Debating in Upper Elementary

Every year, my elementary school partners with our local college to host pre-service teachers in our classrooms. The college students observe, teach lessons, and get a better feel for what teaching is really like. I love having the practicum students in my room. They’re usually enthusiastic, positive, and have great new ideas.

This semester, my practicum student learned that my students love to debate. Truth is, my students love to argue and call it debating. She decided to work a debate into one of her social studies lessons. I think it was a really good learning experience for her, and it definitely was for me. I don’t often let my students debate, but since Ms. R. taught her lesson, I’ve been thinking about how to effectively implement debating among my kids.

Set the Stage

Literally. The layout of your classroom needs to be suitable for a debate, which means, of course, that students are going to have to “face off.” There are several ways to physically set up your classroom for a debate, but this example from The Noisy Classroom is one of my favorites.


Determine Participation

While every teacher will do this her or her own way, I want to point out that with 20 ten to eleven year olds in my classroom, it’s completely inefficient to expect them all to participate in the same debate at once. At least, in my experience it is. Therefore, I’ve found that’s more sensible to split the class in half, and have two separate debates (preferably on different topics). One group debates one day, and the other group debates on a different day. This allows your students to all be heard, it allows for a student to serve as a moderator, and it provides an opportunity for your students to serve as audience members (and they desperately need that practice!).

Prepare Arguments

I overheard one of my girls, a few days ago, commenting that, “You know a debate is all about supporting details, right?”


She has a great point. Students often hear the word debate and think it means “alright, let’s yell and see who’s loudest!” I’ve found that it’s crucial to have students prepare their arguments. For my fifth graders, I typically ask them to come up with three points that help “prove” their positions. They also need to be knowledgeable enough that they can not only bring up these points, but defend them.


Another benefit to the classroom layout mentioned above is that the audience members provide a perfect sounding board while students are preparing. The audience members really don’t have a “side” so they can listen to one group’s points and challenge them, helping that group prepare for the actual debate.

Lay Out the Ground Rules

The fact is, at some point, the kids are going to start hollering at each other and getting out of hand. To avoid this, it’s totally worth it to spend time before the actual debate going over rules. The kids have to have some guidelines:

  • Time limits – A few minutes per stance, maybe
  • Students shouldn’t be talking when others are talking
  • The moderator is in charge, no matter what
  • Speaking order – Otherwise students will fight to be heard

In my experience, launching debates in the classroom has been incredibly effective. Students learn their subject in a much deeper way. They learn public speaking skills and learn how to make themselves heard. They have fun while they’re doing it. It’s amazing to see how much students grow during the debate!

“Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.” – Desmond Tutu

Leave a Reply