Host a Sustainability Debate with Students

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

The learning goal of hosting a sustainability date 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. 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.

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  • Depending on the class, your prompt will vary:
    • If a sustainability issue 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 one group to the affirmative (proposition) and the other to the negative (opposition) side 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?
  • 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 opinions before and after the debate.

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