Debates Stimulate Interest
In his teen Sunday School class, Jim Murkhardt is attempting to deal with contemporary issues which relate to the lives of his students. In past weeks they have examined biblical positions on birth control, abortion, war, civil rights, the role of the church in contemporary society, and several other problems.
Next week the class will stage a debate. The question is whether Christian young people should attend Christian colleges or state schools. The issue has been structured into a positive proposition: “Resolved: Christian young people should attend Christian colleges.” Tim and Cathy will be arguing the affirmative; Paul and Lois the negative. Each speaker has been assigned six minutes for his constructive speech and three minutes for rebuttal.
Since in a formal debate the affirmative always begins, Tim will speak first, followed by Lois, then Cathy, and finally, in the second negative slot, Paul will conclude the constructive speeches. Then, after approximately five minutes for the participants to work on their rebuttal thoughts, the order for the three-minute rebuttal speeches will be: Negative 1—Lois; Affirmative 2—Cathy; Negative 2—Paul; and Affirmative 1—Tim.
The burden of proof in a debate is on the affirmative unless the negative side offers an alternative proposal to the one resolved. Paul and Lois will therefore try to counteract the seemingly good reasons for Christians to attend Christian schools. They do not have to prove that Christians should attend state schools, but only cast doubt on the validity of their attending Christian schools. There will be 10 or 15 minutes at the end for questions from the total group, but at that point Jim will be using a different teaching method called “forum,” which will be discussed in a later chapter.
Although the procedure above sounds very formal, almost like parliamentary debate, keep in mind that this is a teaching-learning situation. While not really trying to prove that Christian students should attend Christian colleges, the plan is to get all of the arguments on the table so the class can see exactly what is involved in thinking through this very important issue.
In order to make the debate work, all of the participants must appear really convinced of their positions. It is possible that Paul and Lois already plan to attend a Christian college. But for purposes of the debate, they should seem thoroughly convinced of the negative side of the proposition.
Debate is simply a procedure in which two or more people compete in trying to persuade others to accept or reject a proposition as a foundation for belief or behavior. Although a form of discussion, it differs from discussion in several ways:
1. Debate is a presentation of the result rather than the airing of the process.
2. Debate is basically competitive whereas discussion should be cooperative.
3. Debate centers around an issue which is already defined, whereas a discussion generally is an attempt to delineate factors and define a position.
Values of Using Debate
Like other forms of discussion, debate offers a dialogical or participative approach to learning. Students actually have a significant role in the learning experiences. Debate also rests upon the firm principles of democratic procedure. Its very structure demonstrates that all positions should have an equal hearing and that truth can triumph over error even if error is convincingly presented.
Debate is also a time-saver. It might take twice the investment of time to air all of the issues which good debates will uncover in the 36 minutes of speaking time described above. The group can see the issues sharply drawn and the arguments logically presented on a controversial issue which may have been very cloudy in their thinking.
Perhaps the most significant benefit which will accrue from using debates in your classroom is the investment of preparation time by the participating students. Assigning the reading of a Bible chapter or the answering of five or six questions on an assignment sheet will not motivate a teenager like pitting him against two of his peers in open competition in the next class session will. Only the laziest of students would minimize his study in anticipation of such a dramatic event.
Debate involves great discipline. The need to not only research the facts but to present them in a coherent manner within a very limited time provides a definite challenge for the participants. The method teaches research, thinking, and speaking, as well as absorbing the subject matter under study.
Some students who may not find a role of service in the church or class through singing, songleading, or playing an instrument, may find themselves quite gifted in debate. Incidentally, if you find success with the debating in your classroom, you may want to move to a larger group, presenting a formal debate on some crucial issue as a part of a Sunday evening service or other meeting to which the public would be invited.
Problems in the Debate Method
One of the major difficulties in structuring debates is the clarification of a good “resolved.” The resolved should always be an affirmative statement presenting an issue which is clear not only to the debate participants, but also to the larger audience.
Speakers should be encouraged to attack the primary issues and not waste the limited time wandering down bypaths. Sometimes the abilities of members of opposing debate teams are inequitable, and the debate turns out to be a lopsided confrontation, an embarrassing experience for everyone involved. Divisiveness is always a danger, especially if the participants genuinely believe their Positions and begin to attack each other during the session period. The teacher must guard against this.
Principles for Effective Use of Debates
Carefully provide resources. Probably debates could not be used effectively much below the teens, although an advanced junior high class might try some adapted versions. Without biasing the positions of the debaters, Jim will steer them to good sources (books, magazine articles, people) offering ammunition for the presentation. Jim will have to make sure that he gives both sides equally valuable resources and that he does not offer more help to one group than to the other.
The subject of the debate must be controversial in nature. It would be rather futile, for example, to argue the proposition, “Resolved: Murder should be illegal.” Be careful not to allow the subject matter to become too technical or unrelated to the needs and interests of the members of your class.
In formal parliamentary debate, it is proper to take a vote from the assembly after the debaters have concluded to see which side won. That is probably not a good technique to use when you are employing the debate as a teaching method. The object is to get the issues on the floor. No doubt there will be a subjective decision formed in the minds of your students as to which side really is presented the better argument. But there seems to be no value in embarrassing any of the participants by taking a win-lose vote.
There has to be flexibility on the part of the class and the teacher. If Jim is particularly biased toward the Christian college to the extent that he does not even want to hear the arguments against it, he would not be able to conduct a debate in his class properly. As mentioned earlier, the debate is clearly linked to the freedom-of-thought process which we treasure in our society and surely in our churches,