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Improving Pop-Up Debates: Better Prompts

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I've held more than a few pop-up debates that went badly, and I could trace the badness back to before the debate started. What am I talking about? The Plague of the Poorly Formulated Pop-Up Debate Prompt.

Recently, I was reading through Les Lynn's blog (Les founded Argument-Centered Education, and his blog is the Debatifier) and happened across a list of five criteria for helping us shape the kinds of debatable issues that can drive great inquiry, great content knowledge acquisition, and, ultimately, inspiring in-class debates. In this article, I'll use Les' framework to analyze a few of my pop-up debate questions from the past that have gone poorly as I briefly explain each criterion.

Openness: There's more than one defensible and credible position.

I can't think of a pop-up debate prompt I've used that didn't meet this criteria, but some potential bad examples could be:

  • Is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet truly a tragedy?
  • Has population growth over the past 150 years had a mostly positive or mostly harmful effect on the world's environment?

In both cases, there's really only one defensible and credible position. “But Dave,” you might say, “if it weren't for the Prologue and Acts III-V, Romeo and Juliet could totally be a comedy!” Well, true — but then it wouldn't be Romeo and Juliet either. If arguing one of the sides requires such drastic measures, it's not defensible to the degree we want it to be for a good pop-up debate.

Balanced: All sides are roughly equal in their defensibility.

This one is partly based on the prompt we create and partly based on the evidence we provide (if we are providing evidence versus having students find it themselves, which I often do the for sake of time).

Some good examples of balance:

  • “Was the USA justified in using atomic force against Japan?”(I provide a set of documents in which historians offer arguments on either side.)
  • “Which subject is the best: history, English language arts, math, or science?” In this case, students bring their own prior knowledge. This debate also works at affecting the value mindset — I've written about the whole thing here.

Some bad examples:

  • “Was the USA justified in using atomic force against Japan?” (I could make this a bad prompt if I taught toward and provided primary and/or secondary sources that only supported one side of the issue.)

Focus: On a single idea or question.

It's easy to create prompts that lack focus. Here is one that I've used that might seem pretty good at first glance: “How barbaric were the Mongols?”

This prompt meets a lot of the criteria — it's something historians actually argue about these days, it's of interest to students, there's plenty of evidence for both sides, it's open. But the trouble is that it can quickly get off track based on how we define “barbaric.” On the one hand, if we're defining barbaric as “savagely cruel and exceedingly brutal,” as Google's first definition does, then this is really a question of comparing the severity of their actions to those of contemporary societies. But if we're defining barbaric as “primitive and unsophisticated,” as Google's second definition does, then we're talking about tactics and technology and culture — an entirely different debate.

To improve the focus of that prompt, I might ask, “Were the effects of Mongolian conquest and rule mostly positive or mostly negative?”

Authenticity: It's something that people actually argue about — in a discipline, in a culture, in the wider world.

That lattermost prompt from above is actually a great example of an authentic, debatable issue — like I said before, historians really argue about this stuff.

A bad example would be this little number from a year ago: “Which foodstuff, animal, or pathogen from the Columbian Exchange has had the most significant impact on world history?” If you can Google your debatable prompt and absolutely nothing comes up, that might be a sign that almost no one on the planet really argues about what you are prompting. As I recall, this debate was a bit yawny — authenticity is one of the reasons why.

Intellectual Interest: It's either immediately interesting to students (and you!) or likely to be through study.

The other reason the ol' Most Important Commodity of the Columbian Exchange debate prompt is weak is because it's not all that interesting. I mean, it's a little interesting that potatoes and horses weren't global prior to 1492, but it's not all that interesting to argue about.

Another bad example: “Was the time period between 400 and 1400 CE a “Dark Age” for Europe?” Stanford's History Education group has a nice lesson to go with this, but it doesn't build up to a very lively debate because it's just not terribly interesting to me, and I do a poor job making it interesting to my students.

On the other hand, some things that aren't immediately interesting to the kids can still fit this criterion if a fair amount of high-quality, knowledge-rich lessons will take place in building up to the prompt. If I were to tell my students at the start of the year that we'd be having a big debate about who was most responsible for the Cold War, the USA or the USSR, only the history nerds would be excited. But by the time we finish studying the Cold War, kids are into the pop-up debate because they know a lot about the topic.

In some ways, the best pop-up debate prompts are like the NCAA's annual March Madness prompt: Who will get the last win of the season?

  • There are many defensible positions
  • There is all kinds of evidence to support all kinds of positions
  • It's focused — who wins the title game?
  • It's authentic
  • And it's interesting — especially as one builds knowledge about the field of teams

One reason teaching is fun is that we get to try to bring that kind of energy into questions that our students, when they first visit us, might never consider engaging.

4 Responses to Improving Pop-Up Debates: Better Prompts

  1. ML April 22, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    My only concern with pop up debate is the organization of it. How do you keep it from going all over the place? One side at a time-if it’s a pro/con? Or does it matter? Do you group it by type of evidence? Or do you allow an argument from one kid and then a refutation from another? Maybe I’m overthinking this?

    • davestuartjr April 22, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

      ML, you’re not overthinking it at all. Pop-up debate is like a spoken argument / discussion workshop. After each one, the students and I reflect on what went well, what didn’t. Each year, I want to push student skills further. Refutation two-chance (another post on my blog) offers a much greater amount of structure, similar to what you are getting at already in your thinking.

  2. ML April 29, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    Gotcha! Thanks! What do you do if kids refuse to stand?

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