Why I Like Discussion, Not Debate

Like most teachers at the beginning of May, I am very, very ready for summer break to get here. But good stuff happened in my classroom today and I want to talk about it.

Throughout our study of Othello, we’ve talked about all the different things motivating Iago – jealousy, revenge, a general desire to see people suffer, etc. When we got to the end and refuses to give Othello a reason for destroying his life, my students were, of course, annoyed.

Yesterday they read an article that outlined a number of different possibilities and ranked their likelihood based on the evidence provided and their own understanding of the play. For homework last night, they had to prepare for today’s discussion by writing out what they believed Iago’s motivation was and citing evidence from the play and the article to support their argument.

They came in today ready to go. When I originally conceived of today’s class, I had planned a debate. Cause debates are fun! Everyone loves a good debate!

Except I actually kind of hate debates. They’re all about winning, which means no one is listening to anyone else; they’re just thinking about what they’re going to say to prove that they’re right and the other people are wrong. When the tone is combative, fewer students are willing to contribute because there’s more fear involved. And if the debate is about a topic more sensitive than a fictional character from a Shakespeare play, students can easily be hurt (I’ve seen this happen with classroom debates about things like immigration – when half the students in the room are immigrants or the children of immigrants, things can get nasty very quickly).

So I made it very clear from the beginning that what we were doing today was having a discussion, not a debate. I explained it this way: the goal of a debate is to win, but the goal of a discussion is to learn.

That means that in a discussion, the listening is just as important as the talking. I told students that I would be looking for active listeners to give merits to, and that not listening would lose points just as easily as not contributing. I explained that this also means we’re allowed to change our minds! That if we hear something new that we hadn’t thought about, we should consider it. We don’t have to change our minds and agree with the person, but we’re allowed to – it doesn’t mean we “lost”.

I then gave them some sentence starters they could use to make sure it wasn’t just a bunch of students making statements one after another (a thing that can happen very easily and is boring for everyone involved). It included basics like “I agree with ______ because…” and “I disagree with ______ because…,” but I also added things like “I can see _____’s point, but…,” “I want to go back to what ______ said earlier…,” and “That’s an interesting point because…”

And you know what? They did a great job! They were patient when classmates had a hard time getting their words together. They paid attention to what other people said and responded to it, rather than just saying what they wanted to say. They even made sure to ask some of the shyer students for their thoughts directly so that no one got a zero for not contributing.

Yes, it’s easy to have a civil discussion when you don’t particularly care about the outcome. Iago’s motivations are not as important to my students as issues like immigration, police brutality, and LGBTQ rights. But maybe, maybe if we teach our kids to go into even a classroom literature discussion wanting to listen and learn just as much as they talk, if we give them the vocabulary to talk to each other productively, it’ll become a habit that they can take with them and use to raise the level of discourse in the broader society.

  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

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