Jami McLing, BHP Teacher
Idaho, USA

Instinctively, teenagers can be argumentative. They think they’re always right and most don’t shy away from a verbal fight. However, their argument often lacks “bite” and consists of opinions fueled by emotion. The debate activity Has the Scientific Revolution Ended? from Lesson 8.3 provides a terrific opportunity for students to learn how to argue with purpose.

Photo courtesy of Jami McLing

Our students love the activity because it’s an excuse for them to practice their argumentation skills, and in the context of a juicy question. They’re challenged to think critically about questions that have seemingly obvious answers (like, “what counts as science?”) and consider their role in historical narratives.

This is the first time many of our students have debated so we are careful about how we set it up:

  1. Ask Questions: After introducing the debate question, groups answer a set of questions.
    a. How do you define a scientific revolution?
    b. What counts as science?
    c. What is a revolution?
    d. How do we know if we are in the midst of a revolution?
    e. How do we know when something in history began and ended?
  2. Research: Students spend a day gathering evidence to support their position using BHP’s claim testers—authority, evidence, logic, and intuition. We check in with each group frequently to remind and encourage them to support their claims with concrete evidence from the Big History site or by using credible outside sources. This is always a fun step because preconceived notions about a position can be changed, much to a student’s surprise.
  3. Debate: Each group gets 5 minutes to present their opening statement, rebuttal, and closing statement. Because this is the first time most of our students have been exposed to debating, we modify the debate format presented in Unit 8. Instead of giving 5-15 minutes for rebuttals, we give 20-25 minutes.
  4. Reflection: After the debate, students vote on which side made the best argument and write up a short reflection on why that side “won” and how they could’ve made their argument even stronger.

Not only does this activity help develop a student’s argumentative, research, and presentation skills, but it also provides an exciting opportunity for them to go head-to-head with their peers and battle it out. After all, who doesn’t love a good dose of healthy competition.

About the author: Jami McLing has been teaching history at her middle school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, since 2007. She has been teaching Big History since 2013. She teaches the year-long BHP course to eighth graders in two 50-minute classes per day.

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