My Go-To Secondary Friendly Debate Prompts

My students love debating each other, LOVE it.  However, they usually need practice at the start of the year defending their stance, especially if they’re middle schoolers or freshmen.  Too many times I’ve heard, “because I said so,” or in an academic debate they don’t use the right content area information to defend their opinion/stance.  

During the first few weeks of school, I use some of our bell ringers or exit tickets to practice debate procedure, civility even when being goaded, and graciously conceding to the winning side when necessary.  I choose non-content area topics for these early debates because the kids get really invested in the process of taking and defending a stance (like whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich), and it’s a lower pressure situation than when they have to bring content area information in to the mix.  

These are 20 questions that I have used with my students over the years.  Some I have come up with, some have been contributed by other teachers, and some my kids have come up with on their own.  

1.  Is water wet or does it make things wet?
2.  Is a hot dog a sandwich?
3.  Has there ever been a movie better than the book it was based on?
4.  What is something no one can debate?
5.  Should we settle on the moon or Mars one day?
6.  Is cereal cold soup?
7.  When can you say it is “cold” (or hot)?
8.  Did the chicken or the egg come first?
9.  Should zoos be outlawed?
10.  Cookies and cream or chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream?
11.  Are comedies or horror movies more popular?
12.  Should all sports be coed or single gender?
13.  Would you choose ice cream or cake?
14.  How many holes are in a straw?
15.  Are french fries vegetables?
16.  Who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman? (or Wonder Woman or Super Girl, or Ant-Man or the Hulk, or whichever pair of characters your class gravitates towards)
17.  Which time period is most worth visiting? 
18.  If you could prevent one historical figure from dying prematurely who would it be?
19.  Which historical event is most worth changing?
20.  Should all schools have uniforms, dress codes, or no restrictions at all?

The first time my students do this I let them choose the side of the debate they are on.  As they get more adept at using facts and fleshing out their arguments to “win,” I assign students the side of the debate I think is opposite of what they really think to challenge them, or if it’s an open-ended question I divide my kids into a few groups and they have to first come up with an answer as a group, then they flesh out their argument and present their case to the rest of the class.  

The first few times we do this, I have them use a debate recording sheet so they can flesh out their argument and take notes when their opposition is presenting.  As the year progresses and they hone their preferred note taking style, their debate recording sheets also take on a life of their own.  

Once the students are divided up and the topic has been randomly chosen (usually by a student picking a number between 1 and 20 or by picking one of the topics out of a hat), I give each student/group about 2 minutes (usually up to 5 minutes if it is early in the year and we are also practicing procedures and etiquette) to reflect on the topic and flesh out their argument.  We will call them sides A and B for the sake of this post.

I randomly choose which side presents their case first.  Side A makes their case (2-5 minutes, it depends on how much time we have), then Side B get to ask 2 questions and Side A answers the questions.  Then Side B makes their case in 2-5 minutes, Side A asks 2 questions, and Side B provides their answers.  While this is going on, students are taking notes on their debate recording sheets.

When the debate is over I give the kids a minute or two to think about who won based on the points made, responses to questions, etc, and they fill that part of their sheet out.  It’s always interesting when there isn’t a clear consensus on which side won because that’s when we go point by point and discuss the merits of each side’s argument.  Having the whole class discussion tends to help students notice/realize something they had missed during the actual debate, any holes in either argument are discussed, or it gets pointed out that while a statement was compelling, it wasn’t sufficiently backed up or expanded on and was therefore more of a soundbyte than a defense or an argument.

I do have a more content area focused academic bell ringer/exit ticket process which I’ll go through in my next post.  If your students have a topic or question they enjoy debating, I’d love to add it to my rotation, you can leave it in the comments below.  Thanks for reading!

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