Host a Sustainability Debate with Students

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Challenging students to formulate their own opinions and arguments in support of sustainability issues will give them to opportunity to build on what they’ve learned in class.

This “speed dating” debate activity is interactive and energetic. The structure is flexible. You may choose to give a lecture at the start of the class before providing the related debate topic, or have students read a short news article and instruct them to take a position on either side of the issue. You could also invite a guest speaker to give a short presentation and set the debate topic for students based on their talk.

The learning goal for this activity is to encourage students to deepen their understanding of a sustainability issue, and to consider the diversity and merits of the arguments that exist in the broader discourse for or against the particular issue.

Measure your impact

Assess learning through student work (for example, the number of supporting points they were able to generate during the activity) or a pre/post surveys on the student’s opinion before and after the debate.

Get started

  • The prompt you provide can vary depending on the class. If there is a sustainability issue that directly pertains to the school building—perhaps the district is considering installing solar panels, or having difficulty with the recycling program—you may consider using that as the debate topic. Civic classes may want to focus on the role of a particular branch of government in protecting the environment (the merits of national parks, how states comply with the Clean Air Act). Economics classes may want to discuss the best approach for reducing greenhouse gases (carbon tax versus cap-and-trade).
  • Introduce the topic and set the scene for students as appropriate for your chosen topic. This could be a brief lecture, reading an article, watching a video clip, or hearing from a guest speaker.
  • Split the students up into two groups and assign each group to the affirmative (proposition) and negative (opposition) sides of the issue.
  • Allow students time to prepare and formulate their arguments. You can have them collaborate on this in small groups, or have them brainstorm independently.
  • Have the two groups of students stand in two circles facing one another. Let them know they will rotate to debate a new student every few minutes.
  • Leave some time at the end for discussion and reflection as a group. What was the best opposing argument students heard? Did anyone feel compelled to switch sides?
  • Connect student learning with sustainability action. Learning Lab offers high-quality classroom content — over 450 lessons — for teachers from kindergarten to high school. In the “Fueling Our Future” lessons, students explore energy use, impacts, and then propose sustainable solutions to the world’s energy use. You can find more modules to educate students about protecting air quality by searching Learning Lab's catalog by theme, primary subject, grade or keyword.
  • Educate school staff on what what supports or impedes healthy, resource-efficient and environmentally sustainable learning spaces. The Green Classroom Professional Course breaks down the different aspects of building sustainability, such as waste and water, and identifies the effects they have on school occupants and the environment.

Additional resources

  • The National Speech & Debate Association has many free resources available, including a Teacher in a Box resource for more in-depth debate guidelines.