"Should the government regulate the number of children that families are allowed to have?" This is the question that I've posed to every biology and environmental science class I've ever taught. I cannot count the number of conversations that have sprung from this simple prompt. We've talked about human rights, limits on government policy, resource depletion, population densities, and myriad environmental issues. This simple question is at the core of one of my favorite teaching strategies. Whenever possible, start an argument ... debate. Classroom debates are wonderful in that they force students to communicate with one another in a structured and controlled manner, think and process information in real-time, support their claims with evidence, and stand by a position. Not to mention the fact that they must actually think critically about a topic. All of these skills fall into the fuzzy realm of 21st century skills. Skills that we know students need in order to succeed, but are not necessarily a part of any curriculum. I've found that debate is the perfect vehicle for working the practice of these things into the curriculum without students being aware that they are engaged in the specific practice of any skill. Kind of like hiding zucchini in a delicious muffin. You may be aware that it is good for you, but you don't care because it is tasty.
I'm sure that there are some teachers out there reading this while thinking, "That sounds very nice, but my classroom would immediately meltdown into chaos." If I may, a couple of strategies that could be helpful. First, assign sides. Students who are assigned an opinion are less likely to fight to the death for that opinion. Second, force students to back claims with evidence. It is very difficult to fly off on a diatribe if you have to think about how you are supporting the words that are coming out of your mouth. Third, provide space upfront for teams to gather, talk, strategize, and collect evidence. Finally, structure the argument. Usually I give each side 1, uninterrupted minute to make a statement. Next the sides may engage in open debate. During the first open debates students must wait to be called upon before they speak. To conclude, give teams a couple of minutes to regroup and compose a final, closing statement. I'm not saying that this structure fixes all problems associated with debate, but I've found it very helpful. In the end, even if a debate gets a little out of control, I will take passionately arguing students over disengaged, texting students any day.
Following with this idea of debate, Ana Gomez recounts an AP Bio debate from last week:
On Wednesday April the 10th, our class prepared to debate about something that concerns many people; China's One Child Law. In China, the population has surpassed the one billion mark. To make matters worse, most of the population lives in the big city and the population density of these areas are huge. Because of this, China has passed a law in which the families in China are only allowed to have one child. There are a couple of exceptions to these laws but the goal is to decrease or keep the population stable. Our class had to choose a side. They could either be for the law or against it. The side of the class that argued that the law was not good had many good reasons to support their claim. They said that because this law is enacted, the rate of abortion shot through the roof. Also that the law denies the people their right, as humans, to reproduce. On the opposite side, they supported their claim by stating that poverty will shoot upward if the law were not enacted. They also stated that eventually the resources will deplete. It was really interesting hearing all the arguments and evidence.