Using Debate to Teach Teenagers Diversity

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It can be hard to get students to consider a topic in depth when, on a surface level, they already support it. How do you keep students engaged, wanting to go deeper? How do you help them differentiate between a gospel-oriented support for a topic and other perspectives promoting the same end? This was my challenge as I approached the topic of diversity with my students.

I hoped to illustrate how, biblically, diversity is a critical facet of God’s kingdom. As the gospel renews our hearts, it also breaks down our walls of judgment and hatred and superiority towards one another (Galatians 2:11ff). The gospel equalizes us in the economy of God (Galatians 3:28) while also calling us to mourn and fight to correct the injustices a lack of diversity has bred (Psalm 94:20). And the gospel anticipates a beautiful and diverse future of God’s kingdom fully realized (Revelation 7:9-12).

THE METHOD

Before unpacking Scripture with my students (Revelation 7, in this instance), I split them into two teams, and asked the two groups face each other from opposite sides of the room. I left a space in between them so one person could present in the middle of the groups. I then explained that we were going to put the idea of diversity to a debate. One group was tasked with defending diversity as a positive thing, and the other group had to argue that diversity was harmful in our society.

Groups were allowed to use their phones to help build their arguments. After ten minutes, each group had to designate a speaker, and this speaker was given a tight, three-minute window to make the group’s presentation. Following both presentations, a second five-minute period was given to each team to prepare rebuttals, at which point a second speaker from the group had two minutes to respond to the other side.

Several things facilitated this method working well:

  • One or two adult leaders helping keep each group on topic and engaged
  • A ‘scribe’ taking notes on each group’s presentations on a central whiteboard
  • Using ‘snap applause’ – an applause technique used often in poetry presentations where the audience is not allowed to applaud traditionally or shout support, but can snap their fingers in support of points made throughout the presentations. This allows an avenue for cheering, but denies the ability to vocalize opposition (booing, shouting alternate points, etc.)

WAS IT EFFECTIVE?

Absolutely – it remains one of our best nights of that semester. I can see five ways the debate method helped us communicate God’s truth about diversity more effectively:

  1. It wasn’t a lecture: Of course, I remain committed to the preaching of God’s word. This debate wasn’t all we did; it was followed by me unpacking Revelation 7 and then we engaged in a wonderful conversation. But often, between multiple services on Sundays, chapel messages and Bible clubs, not to mention school classes, I meet students all the time who are ‘lectured out.’ Breaking up the pattern of teaching makes content stick.
  2. It forced them to consider opposing viewpoints: By having to get inside the head of someone who would argue against something they themselves would naturally be for, our students had to consider how they would respond to those who disagree with them. Students noted how the exercise humanized people with differing viewpoints, building their compassion and empathy.
  3. It stimulated learning in a unique way: Many studies show the benefits of discovering information for oneself, rather than simply being a consumer of information. Having students build their arguments required them to consider what they actually believed, and then to back it up as more than just opinion. The debate format also ups the ante, charging a presentation of opinions in ways that sharpen thoughts and keep students invested.
  4. It utilized technology in a positive way: We are continuously pushing against a culture that idolizes technology, trying to help our students navigate through the landmines that continuous technological engagement threatens. Because of this, we can sometimes appear to simply be anti-technology altogether. Encouraging students to use their phones to remain actively engaged — rather than as an excuse to check out — showed them a positive use of technology, and broke down anti-technology stereotypes.
  5. It encouraged diverse gifts to shine: If an exercise designed to encourage teamwork only requires a limited number of gifts in order to accomplish, the exercise simply devolves into the most capable member(s) of the team doing the work, while others watch. Requiring teams to complete complex tasks, such as building an argument through research and having multiple presenters, helps students with many different skill sets to shine.

WHEN TO USE IT

Of course, I wouldn’t use a method like this often – its novelty is a key part of its effectiveness. Additionally, I would make sure not to use it when discussing topics where students could not remain differentiated enough to be discussing ideas, not attacking each other or taking rebuttals personally. But, when trying to get different opinions about something on the table in a unique way, or when trying to get students to consider why they believe something they take for granted, debate can be a helpful method in communicating God’s unchanging truth in an ever-changing world.

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