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by Marlene Cohen, Coordinator of Communication Across the Curriculum

It was exciting to see 160 PGCC students, with staff, faculty, and administrators attentive to every word of the visiting student debaters from England in their debate on the possible war in Iraq. There is something about the clash of rebuttal and the banter of cross-examination to bring out enthusiasm for any topic. That includes your class content material.

Debate is a great teaching tool. The process of determining arguments, building the case, and plotting against the opponent really cements students’ knowledge of a subject. And no one wants to come to class unprepared for an opponent’s face-to-face challenge. To create an argument, a student must research, organize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. They must apply their reasoning, logic, and effective communication skills to the task.

Here are some examples of classroom debate, provided by Many Sides, Debate Across the Curriculum, by Alfred Snyder and Maxwell Schnurer.

  • A German class debates the topic: Vienna is a culturally German city.
  • A literature class debates the topic: Shakespeare’s character Hamlet acts in an immoral fashion.
  • A current events class debates the topic: Palestinians should have a permanent homeland.
  • A teacher-training class debates the topic: Standard-grading practices in high schools should be replaced by portfolio evaluation of long-term student work.
  • A history class debates the topic: The United States should not have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II.

Topics can address a fact that is in doubt, from the past or present, or as a prediction of the future. They can challenge an assumption of cause, or whether someone belongs to a particular class or category. For example: Should detainees in Guantanamo, Cuba, be considered prisoners of war?

Topics can address a value, evaluating something to be good or awful, ugly or beautiful, important or inconsequential, or great or mediocre. Or it can be argued that one principle is more important than another, as whether environmental concerns trump business or employment needs in a community.

Topics can address a policy proposal, allowing debaters to compare current policy to a proposition for an alternative. An example would be a debate about abolishing the death penalty.

Topics can also address any of the above in a time period, providing a reenactment of an historical debate. Students could reenact the United Nations debate over the creation of the state of Israel, taking on the roles of those who participated in the 1940s.

Topics should be drafted in clear and neutral language, using language that avoids extremes. If there is a proposal for change, the topic should be worded in the affirmative for the first presentation in the debate advocating change. The topic should state the need for change, not support for the present system.

Well-known debate author Austin Freeley stated, "Debate is distinctive because of its unique dialectic form, providing the opportunity for intellectual clash in the testing of ideas. The creation of an argument is one of the most complex cognitive acts a student can engage in."

Clearly not all students will be comfortable in classroom debate. But it is a wonderful option for an assignment. If you’d like assistance with incorporating classroom debate in your course, contact Marlene Cohen, Communication Across the Curriculum, on extension 0177, or

In the next Instructional Forum — Steps to Classroom Debate


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2

Spring 2003