The Mathdebating Begins

The school year has started, and I’m already falling behind with this blog.  Eek!  Today I read (or maybe did some skimming of…) the 43 latest blog entries in my Google Reader (that I had also fallen behind on), and I finally fell inspired to get to work.

I’ve already started implementing various debate structures and activities in my classroom, and it’s already making a difference in the student discussion.  Here are some of the things that I started with:

1. Stand Up to Talk.  The first day, when I was going over the syllabus and having students introduce themselves, I talked about the upcoming year and how they would be debating in math.  Eyes started lighting up.  With this buy-in, I told the class that one important part of debate is standing to give your argument.  So as we went around the room, students quickly stood and briefly introduced themselves.  Easy structure, nothing new, but sticking to it comes in handy…

2. Argument Structure.  I am beginning both my PreCalc and Geometry classes with a brief unit on logic and proof, and debating is fitting in oh-so-nicely.  One of my first lessons was about arguments, which I blogged about in the last post.  Students quickly caught on (and got excited about) the “Argument = Claim + Warrant” structure.  I informed the class that whenever they were discussing their work/solution, they should format their discussion as “I claim…, and my warrant is…”  Again, nothing complicated, but it’s reinforcing the need to always have an explanation to follow any statement you make in class…

3. Soapbox Debates.   For our first debate activity, I used the Soapbox Debate format, where students take turns standing and voicing their arguments.  After a brief laugh with my class about the fact that I was the only person in the room who had ever heard the phrase “get off your soapbox…”, we proceed.  I started with the statement All students should wear uniforms, (we are a uniform public school) and eventually got to some stuff a little more “mathy” like Some functions must cross the x-axis or Between any two numbers there is always another number.  Though the latter two have more of a definite answer, this answer was not apparent to the kids, and led to a good, clarifying discussion. Also, the wording led to a great discussion of the importance of words like sometimes, always, must, etc.  (Thanks Bill for putting this in my mind with your last comment!)

4. One Mic.  The students and I discussed how we can only listen to one argument at a time and how important listening is in order to respond in cross-examination.  We also talked about how winning a debate is somewhat influenced by your appearance and behavior.  So, right away, students had a strong need to behave in my class and listen to each other.  When we started the soapbox debate, students were awesome about only talking one at a time and listening to each other.

5. Students take charge.  Because of the debate format (even the simplicity of soapbox), students become engaged and passionate about the discussion.  I started off the soapbox debate by cold calling on one or two people.  (I have a stack of index cards with student names that I use for cold calling.)  I told the students that I would pause after each person spoke.  This allowed a chance for a student to stand up and start talking (“I claim…) before I did another cold call.  It only took two cold calls before students took over the discussion for each of the statements I gave them.  Each statement had about 7 or 8 people standing up to say something about it, and most debating came to a natural end when there was a pause in the debating.

I was so excited at the success of this lesson!  It was totes in line with PCMI’s non-negotiables with classroom discussions and activating student ownership AND with the Danielson framework that my school is working in depth with this year.  It’s a win-win!

4 thoughts on “The Mathdebating Begins

  1. samjshah September 27, 2011 / 9:30 pm

    I think the “I claim…” and “warrent” is so powerful. Because it gives new words to explain what you want them to do. And because they’re new, they become a class schtick.

  2. pispeak October 10, 2011 / 9:47 pm

    It’s totally working. I never ask “why” or say “explain your answer” like every other teacher they have, but they are basically doing that. As we move into proofs in Geometry, having a warrant has become routine already and makes it standard for kids to add a reason to each step of their proof!

  3. Ben Blum-Smith June 23, 2012 / 6:32 pm

    Chris – this is beautiful. I would be really delighted if you would write a year-end retrospective on how the debate structures played out throughout the year.

    • pispeak July 10, 2012 / 7:05 am

      Ben- yes, but I only scratched the surface this year. I will write more as I dig deeper in the coming year.


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