Unleashing Deeper Thinking with Debate

Jessica DeWitThe CACE Roundtable, The Teachers' LoungeLeave a Comment

Young student discussing course material with teacher.

Have you ever taught a class or subject that was the last thing you ever expected to teach? For me, that subject was speech and debate–oral interpretation and public forum debate, to be specific. I was a little terrified. A few years in (and a large learning curve later), debate has become one of my favorite topics to teach. 

The word “debate” is a loaded term these days, and it can be easy to shy away from incorporating debate in the classroom. However, if harnessed correctly, a debate has the potential to be an engaging, empowering activity for students, one that requires them to think critically and deeply.

Many think of a debate consisting of two people having a heated argument. You may even think of people raising their voices a little, perhaps even hurling insults at another person. Students have these impressions too! This popular understanding of debate is far from the heart of the activity.

To contrast with this negative association with debate, I anchored my unit in 1 Peter 3:15:  “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. . . .”

This verse was a perfect way to introduce students to debate.  As Christians we should always be able to “give an answer,” but only through first revering Christ as Lord and always with gentleness and respect.  Is this the approach often modeled in culture? Typically, no.

Merriam-Webster defines the word debate as “a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides.” Synonyms for the word include to consider, ponder, study, reflect, think over, or weigh.

Let’s unpack that definition. Notice the absence of any reference to heated arguing or yelling. One key word to notice is “regulated.” Proper debates aren’t a free-for-all. If done well, they should be either led by a facilitator or directed by a protocol that follows a set speaking order, giving both sides equal time to speak and using agreed-upon guidelines. 

Furthermore, the definition mentions “two matched sides.” In my experience, teachers often have students research only one side of an issue to prepare for a classroom debate.  But the truly powerful and deep learning in a debate comes when you have students research and examine BOTH sides of a resolution. Understanding multiple sides of a topic leads students to deeper and more critical thinking, better preparing them to live into the ideals of 1 Peter 3:15.

Debate Carousel Protocol

If you’re interested in dipping your toe into debate but are unsure where to start, consider using the debate carousel protocol. In this protocol, each student begins with a piece of paper that has four large squares–a 2×2 grid (see Figure A below). The teacher creates a prompt, which needs to be a statement of judgment that can be argued for or against. In my music classes, the prompt might be, “John Williams is the greatest film composer of all time.” From there, the protocol follows the process below.

The Process:
  1. With their name at the top, students write their initial stance on the prompt with supporting evidence (Square 1). Evidence should consist of their own research or information from reliable sources. These could be sources they’re already familiar with as part of the learning in your class or sources they research specifically for this activity.
  2. Papers are passed to the right. Students read the previous response and write a statement supporting it with additional evidence (Square 2).
  3. Papers are passed again. Students read the first two boxes and write an opposing argument with evidence (Square 3).
  4. One final pass allows students to add their own thoughts, supporting their stance with their own reasoning or points made earlier (Square 4).
  5. Papers are returned to their original owners.
  6. Discussion & Reflection: Invite volunteers to share thoughts from their papers. Facilitate class discussion and reflection.
Figure A: Debate Team Carousel

Debate Prompt: *Insert teacher prompt here*

1. Give your opinion and explain your rationale using evidence.      

2. Add a supporting argument with evidence.

3. Add an opposing argument with evidence.        

4. Add your “two cents.”  

Source: Total Participation Techniques by Himmele and Himmele

I like this protocol because it’s easy to vary and it’s pretty non-threatening. Through analyzing and evaluating opinions, sources, and rationale, students are nurtured in higher-order thinking in a healthy and safe environment. In my experience, this activity invites rich discussion, with deeper learning and connections for students to make within God’s story.


  • Jessica DeWit

    Jessica De Wit serves as the Director of Instruction and Learning at Sioux Falls Christian School in Sioux Falls, SD. She holds a B.A. in Music Education and a Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Administration, and has been teaching in Christian schools for 15 years. She is a Teaching for Transformation school designer. Jessica's deep hope is to inspire creativity, curiosity, and a joyful community of learners that celebrates our potential as Christian educators. In addition to education, Jessica’s interests include making the world more beautiful one tulip at a time, drinking a great cup of coffee, and spending time with her husband and son.

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