If you ever want to work ahead of me on developing student achievement in the “Go Big on Argument” portion of the Non-Freaked Out Framework, you need to go no further than The Debatifier, the blogging arm of Les Lynn’s stellar Argument-Centered Education. The way Les approaches argument is the Tour De France of my tricycle-riding Pop-Up Debate. In fact, whenever I’m speaking in or near Chicago, where Les’s organization operates, the more I find myself converting “Pop-Up Debate” into the much safer “Pop-Up Discussion.”
The best pop-up debates I’ve ever facilitated were at the end of last school year when I applied Les’ rigorous Refutation Two-Chance to pop-up debates, and they were the best because they were hard. I knew it was hard because, where my outspoken students typically beg for pop-up debates, after our first Refutation Two-Chance these students were asking, “Can we just do it the old way?” This gave me a chance to revisit our mantra (“do hard things”) and double down on teaching my students the skills of flowing, refuting, and counter-arguing that pop-up debates, up to that point in the school year, obviously had not universally taught.
What is refutation two-chance?
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here because Les has done such a nice job of explaining Refutation Two-Chance on his blog. The links below are crucial…
- Here’s Les’ document overviewing Refutation Two-Chance. This is the number one thing you need.
- Here’s the Argument-Builder I had my kids use (and here’s the one I would have had them use had I known it existed; it’s more explanatory, and Les has it appropriately labeled for middle school). You’ll want kids to have this done in advance of the argument.
…and these links give you additional context and insight into Les’ approach:
- Here Les mentions Refutation Two-Chance in the context of an entire Chicago school’s efforts to argumentalize instruction.
- Here’s Les’ Ten Guidelines for Successful Participation in Argument-Based Discussion or Debate.
- Here’s Les’ Five Steps to Argumentalizing Instruction.
How it looked in my classroom the first time
Our debatable prompt was this: Who started the Cold War, the USA or the USSR?
Students had read and analyzed the following:
- Several primary source documents in the Stanford History Education Group’s “Reading Like a Historian” world history lesson on the Cold War,
- Excerpts from our textbook on the Cold War,
- John Green’s Cold War overview for world history.
Any of these sources were fair game for evidence that they could use in completing their Argument Builders, two of which were due at the start of the debate.
On the day of the debate, I introduced Refutation Two-Chance as a variation on pop-up debate. I used the examples in Les’ overview document to explain the different parts — argument, counter-argument, refutation — at this point, eyes were glazing over so we just dove in. 
Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Kids were frustrated for a variety of reasons:
- First, they weren’t used to points in pop-up debates or to the existence of “rounds” or to the general idea of sticking to one argument before moving on to another one. This made the comfortable kids uncomfortable and the kids with a fear of public speaking pretty scared.
- Discomfort is actually good, but within limits. This was past the limit for most kids.
- Solution: Scaffold better next time.
- Second, by the time they got to the second chance at refutation, most kids in the room had forgotten the counter-argument and the argument. This made refutation really hard.
- Solution: Next time, we would all take notes.
- Third, I had rarely “judged” their debate performances live before and never with points on the line, and so I was super clunky in working through whether a counter-argument had been adequately refuted or not.
- Solution: A lot of my clunkiness was because I was analyzing fuzzy refutations of fuzzy counter-arguments against fuzzy arguments. Way too much fuzz for any kind of clear analysis. Slowing down next time would help a lot, and with practice I know I would become better and quicker at judging refutations.
One more important note: because of both its newness and its greater reliance on teacher talk (the judging part), Refutation Two-Chance took a lot longer than normal pop-up debates. We cut our losses and ended the debate with the class period.
How it looked in my classroom the second time
Our debatable prompt was: Do nuclear weapons make the world less secure?
Students had read the following sources leading up to the debate; any of these sources was fair game for evidence that they could use in completing their Argument Builders. (Note that not all of these were read consecutively.)
- An article of the week on the topic (here it is)
- Excerpts from our textbook on the topic of nuclear proliferation
- A “video-map” of every nuclear explosion up to the year 2000
- The doomsday clock page on Wikipedia
- The following online sources and any sources cited therein:
I saw a vast improvement in student participation, student success, and clarity of teaching as demonstrated by student learning (both when they spoke up and in the “flow” notes they took). Here’s what I attribute that to:
- First, it wasn’t their first goat rodeo, and as a result students were more comfortable participating. I also front-loaded the benefits of challenging ourselves and my pride in my students for taking debate to this level.
- Second, every student had to take notes using this flow note-taking document (another of Les’ tools with slight modifications by me), and I was modeling how to do that on the projector screen. As I modeled, I encouraged students not to copy me verbatim and to use abbreviations that they could make sense of. Sometimes my modeling required me to ask that a given arguer or counter-arguer clarify her work, and this started to produce clearer initial arguments and counter-arguments as the debate progressed. All of this increased the degree to which every student was able to keep track of the argument, and no one was sitting there without work to do because everyone was expected to take notes (debaters call this “flowing,” apparently).
- Third, because of the clearer arguments and counter-arguments as well as the clarifying work of having to take notes on them, it was much easier for me to judge whether a given refutation was adequate in dismantling a given counter-argument. While plenty of students put forth inadequate refutations, the frequency decreased as the activity progressed.
When we were finished, students had greater argumentative competence to accompany the gains in public speaking confidence that pop-up debate had already afforded them. They were also proud to know that they had traveled further into debate than any prior students.
I look forward to being able to give that news to every group of students I ever teach, gradually raising the bar of what kids can do at the end of a year of pop-up debates.
I have always said that pop-up debate is simple to a fault, and one of those faults is that the pre-debate teaching and modeling can only go so far in ensuring that every student is tracking and grappling with every argument presented by students. Refutation Two-Chance provides an excellent “next step” when we think our kids are plateauing in the quality and substance of argumentative work that they are doing. Refutation is one of the “twin pillars” of argumentation — I cannot afford to keep my students from mastering it.
My goal for this year is to bring in Refutation Two-Chance earlier in the year so that students can push further into Les’ expert work.
- Glazing of eyes is attributable to my teaching.