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4 Ways to Screw Up (and Fix) In-class Arguments

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Yesterday, something awesome happened during lunch: our school’s burgeoning “Nerd Club” decided to hold a debate on which video game console is the best. Here’s how Sean M. got it kicked off:


This was so much fun. I applaud my students for taking it upon themselves to carry out an intellectual debate during their lunch time (I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite essays of all time: Gerald Graff’s “Hidden Intellectualism,” which is found in the back of They Say, I Say). However, there’s only one word to describe yesterday’s lunchtime debate, and I think all present would agree with me.

It was a train wreck. (Okay, two words).

Yesterday’s debate reminded me of three key ways that in-class arguments can go awry. If your goal is to screw up an in-class argument, try these. 😉

1. Let Dominators Dominate

Every class has its dominators — the kids who love arguing or who are great at it or who love to win or who simply love to talk. These kids are great to have, but they require special management if a truly argumentative classroom is to form. This is tricky work because, on the one hand, you don’t want to stifle them into undue frustration, but on the other hand, they will stifle and frustrate a majority of your class if left to their own devices.

Here are some ways that I manage my dominators during in-class arguments:

  • Require all students to speak once before anyone can speak twice (this works best with formal debates).
  • Use the notecard system to ensure that you’re calling on everyone, not just kids with their hands up.
  • Limit the length of time that each person can speak (I use the simple online-stopwatch.com).

These are some ways to help dominators and the rest of their peers develop their argumentative skills side-by-side without driving each other insane.

2. Ignore Disrespect

At the start of the year, I found that students assumed the way to win in a debate was to make your opponents appear as stupid as possible. Now, don’t get me wrong: a great debater knows how to systematically dismantle any opponents argument. However, in the process, a great debater is also respectful of her opponent, making sure to accurately represent the opposing side. In fact, I think the most compelling arguments are those that summarize their opponent’s arguments in a manner that the opponents themselves would summarize them.

Civility and grace are crucial skills that lubricate public life, create a classroom worth being in, and win arguments.

3. Allow Crosstalk

I think there are times when the sides of the argument need to respond to one another, but that is definitely not while opponents are delivering an argument. To avoid crosstalk, here are some simple strategies that I use:

  • Consistently shutting down crosstalk every time it occurs by simply saying, “No crosstalk, please.”
  • If running the debate on some kind of a points system, deduct a point for crosstalk (I don’t have much experience with point-based debates; my goal this year has been for students to enjoy arguing simply for the pleasure of the intellectual exercise, not merely for the sake of winning).
  • Create a session during the debate for cross-examination; for example, today’s lunch debate schedule could have looked like this:
    • 5 minutes research
    • 5 minutes team strategy planning
    • 3 minutes initial argument for Team A
    • 3 minutes initial argument for Team B
    • 2 minutes cross-examination for Team A
    • 2 minutes cross-examination for Team B

4. Skimp on Prep Time

One cause for yesterday’s lunchtime train wreck was definitely a lack of prep time. As you can see from the video above, Sean did give time for research — an important part of preparation (SL.CCR.1) if you desire to facilitate evidence-based arguments (R.CCR.1), not to mention opportunities for mini-research tasks (W.CCR.7). However, what we didn’t do is include time for the teams to discuss strategy.

As a result of these four fails, our first-ever lunchtime debate was, as I said, a train wreck: dominators dominated, disrespect reared its head, crosstalk spread epidemically, and unplanned strategies proved weak.

Yet, this is one reason that I love teaching: even a failure is a success because in that failure you can learn something valuable.

CCSS Anchor Standards Mentioned in this Post:

  • SL.CCR.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    • One manifestation of mastering the argumentative range of conversations is when students can debate the socks off of an opponent, even if they are given any teammate and an unfamiliar topic, as long as they have some time to prepare.
  • R.CCR.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    • Requiring students to provide cited evidence for their arguments within a debate is one way to implement this standard.
  • W.CCR.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
    • Debates are a great chance for students to conduct quick, focused research for evidence that will support the side they are arguing for.

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