I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: We don’t give kids enough credit.  They deserve to argue just as much, if not more, than we do.  In order for kids to become the responsible decision-makers and empathic beings that we so desire them to be, it is critical that they learn to communicate arguments and debate with each other from an early age.

However, this can’t be done without a great deal of planning, preparation, thought, and an environment that hosts these discussions is one that is safe and conducive to divergent thinking. But how does one achieve that with little ones?

photo 21. Talk About Vulnerability

Yes, it is a big word, but with just a few minutes of discussion, students will begin to understand what vulnerability truly means, and they will begin to employ it shortly thereafter.  Explicitly teaching vulnerability is essential to effective class discussions and debate, because it affirms their feelings and validates the fears many of them most likely have around sharing their opinion.  No one wants to feel stupid, and no one wants to put an idea out there and be judged for it.  However, by discussing the importance of vulnerability in discussion, you and your students will develop a common understanding and vision, which will segue way nicely into a discussion about building norms.

2. Create Norms for Discussion and Debate

Kids need structure.  In discussion and debate, building that structure is an extremely delicate process.  It is important to give them a solid foundation on which to host their discussions, but providing too much structure could hinder the natural flow of conversation.  For this reason, the norms must be flexible, applicable to many different contexts and topics, and most importantly, created by the students.  Of course, while the students are creating them, be sure you have a few of your own in mind.  After all, you are the expert, but you never know; they might come up with something you didn’t think of! In some cases, depending on the age group, it could be helpful to actually delineate what these behaviors “look” and “sound” like so that students may role play to show examples of strong and weak discussion and debate behavior.

photo 13. Create Assessment Criteria

In order for the norms to be effective, students need to be given criteria on which they can assess themselves throughout the process.  Not only do they need to be able to assess whether or not they’re performing to expectations, but they also need to assess the degree to which they are adhering to the discussion norms, which is why I suggest a proficiency scale.  A proficiency scale uses (3) as the expectation, (2) as the behavior that is approaching the expectation, and a (1) for needing significant teacher assistance.  The (0) signifies the inability to meet the expectations, which rarely, if ever, happens.  These assessment criteria allow students the chance to identify the behaviors they are and are not exhibiting so that they may self-correct and continue to monitor their own behavior throughout the process.

4. Teach Them to Paraphrase

In fact, this is probably something we should teach adults, too.  Too often, in the middle of intense debate, we are only focusing on our next rebuttal, making it next to impossible for us to truly listen and internalize what one of our debate partners is trying to communicate.  In order to assuage this, teaching children how to listen actively and paraphrase others’ thoughts not only provides them with an essential life skill, but it helps to validate other group members’ ideas and feelings, increasing the likelihood that students will vulnerable, present, and committed to class discussion.

5. Give Them Lots of Opportunities

These practices need not only be used during intense debate.  In fact, the act of paraphrasing and actively listening can permeate the school day, especially when it comes to making claims when reading a piece of literature, or helping students construct knowledge class-wide through facilitation inferring rather than providing direct instruction.  By giving them many opportunities through which to practice these critical skills, they will eventually become second nature and make your classroom discussions run much more smoothly.  This should come as no surprise, as anything that is repetitively learned will become a part of natural practice rather easily.

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