Debate as pedagogy: Practices, tools, and examples from Harvard faculty

Why and when should debate be used as a teaching and learning tool? 

Professors Eric Beerbohm (government), Jill Lepore (history), and Charles Nesson (law) all use debate as pedagogical practice to inspire lively class discussion and enhance learning. They shared their experiences with different methods and supportive technology at the HILT Speaker Series events on Monday, April 24, 2017, where Errikos Pitsos also demonstrated the functionality of online debate tool Kialo. Key takeaways:

  • Managed properly, where emotional responses have minimal impact and reasoned discussion reigns supreme, debate leads to more active and deeper engagement in the classroom.
  • Anonymization can empower students by helping the “observers” participate and surfacing minority opinions without fear of being attacked. However, anonymity makes it difficult to build a constructive discussion between students and professor.
  • Technology can be used inside and outside of the classroom to structure debate, and different tools will meet different instructor objectives. 

See below for more detail and video: 

Professor Nesson, a “deep believer” in the Socratic method, has experimented with three tools to prevent law school students from defaulting to a “gunner”/argumentative or passive observer roles during discussion: 1) a live question tool that anonymizes student Twitter-length responses; 2) Threads, where students can articulate responses pseudonymously into a discussion; and 3) Kialo, a site where students can learn how to articulate their arguments and visually see “where the heat is” during a discussion.

Prior to class, Professor Beerbohm uses debate to help students grapple with abstract topics. He organizes debates around assigned text Perusall and moves the discussion to class with tools including Poll Everywhere (where students can also text their responses) and Kialo to give him “a sense of where the views lie” visually in order to help him facilitate discussion.

In contrast, Professor Lepore actually assigns positions to her students as specific historical figures with only primary sources to guide them. She finds that debate forces students to disagree with one another, relearn what is means to argue, and equalizes participation.

Errikos Pitsos wrapped up the session with an interactive demonstration of Kialo, where students make “claims” about a thesis, contributing to a visual debate tree that empowers reason rather than argumentative commenting. Currently in Beta, Kialo is a platform that will soon be available to anyone interested in reason-based discussion, debate, and decision-making.