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Tip of the Week: Consensus Debate

“What thoughtful, intelligent people do with their brains is to mull over inconsistency. When two ideas are in conflict and you have to struggle to make sense of that conflict, that is when thinking starts.”

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the many topics that a group of teachers and I messed with earlier this week was the idea of using debates in class. How can we set up activities during which kids support specific positions using evidence – which is good – without having the debate disintegrate into emotional arguing – which is bad?

Civil discourse. Evidence-based discussion. Consensus building. Solving problems together.


Yelling. Emotion-based arguments. Talk show pundits acting like children. Winners and losers. No solutions.


And you gotta know . . . as a former coach, much of my earlier life revolved around the concept of winners and losers. Of creating an environment that encouraged and supported winning.

But sports is not the same as historical thinking or working together to solve problems. The win at all cost attitude that exists is competitive sports is not the attitude that makes for successful compromise in a democracy – no matter what we witness in Congress or on cable talk shows.

The current Kansas social studies standards spell this out:

America’s greatness is reflected in its ability to innovate, analyze complex problems, ask cogent questions, assemble and evaluate critical data, and seek creative solutions, going beyond the recall of factual information. These are the skills of a democratic citizen, and failure to teach them threatens the future of the United States.

To be an American citizen requires developing a democratic mind – the intellectual ability to entertain contradictory or opposing ideas, hold tentative judgments, and make decisions based on facts supported by evidence. This critical thinking is essential to the study of many subjects, but is particularly important when studying history, civics, geography, and economics. None of us are born with this capability. Author Sam Wineburg describes this sort of critical thinking as an “un-natural act.” So it must be taught. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1824, “The qualifications for self- government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

So we spent some time talking about and experiencing a variety of tools that support this idea of entertaining contradictory or opposing ideas, holding tentative judgments, and making decisions based on facts supported by evidence. 

One of the things we discussed is called a Structured Academic Conversation. It’s been around a while but I first learned about it on the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a History site. Several years ago, I shared a few thoughts on the strategy and I still like it as a tool to help kids learn to argue with evidence and to build consensus.

But I think that one of the teachers in group has come up with another strategy that looks pretty good too. Jon Bauer from the St. John metro area developed something that he calls a

Consensus Debate.

Jon’s reasons for developing the activity are similar to what teachers talked about earlier this week:

debate vs consensus

And I love that he pulled Malcolm Gladwell into the discussion.

When two ideas are in conflict and you have to struggle to make sense of that conflict, that is when thinking starts.

Consensus Debate is similar to a Structured Academic Conversation but the last step is a little different.  Jon creates three rounds. During the first round students have an assigned role. During the second, they get to choose a side and then during the third round the entire class has to create a consensus statement.

Jon suggests a few things for Consensus Debate to be successful:

  • Start with a great question or statement
  • Provide good evidence
  • Don’t try to evaluate and grade the debate but instead become an active participant

I really like his suggestions for helping students ask better questions during the activity:

  • Students Are Unclear:
    • “Let me clarify what you said . . . “
    • “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you said that . . .”
  • Students Fail to Use Sources:
    • “Can you back up that point with material from the sources?”
  • Students Are Missing an Important Point:
    • “Has anyone thought about . . .”
    • “Have you considered that . . .”

The example Jon shared is on fracking. But he also talked about using the idea with 8th graders using the topic of Indian removal during the early 1800s. His question?

Did Jackson’s removal policies benefit Native Americans?

So like the Structured Academic Conversation, Jon’s Consensus Debate can focus on a wide variety of topics in all of the different content areas.

  • The Electoral College should be eliminated.
  • African Americans were not free after the Civil War.
  • The minimum wage is too low.
  • The Germany First policy during World War Two ensured massive casualties in the Pacific Theater that could have been prevented.
  • The Renaissance could not have happened without the Reformation.

I’ve generated statements. But I think questions would work just as well.

  • Should the Electoral College be eliminated?
  • Were African Americans really free after the Civil War?
  • Is the minimum wage too low?
  • Could massive casualties in the Pacific Theater been prevented if the Allies had truly fought a two ocean war during World War Two?
  • Would the Renaissance have happened without the Reformation?

Curious? Download Jon’s instructions and example. Remember that these are rough drafts as he continues to experiment with the idea. I’m sure he’d love to hear from others about what you like, questions you have, and suggestions for improvement. Be kind as you post those below in the comments.

Have fun!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa Breese #

    I love all of your posts. I teach 8th grade Am history and use debates three times a year. The key to civility is structure. The students must present similar to formal debates. There are time limits, pacing, cross examination and closing statements. I usually team my students so there is also collaboration based on evidence they have access. Next week the students will investigate the question “Was Andrew Jackson a great president?” The teams will need to prepare for both positions and then flip a coin to choose positive or negative viewpoints. Students always comment how much they love this activity. I love it too because of several reasons, but my favorite is seeing a quiet shy student bloom in this opportunity to show what they know.

    February 20, 2015
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comments! I really like your last sentence – whenever we can find activities that involve all of our students, it’s a good day. Thanks for sharing.


      February 21, 2015
  2. I especially liked the suggestions for improving debate by clarifying one’s own position, citing sources, and considering points that may have been missed (but that often appear obvious from opponents’ POV). But I’ve gotta say I cringed at the use of the term Consensus because as a historian I associate it with a school of interpretation that supported the status quo by racing to the center and silencing criticism from the margins. So I’d be extra careful, in orchestrating discussion, that civility doesn’t lead to that type of consensus.

    February 22, 2015
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the comment! I agree. Divergent voices are important – it’s just when you work with middle school kids, “consensus” can often simply mean nit yelling at each other and throwing stuff. Simply agreeing to disagree is often a great end to a discussion.

      But your point is very valid – different interpretations are important and should be encouraged.


      February 24, 2015

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