Debate is an effective pedagogical tool for engaging students in the classroom and guiding them through the pros and cons of complex issues. In my music classes, I tend to initiate two types of debates, planned and surprise. Both require active participation of all students, but exercise different skill sets.
Planned debates require students to conduct independent research and develop cogent talking points with teamwork and careful preparation. I announce a topic from one of the main themes in the textbook in advance and assign oppositional sides and supporters. Each student is given a worksheet to complete as a prerequisite for the debate. Students work together with colleagues through Moodle discussion forums and chats split into oppositional sides outside of class and a debate moderator I assign ensures that each student participates. While the actual debate itself can be lively and enriching, the gem of the activity lies in what students accomplish prior to the debate. Planned debates demonstrate student success in speaking, research, collaboration, and argument; however, the skills underutilized include listening, quick-thinking, and adaptation, all targeted by the surprise debate.
Surprise Debates are as spontaneous for the professor as they are for students. Whereas planned debates benefit from predetermined reference to specific topics from the textbook, surprise debates are effective in intervening when the primary course objectives are under scrutiny. I have initiated surprise debates when discussions are lackluster or when students are resistant to learning. When needed, I ask students to stand and without hesitation move to oppositional sides at the edges of the classroom. An object representing a speaker’s staff is passed among students who are immediately responsible for addressing the primary issue; students can change sides at any time. I observe silently and tap students who’ve just made profound statements to join me in the middle of the room so that all students are eventually pressed to speak. While much of the learning in planned debates is front loaded, the most beneficial aspect of surprise debates is the follow up discussion. Although I have not tried it, Twitter feeds and periodic clicker polls projected on the screen could assist students in monitoring changes in opinion and the direction of the discussion; both will be helpful in the period of reflection.
To maximize the potential gain of debates in music courses, it is important to consider targeted learning outcomes. Often music courses for undergraduates have specific content and perhaps one or more general education (liberal arts) objectives. While these should be at the forefront when engaging and assessing both planned and surprise debates, one should not forget the broader goals of higher education and the variety of transferable skill sets that debates require: critical thinking, adaptability, research, and public speaking, to name a few. As Snider and Schnurer have effectively presented, exercising these skills through debate across the Freshmen and Sophomore curricula will help prepare students for upper-level courses, graduate school, and future careers.