Holding a class debate is a great way to get students fired up — if you’ve got a topic they can get excited about. Carefully choosing a good debate topic will ensure that students are engaged, excited, and thus more eager to share their thoughts and opinions.
You can use debates for a deep dive into a specific topic, or as an easy icebreaker activity. Students of all levels and ages can thrive in a class debate if you take care to frame it well.
Here are a few things to consider that will make sure that the debates you have with your class are a great success!
Things to keep in mind when choosing a debate topic
1. Pick a topic that your students care about
Debate topics don’t always have to be serious or very controversial. A range of topics, from the lighthearted to the complex, can equally pique student interest. In any case, students should have an opinion, or better yet, a personal connection to the topic. Picking relatable topics is one of the best ways to amplify student engagement and ownership as they’re learning.
For instance, an icebreaker debate on the best superpower to have draws on a topic that students are already familiar with and are likely to have a strong opinion about. As silly as the debate might sound, it lowers the barrier for students to get comfortable with the practice of argumentation itself.
Similarly, a debate such as whether school should start later in the day is on a topic that could have a direct impact on students’ lives. Furthermore, it is highly debatable and easy for students to take positions for or against. This leaves plenty of room for differences in opinions or interpretations, drawing out multiple, enthusiastic points of view for students to debate over. This bit of genuine disagreement is what keeps the debate engaging!
2. Consider your students’ prior knowledge on a topic
You know your students best, so you know which types of topics are most appropriate for them. There are topic areas that can work well for different age groups and ability levels, while others are more demanding. Knowing this, you can ensure the right level of complexity for your students.
For example, take the topic of arts funding. Younger students are more likely to be comfortable having a debate about whether art and music should be taught in schools, as it’s something they have direct experience with. For older students, a debate whether governments should fund the arts in general might be more appropriate.
If you’re ever wondering if a topic is appropriate for your students, brainstorm the core arguments in that debate. Are these arguments something that your students will have enough experience and knowledge to contribute to? Map out some ideas beforehand, and this will make it easier for students to voice their opinions!
Sometimes, this process will also help you find different versions of a topic that cover the same arguments, as seen with the art funding example above. Even if many arguments will be relevant to both debates, the version that students can directly relate to is going to be more accessible for younger students.
3. Ensure the topic has enough resources and support
Even if students have some prior knowledge on the topic, they might not know where to search for information to support their arguments. Hence, it is a good idea to have a curated list of sources to activate and support students’ topic knowledge. This will allow students to examine topics in depth, as they can easily consult and evaluate information and sources.
Textbooks, encyclopedias, TED-Ed, and news media are all great resources. These give students great topic overviews, as well as ideas to support their opinions.
We find that older students (age 14 and up) generally have the ability to independently research and find arguments for a given topic. However, for younger students, they are most comfortable debating on topics that they have intrinsic knowledge about, even when there are resources to reference. Keep in mind that a debate doesn’t just require students to know things about a topic — they need to be able to bring that knowledge together into an opinion of their own.
4. Brainstorm debate topics using learning objectives as inspiration
Finally, you can align interesting debate topics with your learning objectives based on curriculum standards.
For example, a learning objective of the lesson could be to have students practice writing claims with evidence. Kialo Edu is great for teaching the principles of argumentative writing, and here a more lighthearted topic (like debating the best fantasy/science fiction series) could work well, because students will be more naturally confident on the subject matter and can focus on the skill they’re practicing.
You can also align the debate topic with curriculum content. For example, students could debate the issue of human cloning while studying a unit on genetics. If you teach citizenship and social studies classes, real-life civics topics are great inspiration for class debate topics, such as examining if social media is a benefit or threat to democracy.
We hope those tips will come in handy when you’re looking to pick a debate topic for your classroom! Looking for some ideas to kick off classroom discussions? Sign up for a free Kialo Edu account and explore our extensive list of class debate topics for you and your students!