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Can Pop-Up Debate Produce Grit in Students?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- Pop Up Application

With little more than one day left on the voting for my Character Lab project (update: voting has ended!), I thought it would be worth sharing with you exactly what I'm hoping to research next year with pop-up debate and grit.

So let me show you the actual application that happened to be chosen as one of 16 finalists for this national grant. If you prefer a printable, pdf version of what I actually submitted, click here; below, I'll share it in blog form.

My hope is that, no matter what becomes of my project, the thinking that went into envisioning it can help you move forward in your work with argument, speaking and listening, or character strength development in your setting.

Finally, it's worth saying that, while I haven't sought to beat any of you dear readers over the head with my project's need for your votes, I do need them. I've been conflicted about how to ask and remind you of this small favor that I need without being an annoying jerk, so I've opted to do very little. If I get voted for this thing through annoying people to death about it, it would be a pyrrhic victory — I'll have won a battle, but I'll have done so being less than the person I want to be.

So, last time:

Just kidding — the project is over!

Thank you, my friends, for putting up with my awkward vote asking. Clearly I'm not going to run for political office any time soon 🙂

Now — onto the good stuff! Whether I win or lose the grant, here's what I'm hoping to try out in my classroom next year.

Pop-up debate is something many of you are aware of through my $1 "starter kit."

Pop-up debate is something many of you are aware of through my $1 “starter kit.”

Part I: Project description

The first part of the application required me to describe my proposed project and explain why I thought it could produce the outcomes I'm hoping for.

My project will center around a series of 12 in-class “pop-up debates,” the final 10 of which will be filmed and uploaded as “link-only” files on YouTube for immediate student review. While I’ve already observed that these debates help students with content retention, speaking/listening skills, and argumentative ability, my hypothesis with this project is that debates can serve as a petri dish for grit as well.

Component 1: Daily Facts

I’ll begin by giving my 9th grade world history students a Daily Fact for the first three weeks of school about one of the following topics:

  • speaking/listening,
  • argumentation,
  • content retention,
  • and grit.

These Daily Facts will be aimed at a simple learning target: I want students to understand why each of these four things matters strategically and personally.

  • E.g., speaking and listening are strategically important skills. The most recent NACE survey cites “the ability to verbally communicate” as a top skill employers want (2014 Job Outlook).
  • At the same time, speaking and listening are important skills for our personal lives because they are the stuff of great dates and thriving relationships.

(I will have a complete list of Daily Facts prepared in advance of the school year; see timeline.)

Component 2: Processing the facts using writing and think-pair-share

It is not enough to simply say a fact at a student, however, so they will process these facts by

  1. writing about them in their spiral notebooks (they’ll have a separate page to keep notes on each of the four concepts),
  2. discussing them with a partner, and
  3. sharing their thoughts with the class.

To facilitate this, I’ll use Frank Lyman’s classic Think-Pair-Share (T-P-S) strategy; this robust routine forms roughly 80% of the speaking/listening work in my classroom (the other 20% is pop-up debate).

It’s worth noting that the initial three weeks of T-P-S will also serve to normalize public speaking [1] (the S mode involves me randomly calling upon students for their now-rehearsed thoughts), thus helping to overcome one of the biggest barriers to having great pop-up debates: fear.

Component 3: pop-up debates

Next, we will begin the pop-ups; my timeline allows for delays by providing for roughly three debates in every four-week period. (I normally do roughly one debate every week; the added wiggle room increases the project’s feasibility). The sequence for each pop-up is as follows:

  • Several days prior to the debate, students are given the debatable question (examples included in draft debate list, below). I will model how to use the question as a lens for learning content (e.g., using simple organizational aids like a T-chart to make one’s notes conducive to debate prep).
  • One day after that, I will teach a mini-lesson on the coming debate’s Target Skill. This skill will be related to content, argumentation, or delivery (see draft list of debates below).
  • On this same day, I will also provide a brief “grit tip” aimed at helping students practice in advance of the debate. Both the Target Skill and the Grit Tip will be kept in their notebooks, each on its own page. (See draft list of debates below for samples.)
  • On the day of the debate, I will review the Target Skill with a quick mini-lesson, and students will rehearse what they might say with a partner. During the debate:
    • Every student speaks 1-3 times (I will adjust the maximum as time allows or circumstance calls for).
    • To speak, students simply stand up and talk.
    • I assess students on the Target Skill.
  • Immediately after the debate (on the same day), students reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what they hope to improve for next time.
  • Within 24 hours of the debate, students add to their post-debate reflections once they’ve viewed their performance on film (this begins with Debate 3; see timeline).

The following is a draft list of the 12 debates with their corresponding skills; I will have this list completed by August (see timeline). Some debates are partially completed for illustration purposes.

Debate 1: Was Charlemagne’s impact on world history mostly positive or mostly negative?

Target Skill: Make a claim

Grit Tip: You can’t grow grit if you don’t do hard things.

  • The key (unstated) objective for this debate is simple: I want kids to experience that standing up and speaking in front of their peers does not result in death; it’s scary, but not impossible. Nervousness isn’t cured, but it’s put in its place.

Debate 2: Were the “Dark Ages” really that dark? Should we even use that term?

Target Skill: Paraphrase someone else’s claim and then either add, detract, or complicate it

Grit Tip: What is deliberate practice?

Debate 3: Were the Mongols a mostly positive or mostly negative force in world history?

Target Skill: Support a claim with cited evidence

Grit Tip: The power of feedback for developing a skill.

  • This mini-lesson is used to establish why we’ll be filming debates and how to make the most of the footage. I will show students how to access the videos, and I will explain the 24 Hour Rule (footage and reflected upon within 24 hours).
  • After this debate, I will have students complete their first round of exit tickets to provide me feedback (see timeline; this will occur after Debates 6 and 9 as well).

Debate 4: Which factor was most important in allowing Europe to get to the “New World” first during this era?

Target Skill: Listening behaviors (note-taking, eye contact)

Grit Tip: You are the teacher of your bedroom classroom [2].

  • This tip helps students consider how to best create an environment at home that enables them to engage in the deliberate practice they need to become the person they hope to be.

Debate 5: The Ming, the Mongols, the Abbasids, or modern day USA: which is the greatest empire?

Target Skill: Organizational cues — beginning, middle, end

Grit Tip: What does it look like to be committed to my goals, and what tools can I use to do it?

Debate 6: Which is a bigger deal from a world history perspective — the Scientific Revolution or the Protestant Reformation?

Target Skill: Poise

  • This skill and those following are from Erik Palmer’s PVLEGS acronym for speech delivery (Well Spoken, 2011).

Grit Tip: Why is failure the secret to success? Is it possible to fail too often when pursuing mastery of a skill?

[end of samples; lessons to be completed August 2015; see timeline.]

Timeout: Wait, video? Huh?

What's up with the video element? I anticipate getting that question a lot, and it's worth saying that the need for video didn't occur to me until about five hours into the twelve-hour research day I invested into this application. I think the video element is needed for the sake of deliberate practice — my students are gaining in confidence through their use of pop-up debates, and, I think, in their argumentative ability and content retention.

However, my hunch is that their growth is retarded by the simple fact that they aren't allowed immediate, adequate feedback on their performances. For example, they know that Palmer's Poise element involves removing distracting behaviors and verbal tics from one's speaking; however, many of them simply have no clue how guilty they still are at using “like, um, uh, you know” repetitively when they speak.

Video can solve this — everyone who has ever watched themselves on film shudders because it's brutal, unvarnished feedback. This is a critical component of deliberate practice, and deliberate practice is basically the thing that builds skill.

How will these activities promote grit in students?

Pop-up debate is hard. It requires mastering of content, attending to speech delivery, listening well, processing quickly, organizing one’s thinking, and being brave. In other words, it will serve as a source of consistent failure for all of my students, from lowest- to highest-achieving. This failure will provide fertile soil for the Grit Tips, which will be designed for immediate application.

At the end of the project, students will see videotaped proof that sustained interest in and deliberate practice of a skill set yields improvement. They will not just read studies about grit or hear stories of its importance; they’ll see its power in their own lives.

Part II: Statements of potential impact

The following indicators will tell me that I have executed my project well:

  • Student feedback that Target Skill and Grit Tip mini-lessons are helpful. (Exit tickets will provide this data; see timeline).
  • Student feedback on Debate 6 and Debate 9 exit slips that indicates they are practicing on their own in advance of the debates. This will tell me that the Grit Tips are transferring outside of my room.
  • I will hear students express pride in how they are getting stronger where once they were weak.

After participating in the project, students will:

  • Demonstrate increased engagement and performance in world history.
  • Be more likely to develop and pursue sustained interests over time.
  • Be more likely to deliberately practice skills they want to become good at.
  • They will have experienced this: When we stick with a skill for more than a few weeks and deliberately practice it, we get better.

Part III: feasibility of Implementation

[In this portion of the application, I had to describe how many students I will have participate and, perhaps more importantly, what obstacles I foresaw and how I thought they might be overcome.]


I will have all 60 students in my world history classes participate in all activities. For students to be deemed full participants in this project, they need to have participated in 10 of the 12 debates. They will also need to have engaged in film review at least five times to receive adequate experience with feedback-powered deliberate practice.

Potential obstacles

Obstacle 1: Students may not be willing to debate due to discomfort with speaking in front of their peers.

I have three years experience with scaffolding students toward successfully participating in Debate 1. The first debate is a pivotal moment, as students learn, “Hey, I can do this; it’s nerve-wracking, but I can do it.” Of the 200 students I’ve taught in the past three years, exactly one has refused to participate. For the sake of replicability, I will need to record the “moves” I make, in addition to Daily Facts and Think-Pair-Shares, for getting students ready to participate in Debate 1.

Obstacle 2: Arguments could become emotionally charged; feelings could get hurt.

The ideal pop-up debate is engaging from both intellectual and “this is just fun” standpoints; it is not uncommon for listening students to make “my brain is exploding” gestures when a peer stands up and delivers an especially poised or well-said point. Yet there are moments when debates can veer away from this ideal, especially at first when students lack the social intelligence and self-control to maintain a respectful tone even when deconstructing an opposing argument. The key to avoiding these things is to step in as the teacher and coach through the moment. It takes time for students to learn that arguments aren’t about winning, but about getting to the bottom of a great question. (That’s another Daily Fact we’ll cover at the start of school.)

Obstacle 3: A parent could refuse to sign the release form

In order for students to be filmed, parents will need to sign a release form. I recently had a group from Relay GSE film a pop-up debate lesson, and I did experience several parents ardently refusing to have their kids participate in the filming. I respect these wishes from parents, so I will need to work with my principal to clearly communicate the purpose of this filming and then let them make the informed decision that best suits their family situation. In the past, this obstacle has accounted for less than 5% of my students.

Part IV: Replicability

How could this project be replicated?

I initially wanted this project to be 12 weeks long because it would allow for greater replicability, particularly for secondary teachers who have their students for less than a full year. While I do think the project could be done within 12 weeks (I would decrease the amount of debates to 9 and conduct them weekly; the three weeks of Daily Facts would remain unchanged), I opted to take advantage of the extra time I have with my students so as to maximize project feasibility.

While the pop-up debate structure is intentionally simple, doing it well would require a package of written and video training materials. I already have a beta version of this available to teachers on my blog; it’s called the Pop-Up Debate Starter Kit.

Toward the end of creating a quality training tool, I will be intentional about filming examples of all of this project’s key teacher moves; this list will be completed prior to August. Teachers benefit from more than written instructions; they love seeing a strategy in action.

Why would teachers be interested in replicating this project?

Pop-up debate shows promising signs of having broad appeal to secondary teachers. I have presented it to teacher groups in urban settings (Cleveland, OH; Dearborn, MI), rural settings (Hartsburg, IL; Bishop, CA; Independence, CA) and suburban settings (Turlock, CA; Lebanon, MO). Teachers in these schools from a broad array of disciplines — art, science, English, etc. — have eagerly implemented pop-up debate.

Considering that these teachers often tend to appreciate the Character Strengths portion of my workshops as well, I expect that I could rapidly expand the reach of this project using my teacher training experience, my writing-for-teachers experience, and my blog’s audience of 35,000 visitors per month.

Whew! So there it is.

I know that was a lot of information, but Teaching the Core has always existed to be as “open source” as possible. Please, if you see opportunities to use any or all of this thinking in your own setting, don't wait for permission — go for it! Let me know how it goes in the comments 🙂


  1. I owe the concept of normalizing public speaking to Erik Palmer, whose work is hugely inspiring to me and has been seminal in my thinking about speaking and listening. Start with Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students if you've never read any of his work.
  2. The “bedroom classroom” idea comes from a video interview I once watched featuring Angela Duckworth, godmother of grit and board member of Character Lab.

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2 Responses to Can Pop-Up Debate Produce Grit in Students?

  1. Mary Willen September 27, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Have you ever used Today’s Meet in your pop-up debates? Students can reflect on what is being said or add to one of the arguments made if they have already spoken?

    • davestuartjr September 27, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

      I just learned about Today’s Meet this past summer, Mary — so far, I haven’t tried it! I do think I need to give it a try at some point; thank you for the push!

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