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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

A New Take on Debate: A Five-Step Approach to Discussing Policy Debates

Michael Heinz has a decade of experience as a professor of rhetoric. He has published extensively on the subjects of bilingualism, language acquisition, and curriculum design. Similarly, he has delivered presentations on these topics at conferences all over the world.


After living and working in South Korea for more than a decade, he recently changed careers to combine his love of teaching with his love of yoga and martial arts and founded SBG Texas.

Debating policies and controversial topics is a very common practice in many language classrooms and it was something I was often asked to do over the years. However, after many years of doing this and examining it, I began to ask myself if debate if done to excess or with too much consideration for competition was really something students needed.

Please don’t get me wrong. Debate is great. I’m not knocking debate, and debating is very important, but is it an activity that makes the best use of precious class time? If it is a debate class or if the students are there to learn debate and plan on participating in debates, then of course it is essential to teach debate. But my experience taught me that many classes and teachers used debates as a way to improve critical thinking and speaking skills. After all, what do we hope students get out of debates?

After asking myself this, I concluded that most teachers and classes use debates in hopes of encouraging extemporaneous speaking, research and critical thinking, and improving persuasion and presentation skills. If these are the goals, is debate the best way to achieve these goals?

Again, debate is great, but I think there are some limitations to it, especially in regard to those goals in an ELT classroom setting. First, not all problem solving requires an adversarial perspective and students often take things too personally. Also, in a debate students sometimes lose sight of broader persuasive skills that are very important in today’s world. Another issue with debate is that many important current topics aren’t always best served by the traditional debate format. And lastly, and probably most importantly, is that teaching the format of debate and conducting traditional debates in class, limits most ELT classes to having only a few debates.

With these limitations in mind, I looked at the goals that I wanted to achieve through the filter of Bloom’s Taxonomy and came up with a five-step approach to discussing policy and issues that I felt better served students’ needs. The five-step approach I came up with looks like this:

  1. Mission: Introduce a goal and sell it
  2. Input: Provide knowledge/language structures/vocabulary through Lectures, Readings, Student Presentations, Quizzes
  3. Collaboration: Teams begin brainstorming/debating amongst themselves
  4. Exhibition: Students present their ideas
  5. Evaluation: Teacher/Student evaluations

I think this five-step approach makes it easier to achieve many of the goals that most ELT teachers hope that debate would provide. This approach gets students communicating in an authentic manner throughout the various steps and allows the teacher ample opportunities to give immediate feedback. Also, this approach allows the teacher to control the amount and quality of the input that students receive during step 2. The teacher can bring in many resources in class, yet it also gives students the opportunity to learn to research topics on their own as the class progresses. Also, unlike debate, this approach can be adjusted to student levels, so that no section is too overwhelming because of language ability.

This approach might be hard to visualize, so I would like to provide a very simple overview of one issue we did during a class:

  • Mission: How best to pursue Gender Equality assuming you were a government entity with reasonable funding
  • Input: Lecture on the history of gender equality and ask students to summarize information at various intervals. Students were then give a list of sites and articles to search outside of class.
  • Collaboration: Teams work together to establish policy based on the lecture, the information they found, and their opinions
  • Exhibition: Teams present their policy and the instructor challenges their ideas in an interruptive manner
  • Evaluation: Students vote to determine the best policy, no voting for themselves

Ths is one example, but this approach can be used to discuss a variety of issues, such as copyright issues, the criminal justice system, or just about any topical issue. The important thing is that this five-step approach provides a structure, yet allows for great flexibility for input and output.

Developing and using a method is great for a teacher, but the important thing is that it is well received and beneficial to students. After trying this method in class, and surveying the students, the feedback they provided was very positive. Many students found this method to be humbling yet empowering. They also believe that the input they received in step two was beneficial and helped them to do their own research on the subjects. They also stated that presenting their ideas to their peers inspired and challenged them.

In today’s modern world, debating the pros and cons of an issue is very important, but it is also important to go one step beyond this and begin to present solutions. The truth of observing hours and hours of debate is that winners may be selected to satisfy an artificial game structure but this almost never mirrors the process of persuasion that takes place in real world situations. I think this five-step approach is an effective approach, because it allows students to receive quality input and encourages them to think creatively to find solutions and responses to real life challenges and issues. Next time, you have a topic that you want students to engage, consider following this five-step approach to get more out of a policy debate.


Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the 21st Century Thinking Skills course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creative Ways to Get Students Speaking More course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Role-Playing: Game-based Learning
    Michael Armstrong, South Korea

  • English Language Acquisition of a 6th Grade Korean Student: A Case Study
    Stephanie Ptak, South Korea

  • A New Take on Debate: A Five-Step Approach to Discussing Policy Debates
    Michael Heinz, USA

  • Be a Coach, Not a Teacher
    Robert Sawlor, Canada/ South Korea