American Political Science Association (APSA): Paper Proposal

American Political Science Association 2018 Teaching and Learning Conference


Workshop Leader: C. Jonathan Scriven, PhD: Head of Humanities and Professor of History and Political Economy at the Centre International de Valbonne in Valbonne, France.

Purpose: This workshop introduces teachers and professors at all academic levels to a series of strategies designed to create meaningful student debates in classrooms of all sizes. Modeled after the current debate rules at the United Nations, the methods use role-playing and collaboration as the guiding principles behind successful classroom debates. The methods also promote debate on current issues, thereby encouraging citizenship and civic engagement.

Description: Debate is one of the most effective methods for bringing real-world theories and ideas into the classroom. But creating effective and meaningful class debates is not easy. Whether it is students who don’t participate, unclear objectives and/or outcomes, or simply a lack of time, even the best-planned debates can fall flat. This workshop will address some of the key problems that arise when planning classroom debates and introduce strategies to overcome those problems.

Research has revealed that a primary reason students don’t participate in class debates is that they simply don’t want to voice their own opinions for fear of being embarrassed, teased, mocked, or ostracized. Many of the leading strategies for debate minimize (or even ignore) this fact and therefore don’t address one of the most significant barriers to good classroom debate. This barrier can be overcome by creating formal debates and simulation games where students represent the opinions of others — other people, governments, organizations, etc.. This method can dramatically increase a student’s willingness to participate and engage in the debate, thereby helping them gain confidence, develop critical thinking and analytical skills, better understand the topic at hand, and ultimately create a more dynamic and meaningful course.

The workshop will be interactive (participants will simulate classroom debates) and will focus on a number of debate strategies designed to increase student participation, encourage a variety of opinions (rather than a too-common ‘for or against’ model), and introduce students to current issues related to citizenship and civic engagement. In each debate simulation it is anticipated that students, not professors, will lead the debate (this will be fully explained and demonstrated during the workshop). Strategies include:

  1. The U.N.-Style Debate: a debate strategy modeled after the current debate rules of the United Nations. Students take on the role of a character or country (country ambassadors, historical figures, fictitious characters created by the professor) and debate from the perspective of their character. Students are encouraged to develop ‘alliances’ with other characters in order to gain broader support for a particular issue or idea. The goal of the debate is to agree on guiding principles or strategies for dealing with specific issues or ideas.
  2. The Resolution Debate: students write Resolutions (based on a United Nations Resolution) that call for a specific action. This ‘action’ is debated point by point, amended if/when necessary, and approved or rejected by the entire class. The narrow focus of each debate point (‘action’) allows very specific issues to be debated. The written component of this strategy (students can be asked to write Resolutions) is also an effective way to measure comprehension of a subject, analysis, and critical thinking. Once again, this debate can implement role-playing and character representation.
  3. The ‘Bracket’ Debate: students again take on the role of a character and try to convince the class that their position on a particular issue is correct. Placed into small groups (‘brackets’) with 3–4 others, they try to ‘win’ their group by convincing the rest of the class that the others should be eliminated from contention. Group winners advance to the next round and face-off with other group winners to find the ultimate ‘champion’. In each round of the debate a class vote determines who advances to the next round.

Other strategies will be introduced, time allowing.

Conclusion: Each of the strategies presented in this workshop will help teachers and professors develop classroom debates that are relevant, targeted to a specific issue or idea, efficient, and effective in developing comprehension and understanding of a topic, issue, or idea. By promoting role-playing and collaboration, these strategies remove some of the main barriers to good debate and help ensure that all students participate and benefit from well-planned classroom debates.

Associate Director, Honors College; Director, Center for Global Programs @ThisIsWAU. Political Studies faculty. Love sports, politics, and coffee. @cjscriven

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