When I was in Japan about 10 years ago, I visited an English class where the students were learning English using debating. The teacher had broken up the students into small groups of seven, and everyone was talking at once. The teacher explained to me that the students were engaged in "tennis debates."
I've used this exercise on a number of occasions in middle school, high school, and college classes. It works well - the competition element creates interest for students, and you can even "seed" a bracket where students who win their table get to participate in another round against another team. Students that are eliminated from competition seem to really enjoy watching and refereeing subsequent games. I've uploaded an instruction sheet for students here. It is a guide for students participating in the debates, and includes the rules and instructions for referees.
Basically, the teacher uses tennis debates either:
- As a review and practice opportunity for work students have been doing already on a given topic, in which case topics are chosen from the students' previous and preparatory work and notes on the issue; or
- As an opportunity to practice impromptu argument, choosing easy and fun topics like "Sega is better than Shakespeare," or "Superman is better than Batman."
Students are sorted into teams (either assigned or chosen; whatever you prefer), and each team is given a number. Teams go to the table, already set up, where their number is. Here's a graphic showing the layout and starting procedure. As you can see, each team of three sits on one side of the table. A student designated as "referee" sits on the end of the table. Before the topic is announced, the referee flips a coin to decide which team will be pro and which will be con.
(ADVICE: Write simple topics for this, otherwise students will get too confused. That holds for all classroom debating exercises. To see more about how to write a topic, read this article on our website.)
When that's decided, announce the topic and write it on the board. Teams have 10 (or more, if you like) minutes to work together with their notes to come up with arguments for their side and answers to arguments the other side might make.
After the preparation period is over, the Pro side "serves" with an argument for their side. Con "returns" by refuting the argument. Pro "returns" by refuting that argument. And so on. Until someone drops the ball. (ADVICE: Often it helps to actually have a "ball" for each table so it's easier to keep track of who's talking)
A team is said to drop the ball when any of the following rules have been violated:
- Players must respond within 15 seconds.
- Players must not repeat a point that has already been made without adding anything new.
- Players must use A-R-E to construct their arguments.
- Players must use 4-Step Refutation when answering arguments from the other side.
More information on ARE and 4-Step Refutation is available here, here, and here (that last one refers to our Teacher's Guide, which is about 11 MB). You don't have to include these rules, but it helps to give everyone a way to practice making complete arguments and following refutation procedures.
Other rules include the following:
- A team can only score a point when they have “served” the ball and the other side drops the ball.
- If the team that serves drops the ball, the serve goes to the other side.
- The serve rotates between players. Once you’ve served, the next serve for your team goes to the player on your left.
It's a fun exercise. Students really like it, and it's a great way to do whole class debating without having to manage dozens of participants in a single debate.