Debates in the Classroom

My smartest friend in high school participated in debating competitions. I didn’t. My English was not good enough at the time. Little pangs of jealousy aside, I’ve never been a fan of orchestrated debates. My main concern about such debates was (and is) that people are assigned a position. Isn’t it better that people try to figure out what they really believe?

Maybe this is the reason I never used debates as a pedagogical tool, despite seeing them figure prominently in articles on “how to engage students.”. This changed when I had to teach a course on wrongful discrimination, and had to design the very first session.

I wanted students by the end of this session to see the difficulties involved in trying to explain what makes certain acts of discrimination wrongful (and that taking a semester to reflect on this question might be worth their time). I also had in mind my regular pedagogical aims: I want to encourage students to be active learners; I want to encourage them to speak up; I want them to tap into knowledge and beliefs they already have; and I want them to exit class thinking, “this is both doable and interesting. I can do this.”

How can I achieve that in the case of a topic like wrongful discrimination? My initial choice was to use an exercise I tried successfully many times before: I will give the students cards describing various cases, and ask them to determine whether they believe these constitute morally wrongful discrimination. I will ask them to discuss their answers with their peers in small groups, and then discuss their answers in class. Here are the six cases I chose for this activity (the first four are taken from Deborah Hellman’s excellent book When is Discrimination Wrong? and the last two are my own):

  1. A school principal asks the students with last names beginning with A-M to sit on the left side of the auditorium and those with last names beginning with N-Z to sit on the right side
  2. A nursing home with a predominantly female clientele refuses to hire a male nurse’s aide for a job requiring assisting residents with bathing and toilet needs.
  3. A public school’s “gifted and talented program” and a selective private school screen kindergarten admissions according to children’s IQ tests.
  4. A business prefers to hire job applicants from the local community.
  5. The Smiths have three sons and three daughters. Believing that higher education is more appropriate for men than for women, the Smiths decide to pay the college tuition of their sons, but not the college tuition of their daughters.
  6. For many years, there have been primarily white students at the University of Privilegetown. The university decides that from now on, a third of all admitted students would be non-white.


When I showed these cases to a colleague, and described my planned activity, she was skeptical. Her concern was that if the students come from a similar political background, their answers will tend to converge, and there will be little variety in the discussion. There is also the worry that students will feel pressured to align their views with whatever emerges as the majority view.

My colleague suggested that instead of the activity I had in mind, I will use my examples to orchestrate a debate. Half of the class would have to argue that cases 1-3 constitute wrongful discrimination, and cases 4-6 do not, whereas the other half would have to argue that cases 1-3 do not constitute wrongful discrimination, while cases 4-6 do. Given the small number of students in this seminar, it wasn’t hard to orchestrate a debate in which all students can participate.

As I was thinking about her suggestion, I started to see the potential strengths of the debate method. First, if the exercise goes well, we are likely to hear a variety of views in the discussion. Second, being assigned a position can be quite liberating. Trying to defend one’s own cherished view can actually be quite paralyzing. Playing the devil’s advocate can help us think of considerations and views we would usually repress. It is playful. So I decided to give debates a try.

I was not disappointed. After some time in which the students were working on their own on the six cases, we discussed each case in turn, always starting with the side that argues that the case under discussion constitutes wrongful discrimination. I split the board into “Wrongful Discrimination” and “Morally OK” parts, and I wrote all the considerations students mentioned under the relevant title. If some idea was repeated or was a version of something already said, I pointed that out and checked the relevant line on the board. If an idea that was mentioned could be used as an opportunity to introduce some piece of more technical vocabulary, I used the opportunity. For example, in relation to case 1, in response to something a student said, I introduced the terms “salient social group” and “suspect classification.” In relation to cases 3 and 5, the idea of public vs. private institutions came to the fore. And so on.

By the time we finished discussing all six cases, almost all the topics we would discuss in the course were mentioned. I could then use the board to make an observation about the variety of considerations that might go into determining whether some act or policy are discriminatory, and to point out which considerations would be our focus in each of the coming week. It was a nice way of getting a quick panoramic view of the course as a whole, and it nicely emerged from ideas students came up with rather than me lecturing. I think the debate also communicated to students that they already have many relevant ideas in relation to the course’s topic, and that they have what it takes to flourish in it.

There were also interesting moments in the debate in which students said something like “if I can argue against my position for a moment, I want to say that…” This indicated to me that the debate form did not inhibit students from trying to figure out what they truly believe.

So here are my take-home thoughts on debates as a pedagogical tool:

  • I think debates are a good way to get students to brainstorm broadly. Of course, this is not always what we want students to do: sometimes we want students to focus on one particular consideration. But especially for a first class, a debate can be an effective way to get students explore the richness of the field.
  • Debates are especially useful when we want a variety of views, but suspect our class is ideologically homogenous.
  • Debates are a good way to get students to speak up.
  • Debates are a good way to communicate to students that they already possess relevant knowledge, and to help them to tap into that knowledge. Debates give students opportunities for mini-successes.
  • Debates are a good exercise in playing the devil’s advocate, a skill we want students to use in their written assignments and more generally in their critical thinking.
  • Debates can be playful and fun.
  • Debates are especially effective for small groups.
  • Debates can have an extra value if we ask students to switch sides.

I think I would not use debates in cases like the following:

  • When the topic of the debate is very sensitive, and students have to defend their actual views. (I think a university has to include opportunities for such debates, but I do not think they are beneficial in the classroom environment, unless they emerge spontaneously).
  • In a large classroom (I suspect that could be done, but I also suspect it loses some value when not every student participates).
  • When I have reason to believe a debate will not be taken up in a playful way, but will be taken as a competitive, “high-stakes” activity.


Any thoughts?


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