets.

Speak up

You’re nearly there, but if you or your class still need guidance, the best way to get the idea of the format is to watch a debate in action. You can see a number of them at tinyurl.com/TPDebates which were filmed as part of the Linklaters Hackney Debate Challenge. For the last eight years primary schools in Hackney have competed to become their borough champions. Setting up a local league or having a friendly debate against another school (or even another class) can be a good focus for the debating you do.

You can also find find ideas on how to further engage the audience, lists of topics, pro forma speech sheets, more details on how to prepare for and asses debates and many other useful resources on our website at noisyclassroom.com

Something to shout about

Want to spice up the usual debate format, here a three formats to get your kids talking

Balloon debates

The concept of a balloon debate is that a hot air balloon is coming down, and in order to save any of the passengers others will need to be thrown overboard. Different students represent the people (or objects / concepts / materials) in the balloon and argue in turn to the class or group why he should be saved. If he is thrown overboard his contribution to humanity goes with him. The audience evaluates the relative cases and votes the people off the balloon one by one. This could be done with scientists, inventors, materials, mathematical formulae, writers, artists, musicians, philosophers, public services or anything else which links to your curriculum. Alternatively, let the pupils choose their figures and watch a debate between Homer Simpson, Simon Cowell and Gandhi!

Boxing match debates

These debate are designed to get everyone involved and to give extra support to pupils who need it. Choose your topic and divide everyone into the blue corner and the red corner. Choose the pupil to go forward and ‘box’ for each team. They should have a quick-fire exchange and when one of them starts to struggling, ring the bell. Send them back to their corners where their classmates act as coaches, giving them ideas for the next round or sending out the next contestant.

Hat debates

A hat debate involves relatively simple motions being pulled out of a hat. Often they take place with just one speaker for and one speaker against the topic. Participants in the debate have a minimal (or even no) time to prepare, so it’s great practice for thinking on your feet. Good topics could include ‘Footballers earn too much money’, ‘Books are better than TV’ or ‘Girls and boys should play on the same football teams’.

About the author

Debbie Newman is the Director of the Noisy Classroom, an organisation dedicated to supporting speaking and listening across the curriculum. To access free resources, watch videos of debates and book training, visit noisyclassroom.com

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Looking for smarter ways to assess primary English?

Find out more here >
Pie Corbett