Debate Club, Elementary School style!

The kids at my daughter’s elementary school are keen on starting clubs. Handwritten notices show up all the time on the main bulletin board.

Last fall a Debate Club started in this way. A group of grade 4 and 5 girls began meeting in the library during lunchtime recess. They were inspired by the CBC Radio show “The Debaters”, in which comedians debate topics for laughs. Not all the girls had heard the show, but the few who had were in possession of the basic format: you have a topic, you are assigned a position ‘for’ or ‘against’, and you take turns stating your views. At the end the audience applauds and picks a winner.

Despite initial enthusiasm, the club quickly bogged down in – appropriately enough – arguments. Harsh words were exchanged, kids quit in a huff, rejoined and quit again… it was not going well and not much actual debating was going on. Still…

I dropped in to watch one afternoon in November, the afternoon of the U.S. election. The girls were debating Donald vs. Hillary, which I thought too good to miss. Despite the fact that they were all pretty pro-Hillary, three volunteered to argue the other side, and in a stunning upset they won the debate. Here’s how: the entire pro-Hillary argument rested on making fun of Donald (funny voices and insults), whereas the pro-Donald contingent presented views and arguments. The kids themselves agreed the pro-Donald group did a better job.

The towering irony of this situation I won’t even go into here…

After the evening and election had run its course, I lay in bed with the covers pulled over my head and thought about the state of the world. It’s not just a U.S. problem, we’ve all lost the basic ability to disagree with one another. Disagree in a helpful way, I mean. We can go on all we want about how kids today lack basic civility, but there are precious few adults in the public sphere modelling anything like respectful behaviour, and that is squarely our generation’s fault. I see it at a local level, for sure, and the vitriolic tone echoes all the way up the ladder.

We seem to be incapable of expressing our disagreement without insulting and demeaning our opponents.

Merely allowing the possibility that our adversary may be just as intelligent and well-meaning as we are is seen as political suicide. Ultra-partisanship is poisoning our discourse. Worse than that, as individuals we have become so entrenched in our views (on everything: politics, ethics, religion, history, health, food, environment, poverty, crime) that we approach every issue armed to the teeth and ready to attack.

Why can’t we view our opponents as human beings deserving of respect? How did we lose sight of the fundamental goodness within them? Why did we stop listening? And how do we turn this around?

In its own humble way, I think Debate Club can play a role in turning this trend around. If we set up a space where kids can practice disagreeing with each other, listening thoughtfully to all views, and remaining respectful to everyone, they may go on to lead and govern more wisely than we’ve been doing. Not just at the top levels of government, but also on every darn board and committee that gathers to drink bad coffee and plan every aspect of our community life.

This kind of thinking prodded me into offering my services to the feuding SSE Debate Club. And to be clear, I offered to help and they took me up on the offer. (I didn’t want to swoop in and take it over, I loved their initiative.) I’ve tried since then to provide structure and a format within which they can operate.

Personally I don’t have any experience with debate clubs per se – my school never had one – but I did attend enough youth parliaments and model U.N.s to know the basics (and be geeky enough to use terms like “per se”). After a little online research about Debate Clubs I came up with a simple, stripped-down procedure, and we steamed ahead.


Once a week our 45-minute session looks like this:

  1. Pick a topic. This is where I guide them a bit. Good topics are a bit elusive. Something that sounds fun may actually be a debating dead end. As much as possible find consensus.
  2. Pick the teams. Draw names from a hat for each side, ‘for’ and ‘against’. Sides are picked at random. This is VITAL. When the kids are forced to adopt stances they may not agree with, they distance themselves emotionally from the topic, and are better able to think logically and dispassionately. Plus it allows them to inhabit another point of view. And hones their acting chops as well. (Theatre kids are pretty awesome at debating, I’ve noticed.)
  3. Prepare the arguments. Each team goes off to confer. They have to think of points to support their argument, and also decide which member will present which point and in what order.
  4. Debate!
  5. Feedback (optional). If there’s time, have a quick discussion about how the debate went.

For the actual debate, the Moderator first restates the proposal in this style:

WHEREAS it’s really hard getting up in the morning, LET IT BE RESOLVED THAT Salt Spring Elementary School start its day at 9:30 instead of 8:20.”

Sounding a little official like that helps set the tone and get everyone settled and focussed.

Then, starting with the first ‘for’ speaker, we alternate back and forth until everyone has spoken. I use a timer and give each speaker about two minutes, mainly to ensure that everyone gets the same amount of time and they all get to speak before recess ends.


Minimal policing from the Moderator is required, to make sure they don’t interrupt each other too much and to keep it all friendly. In our club I also had to enforce a strict ban on skits, or the whole thing would have disintegrated into noisy anarchy.

Once the format and rules have become second nature to everyone, the kids should be able to run the show themselves. My only real fear would be that it might take them so long to all agree on a topic that recess might end before they even got started!

NB.  It was a group of girls who started the club and for the most part attendance has been all-girl, however it is open to anyone, and we have had boys drop in from time to time to check it out.

We’ve been meeting for a few months now, and debated school uniforms, cats vs. dogs, gun control, movie ratings, introducing bears to Salt Spring (!), outlawing the man-bun, and whether cannibalism is really all that terrible. Quite a bit of variety there. We try to alternate between fun and serious. For an elementary school group, I also look for topics they are interested in and that don’t require research, as we don’t have time to hit the books or internet.

Attendance has been up and down, and with the spring weather I’ll probably lose kids to the sunny playground, but even in this short time I’ve seen great improvement in their argument-building and public speaking skills. They are learning to think on their feet, responding promptly to points as they are raised. And the jokes are getting better too!

I’ve shied away from declaring winners because it felt too teachery, but they do like feedback. I try to squeeze in a little discussion afterward about which specific points were particularly effective, etc.

Debate Clubs typically appear in High Schools or Middle Schools, but I think it can be a rewarding experience for younger kids as well. I hope my thoughts here will inspire someone else to give it a try at their school.

I’ll write more posts about Debate Club if there’s interest. Topics, maybe… rules, tips for organizing? Would love to hear any of your thoughts/suggestions/questions!






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