Recently I held the first pop-up debate of the school year in my on-level world history courses. (For my most thorough treatment of pop-up debates, see Ch 4 of These 6 Things.) The lesson began with the following prompt:
They had five minutes to write a response, and then I asked them to share something they had written with their partner. And then, as I always do, I nonchalantly introduced pop-up debate.
“The rules are simple:
- Everyone has to speak at least once, and at most twice.
- To speak, simply stand up and speak. Whoever does this first has the floor, and they have it until they stop speaking and sit down. If multiple people stand up at the same time, your goal is to yield the floor as politely and nonchalantly as you can.
For today’s debate, your baseline expectation is to stand up and say something. You may literally read a sentence from what you wrote for your warm-up. Very simple for our first go.
If there’s a lull, I’ll start calling on students who haven’t spoken yet. When I do this, I’m not trying to “catch you” or “call you out” or anything like that. I’m just trying to keep us moving along. Make sure you’ve got a line underlined from your warm-up that you can share if called upon.
What questions might you have?
All right, let’s begin.”
If you’ve been reading the blog for a few years, you know all this well enough. What I’d like to share today is how remarkably different my two classes performed.
In the first class, the average speech was long, the average Life (see Palmer’s PVLEGS) was high, and more than half of the class used both of their speeches. There were some hilarious contributions, some borderline disrespectful ones, and some take-your-breath-away lines — e.g., “What we need is a justice system, not a legal system.”
So after the debate was through, I had students identify one strength and one weakness in our whole-class performance. I used this mini-prompt as a chance to explain what I’ll repeat often this year: pop-up debate is a team sport, and in this sport we are all mental athletes. Debates will flourish or flounder based not on individuals, but on the team.
Here’s what we came up with.
- Passion, energy, enthusiasm
- Creativity – the class expressed a wide range of views and many had clever ways of explaining them
- Clashing – students were not afraid to clash with the ideas of other students, and in general they did this without personalizing
- Volunteerism – I had perhaps 5 people to call on at the end of the debate — a very low percentage
- Yielding the floor nonchalantly – one student in particular was noticed by his classmates for being very good at this
- Average speech length was long – this is the other side of that passion/energy/enthusiasm strength, and it made it so that I was unable to open the floor at the end of the debate to anyone who wanted to speak one more time
- Creativity – at times we ended up in some bizarre discussion territory
- Sweeping generalizations – there was much talk of “all the adults have done nothing” and “all teenagers care about is social media” and the like
No doubt about it, this was the best first pop-up debate that I’ve seen in half a decade or so of doing these.
And then we get to the second hour, which was much more of the normal first-time pop-up debate experience:
- I had to call on about half of the class — low volunteerism
- Most students stood up and started their speech by saying, “I agree with what everyone has said” — very repetitive with minimal clashing
- I was unable to mix this up even with my own pop-ups, in which I purposefully took the minority position
- Many students were difficult to hear (that’s Voice in Palmer’s PVLEGS)
So basically, it was very boring and humdrum.
What made the difference?
The difference between the classes comes down to about a million things — the insane amount of variables in every classroom every day in every school on the planet is part of why quality educational research is so hard to come by — but the strongest variable that I can see is that, in the first hour, a few students started things off by really putting themselves out there. It could be that they ate extra sugar the hour before, or they were very passionate about the topic already, or they’ve had a strong history with in-class debates, or they’re really comfortable with themselves — the why is hard to locate — but the result of a few strong contributions was contagious.
So my goal between this week and next is to identify a few students in that second class who I think could go there and to encourage them in a moment of genuine connection to do it in our next debate.
Moments of genuine connection, in this case, are a tool not just for improving the five key beliefs in my students — they are also elegantly efficient levers for increasing the academic (in this case, argumentative) performance of the entire class.
And of course, in that first class, the key right now is to quickly follow up with another debate, perhaps this time on a more challenging, less immediately “relevant” topic, so as to show them that I mean it when I say that we do hard things.