Using Debate in Sunday School

Saturday 1st December, 2007

In one of the churches in which I served as Minister of Education, we had a men's class whose favorite class activity was debate. Now, it was not always the method the teacher chose for the day, but it was almost always the method chosen by the members. They thrived on it. Several in the class liked playing "devil's advocate" and arguing positions that they did not necessarily believe. Knowing this fact about the class, I sometimes warned guests about the class when guiding them to the room. And sometimes I even asked the class to be "nice"--code word for taming down their debate for the day.

Debate can be a great method when used well. Like any method, using debate every week can reduce its impact because of lack of variety. Kenneth Gangel has written a great article about using debate. It is entitled Debates Stimulate Interest. Check it out. In the article, Kenneth shares values of using debate, problems in the debate method, and principles for effective use of debates. Allow me to share some of the what Gangel shares and a few of my thoughts:

  • VALUES OF USING DEBATE. Participation is a definite value of debate. Learners get very involved as debaters, debate teams, juries (deciding who won), and even as listeners. Debates also lead learners to consider different points of view. I found it interesting that Gangel says, "Debate is also a time-saver. It might take twice the investment of time to air all of the issues which good dates will uncover..." Another value is the option to ask debaters/debate teams to prepare between classes. Debate creates great motivation to be well-prepared. Debate can also lead to thinking at a deeper level about issues. Gangel also points out that some will be gifted in debate that may not have found another place of service or interest.
  • PROBLEMS IN THE DEBATE METHOD. Time in Sunday Schoo is always at a premium. So if preparation in class must be made and time allowed then for presenting the debate and time taken to debrief, there may be little time to do anything else. Another challenge is clarifying the issues that will be debated. Gangel calls this a "resolved." He says, "The resolved should always be an affirmative statement presenting an issue which is clear not only to the debate participants, but also to the larger audience." Rabbit-chasing is always a temptation in debating--one that should be avoided. I agree with Gangel when he states, "Divisiveness is always a danger, especially if the participants genuinely believe their Positions and begin to attack each other." This is where the teacher must instruct debaters in advance to stick to the issues and not attack each other.
  • PRINCIPLES FOR EFFECTIVE USE OF DEBATE. Helping debaters/debate teams to secure needed resources in order to prepare well (in class or between classes) is essential. It is fine to help each side consider the issues thoroughly as long as "biasing the positions of the debaters" is avoided. The debate subject must be "controversial in nature" without being "too technical" or boring. Ideally, you will want to take time to debrief the experience, including voting about who won the debate. Also, ask each debater/debate team to comment on the other side in the time of debriefing.

How could you use debate in your class? Are there some who would have a more difficult time handling debate? How could you introduce debate in a shorter, less-intimidating way to your class? Get your class involved in the learning experience. Try debate. Be revolutionary!

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