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Critical Thinking Debate Questions For Kids

Debate lessons improve critical thinking skills

© 2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Kids benefit when we teach them critical thinking skills.

What’s the best way to do it?

Studies suggest that explicit lessons in logic and reasoning are effective, so much so that they may actually improve a child’s IQ.

But few kids encounter such lessons, even in high school.

Yes, students might pick up logical principles as they study mathematics or science. They are frequently asked to present arguments in the form of written essays. And, yes, these experiences can be helpful.

Experiments suggest that students are more likely to master a topic when they are forced to explain it to another person. And most of us have noticed that the act of writing can clarify our thoughts.

Writing can make us aware of gaps in our understanding. It can force is to notice gaps in our explanations. Missing information. Logical flaws. In principle, writing may encourage students to construct better arguments.

But it’s not clear how many kids improve their critical thinking skills through writing. Based on the studies I've seen, I don't think writing alone is very effective. 

Maybe that's because students lack the perspective to critique their own work.

Ask students to argue a case, and they might be pretty good at naming a few reasons in support of their argument. But they rarely consider counterarguments, disconfirming evidence, or the merits of the opposing view.

These are the points raised by researchers Deanna Khun and Amanda Powell. They think students need someone to argue against. They need an intelligent critic. A person to play Devil’s advocate.

And that’s where debate comes into it. Not the silly, sloppy, emotional exchanges that pass for debate on TV and the internet. But the real thing: Disciplined, logical, responsive, evidence-based argumentation with another person.

Should we be training kids in the art of debate? As Kuhn and Powell note, debate forces kids to consider two perspectives, not just their own. It encourages kids to anticipate objections to their arguments. To answer counterarguments. To weigh the evidence on both sides.

So the researchers designed and tested a 3-year debate curriculum on a group of lower income, American, middle school students.

Here's how.

The kids started the program when they were in the 6th grade. Forty-eight kids were assigned to a philosophy class that emphasized debate. A control group of 28 kids were assigned to attend a similar course that featured teacher-led discussion and essay writing, but lacked any training or practice in debate.

At the beginning of the study, kids were tested on their ability to reason about a controversial issue. Then the coursework begin: Two fifty-minute lessons each week.

What kids did in class

For kids in the debate-based course, lessons were organized around four controversial topics. Each topic took about 13 weeks to complete.

Teachers would begin each 13-week term by presenting a controversy—like euthanasia—and asking kids to take sides. Then the teams worked in groups to prepare for a debate.

Team members would spend several sessions building a case in support of their position. They’d think of reasons and evaluate them. They’d try to anticipate what the opposition would argue, and prepare counterarguments and rebuttals. Then they’d rehearse—pairing off with other members of their team holding mock debates on the computer, via software for instant messaging.

Why the computer? The researchers knew that adolescents were well-acquainted with instant messaging, and the typed dialogs gave researchers a written record of the students’ reasoning. Kuhn and Powell also thought that a written dialog would encourage kids to reflect.

Each term culminated in a showdown between teams. The debate was led by two spokespeople—one elected from each team—who could confer with their teammates for help. Like the practice runs, the real debate took place on the computer.

What kids learned

At the end of each school year, kids were tested on their reasoning abilities. Their scores were compared with the scores of the control group---kids who has spent the year discussing and writing about similar controversial issues, but without any practice in debate.

How did things turn out?

When asked to write essays about a new controversy, the kids with the debating experience showed more sophistication.

Debate-trained students submitted more dual-perspective arguments--i.e., arguments that mentioned the claims of opposing points of view.

At the end of the third year, students in the debate group went even further: They submitted essays that discussed the costs and benefits of each position.

Kuhn and Powell call this an integrative perspective, and it was significantly less common among kids in the control group.

The debate kids also distinguished themselves in another way. They seemed better at figuring out what new data would help resolve the controversy.

Researchers asked kids to consider their need for evidence:

"Are there any questions you would want to have answers to that would help you make your argument?"

The debate-trained kids came up with more such questions. In addition, their questions were more pertinent to forming a general judgment about the issue.

No quick fix

The debate program developed by Kuhn and Powell seems successful. But it’s no quick fix. And doing it right means getting the details right. For instance:

1. Kids didn’t begin the program with an appreciation for evidence. They had to be taught.

At the end of Year One, teachers started presenting students with questions that were pertinent to the debate. Questions like “How humanely are animals treated in laboratories?" or “Has animal research led to any cures?" In subsequent years, students were encouraged to generate and research their own questions. Gradually, kids began to see how important it was to answer these questions. But it took time and practice.

2. Kids were given explicit teacher feedback about the strength and weaknesses of their arguments.

For the final session of each term, teachers debriefed students, going over transcripts of the debate and creating a diagram that summarized what was effective or ineffective about each team’s presentation. Teams were rewarded points for good moves and demerits for bad moves—like unwarranted assumptions and unconnected responses. The points were tallied and the winning team was declared.

An investment worth making?

Did Kuhn and Powell create the optimal program? Perhaps not. This is only the first study of its kind to get published. More research should help us tease apart which aspects of the program were the most effective. But Kuhn and Powell have taken an important first step.

Meanwhile, they make a persuasive case for teaching debate.

Informal classroom discussion doesn't seem to be an especially effective way to foster critical thinking skills. And I suspect that debate lessons might help shrink the achievement gap between students of lower and higher socioeconomic status.

In many middle class families, parents attempt to mold behavior by reasoning with their kids. They encourage give and take. They explain the reasons for rules and invite kids to negotiate—as long as they can make persuasive, well-reasoned arguments. I remember one anthropologist’s quip that the American intelligentsia train their children to talk like lawyers.

Presumably, children of professional thinkers would profit from lessons in debate. But kids from backgrounds of lower socioeconomic status—where negotiation and debate are often discouraged—might profit even more.

So I’m inclined to think that adding debate to the curriculum is a good investment for society as a whole. We might be laying the foundation for a more enlightened culture, with better-informed voters, more rational jurors, and citizens more appreciative of science.

References: Debate improves critical thinking skills

Kuhn D and Powell A. 2011. Dialogic Argumentation as a Vehicle for Developing Young Adolescents’ Thinking. Psychological Science. March 21 [Epub ahead of print]

For references regarding the common practices of middle class parents, see my article about authoritative parenting.

A word cloud created from all the questions compiled below.

Updated, June 20, 2017 | Looking for more lists of student questions? Try these:

We’ve posted a fresh Student Opinion question nearly every weekday for almost three years now. Here are the 163 we asked during the 2011-12 school year.

Each question is based on content from that week’s New York Times, and all of them are still open to comment by anyone from ages 13-25.

Teachers tell us they use our questions to help students practice writing persuasively, as inspiration for lessons, as jumping-off points for class discussions and debates — or just to encourage engagement with current events and with students from classrooms around the world.

Given the emphasis in the Common Core Standards on both reading informational texts and writing arguments, having your students answer our question daily can help address several literacy goals at once. And since we don’t allow last names, and we read every comment before we post it to make sure it conforms to our standards, The Learning Network is also a secure place for students to post.

And, because this blog and all the Times articles we link to on it are accessible without a digital subscription, each linked article is free to read.

Below, 163 recent questions, with bonus links at the end to nearly 250 more. How will you use them?

  1. Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
  2. Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
  3. Should Schools Offer Cash Bonuses for Good Test Scores?
  4. Would You Like to Take a Class Online?
  5. Are Children of Illegal Immigrants Entitled to a Public Education?
  6. What Is Your Personal Credo?
  7. How Do You Personalize the Things You’re Required to Have at School?
  8. Should Students Be Required to Take Drug Tests?
  9. Do You Participate in Class?
  10. Do Attractive People Have Advantages Others Don’t?
  11. What Motivates You?
  12. Do You Support Affirmative Action?
  13. What Role Does Television Play in Your Life and the Life of Your Family?
  14. Why Do You Write?
  15. How Do You Use Facebook?
  16. What Journey Do You Most Want to Make?
  17. What Are You Afraid Of?
  18. What Have You Made Yourself?
  19. Do You Trust Your Government?
  20. What Are Your Favorite Cartoons?
  21. Who Is Your Role Model?
  22. Does Pop Culture Deserve Serious Study?
  23. Do You Have Good Manners?
  24. What Causes Should Philanthropic Groups Finance?
  25. Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Legal Personhood?
  26. What Challenges Have You Set for Yourself?
  27. Have You Experienced Sexual Harassment?
  28. Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?
  29. Would You Want to Be Home-Schooled?
  30. Do Presidential Candidates Need to Be Good Debaters?
  31. Do You Shop at Locally Owned Businesses?
  32. Are You a Brand?
  33. Do You Sympathize With the Occupy Wall Street Movement?
  34. What Do You Read, and How Do You Read It?
  35. Should People Be Allowed to Obscure Their Identities Online?
  36. Which Is More Important: Talent or Hard Work?
  37. Do Your Parents Support Your Learning?
  38. What Are You Grateful For?
  39. What Time Should Black Friday Sales Start?
  40. What Are You Good At?
  41. Do Photoshopped Images Make You Feel Bad About Your Own Looks?
  42. When in Your Life Have You Been a Leader?
  43. What Would You Put in Your Emergency ‘Go-Bag’?
  44. What Artists or Bands of Today Are Destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
  45. Which Republican Candidate Will Win the Presidential Nomination?
  46. What’s Next for Computing?
  47. What New Emoticons Does the World Need?
  48. Should the Morning-After Pill Be Sold Over the Counter to People Under 17?
  49. Are We Losing the Art of Listening?
  50. Do You Discuss Religion With Friends?
  51. What Places in Your Past Do You Appreciate More Now, From a Distance?
  52. Would You Consider Deleting Your Facebook Account?
  53. Is It Wrong to Sell Store-Bought Pastries at a Bake Sale?
  54. What Will You Remember Most From 2011?
  55. Have You Ever Interacted With the Police?
  56. Can You Be Good Without God?
  57. What’s Your Favorite Holiday Food Memory?
  58. How Are You Spending the Holiday Break?
  59. Do You Make New Year’s Resolutions?
  60. Do You Have a Signature Clothing Item?
  61. Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
  62. What Would Your Personal Mascot Be?
  63. What Is Your Favorite Place?
  64. What if Your Parent Ran for President?
  65. What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
  66. What’s Your Favorite (Printable) Slang Term?
  67. Should Charities Focus More on America?
  68. What Is the Right Amount of Group Work in School?
  69. Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?
  70. Who Would You Share Your Passwords With?
  71. Do You Think You’re Brave?
  72. What Is Your Most Memorable Writing Assignment?
  73. What Would You Like to Learn on Your Own?
  74. What’s Your Response to Obama’s Third State of the Union Address?
  75. What Are the Best Movies You Saw in 2011?
  76. Should the Dropout Age Be Raised?
  77. How Should You Handle the End of a Friendship?
  78. Do You Have a Blog?
  79. Do You Watch the Super Bowl?
  80. Do You Cook?
  81. Do College Rankings Matter?
  82. Do You Like Being Alone?
  83. What Story Does Your Personal Data Tell?
  84. How Would You Make Over Your Mall?
  85. How Do Male and Female Roles Differ in Your Family?
  86. Should Home-Schoolers Be Allowed to Play Public School Sports?
  87. Do You Eat Too Quickly?
  88. Who Inspires You?
  89. Are You a Novelty-Seeker?
  90. Would You Rather Attend a Public or a Private High School?
  91. How Much Information Is ‘Too Much Information’?
  92. Should Companies Collect Information About You?
  93. What Do You Eat During the School Day?
  94. What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels?
  95. What Kind of Feedback Helps You Improve?
  96. What Are Your Family Stories of Sacrifice?
  97. What’s the Racial Makeup of Your School?
  98. Fluent in Vocal Fry, Creaky Voice or Uptalk?
  99. What Would You Name Your Neighborhood?
  100. Can Kindness Become Cool?
  101. What Is Your Reaction to the Rush Limbaugh Controversy?
  102. What Have You Done to Earn Money?
  103. What Questions Do You Have About How the World Works?
  104. What Are Your Favorite Junk Foods?
  105. How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
  106. How Important Is It to Have a Driver’s License?
  107. Do Social Media Campaigns Like Kony 2012 Stunt or Stimulate Real Change?
  108. How Do You Feel About Zoos?
  109. Would You Quit if Your Values Did Not Match Your Employers?
  110. Should the R Rating for ‘Bully’ Be Changed?
  111. Are Antismoking Ads Effective?
  112. Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction?
  113. How Productive and Organized Are You?
  114. What’s the Coolest Thing You’ve Ever Seen in a Museum?
  115. What Is Your Reaction to the Trayvon Martin Case?
  116. What Can Other Schools Learn — and Copy — From Your School?
  117. What Do You Hope to Be Doing the Year After You Graduate From College?
  118. What Small Things Have You Seen and Taken Note of Today?
  119. Do You Know How to Code?
  120. What Movies, Shows or Books Do You Wish Had Sequels, Spinoffs or New Episodes?
  121. What Would You Do If You Won the Lottery?
  122. Do You Want to Write a Book?
  123. How Do You Celebrate Spring?
  124. Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smart Phones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
  125. How Do You Archive Your Life?
  126. Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage?
  127. What Is Your Fantasy Vacation?
  128. Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
  129. What Things Did You Create When You Were a Child?
  130. When Did You Last Have a Great Conversation?
  131. Why Do You Share Photos?
  132. What Leader Would You Invite to Speak at Your School?
  133. What Have You And Your Family Accomplished Together?
  134. Is TV Too White?
  135. How Necessary Is a College Education?
  136. How Much Does Your Life in School Intersect With Your Life Outside School?
  137. How Important Is Keeping Your Cool?
  138. Do You Prefer Your Tacos ‘Authentic’ or ‘Appropriated’?
  139. What’s Cluttering Up Your Life?
  140. When Have You Ever Failed at Something? What Happened as a Result?
  141. What Teacher Do You Appreciate?
  142. Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
  143. When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
  144. How Should Parents Address Internet Pornography?
  145. Does Mitt Romney’s High School Bullying Matter?
  146. Is TV Stronger Than Ever, or Becoming Obsolete?
  147. When Is It O.K. to Replace Human Limbs With Technology?
  148. How Far Would You Go for Fashion?
  149. How Often Do You Interact With People of Another Race or Ethnicity?
  150. What Would Your Fantasy Road Trip Be Like?
  151. Would You Consider a Nontraditional Occupation?
  152. How Full Is Your Glass?
  153. What’s On Your Summer Reading List?
  154. What’s Your Comfort Food?
  155. What Cuts Should Cash-Strapped Schools Make?
  156. When Do You Become an Adult?
  157. Who Would Be the Ideal Celebrity Neighbor?
  158. How Close Are You to Your Parents?
  159. How Do You Keep Up With the News?
  160. What Advice Would You Give to Somebody Who Just Started Dating?
  161. What Is Your Opinion About the Morning-After Pill?
  162. Do You Have a Job?
  163. When Should Juvenile Offenders Receive Life Sentences?

Not Enough? Here are 150 Student Opinion questions from 2011, as well as 55 and another 40 from 2010.

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