Hearing Crickets During Classroom Discussion? Try Speed Debating


By Mike Gershon, Author of the Great Teaching Made Easy Series

I spent a bit of time teaching A Level (or Advanced Placement) History. One class I taught were in Year 13, where the students are seventeen and eighteen years old. That’s the last year of secondary school in the United Kingdom, after which many students go on to further training or university, while others move into the world of work.

We were studying the Vietnam War – one of a range of options presented by the exam board and from which schools are free to choose. The students had been used to quite a didactic teaching style with their previous teacher. Mostly lecture-style lessons in which they sat and took notes with limited or no discussion.

I wanted to shake things up a bit and give them a different kind of experience. I’ve always felt that discussion is one of the most enjoyable things learners can do in lessons, and also one of the most valuable. It gives students a chance to order, refine and articulate their thinking, at the same time as it exposes them to other people’s ideas. Another great benefit of discussion is that it gives the teacher a clear insight into what students are thinking, and how they are thinking. This information is really valuable if we want to tailor our teaching so it closely meets student needs.

Discussion is one of the most enjoyable things learners can do in lessons, and also one of the most valuable. - Mike Gershon Click To Tweet

To begin with, I introduced discussion activities slowly, giving the students a chance to get to grips with this different approach. They quickly showed their enthusiasm for the change of style and, before long, I was using more elaborate and unusual discussion activities.

Speed Debating

One of my favorites is speed debating. This is where you divide the class in half, display a proposition on the board, and then ask one group to defend this and one group to argue against it. Each group has a period of time in which they work as a team to prepare their arguments, establish their evidence and think through their line of critique.

When that time is up, students get into pairs. Each pair contains one person from each group. So you end up with pairs in which one person is defending the proposition and one person is attacking it. It’s then that the fun really begins!

The team defending the proposition get to go first. They have 90 seconds in which to put their case to their partner, who must listen and not respond. When the 90 seconds are up, the roles are reversed. At the end of that, there is a 60 second free-for-all, during which both partners can speak.

When all that has been completed, the teacher asks the students who are defending the proposition to stand up and find a new partner. The activity then repeats.

Do this three or four times and by the end students have seriously refined and developed their thinking on the topic – both through their own verbal rehearsal of ideas and through repeated listening to the opposing point of view. My history students loved it – and they were well set to write essays straight afterwards. The structured discussion had helped them to clarify and develop their thinking. This made the act of structuring and writing their essays that bit easier.

My love of discussion as a classroom tool led me to write How to Use Discussion in the Classroom: The Complete Guide. Speed debating is just one of the many activities, strategies and techniques included in the book. In fact, there are over 60 practical tools clearly explained and exemplified, ready for you to use in your teaching. I’m sure they’ll bring a lot of fun and engagement to your classroom, at the same time as they help your students to make great progress.