The Silent Debate: getting quiet as a strategy for speaking up

Sep 10, 2019

Teaching argument in the high school classroom is pretty much a ‘must,’ right?  

Somewhere between core learning standards in academics and an increasing need for critical thinking and problem-solving in the real world, the-art-of-argumentation-as-unit continues to gain its momentum (and rightfully so!)

In my own classroom, just before my students launch into arguments of their own, I take the opportunity to first explore some of the greatest debates of all time.

We peer into those monumental court cases, from Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to Texas v. Johnson (1989), but we also highlight those issues so near and dear to students’ interests, such as New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) and Board of Education v. Earls (2002).

If there’s a Constitutional right my students most fervently have something to speak up about,’s Amendment 1 (see how I did that?!).

Cases like Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), Riley v. California (2014), and Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011) never disappoint in sparking a lively debate about teens’ ability to express themselves while on school grounds or otherwise.  

Yet beyond the backdrop of the Supreme Court, amidst the content learned through the study of each case, and just past the argumentative and critical thinking skills gained along the way, two, additional *life* lessons emerge as well.

According to Robert Sharpe, of the worldwide writers’ association, English PEN (part of PEN International):

‘Free speech means no one gets the last word.’

Robert Sharpe, English PEN

Amendment 1 reminds us that we have the right to speak, but in doing so, we also give consent to be spoken to.  

Our perspective, no matter how clever, isn’t the *only* one, and it’s certainly not the final answer. 

(Not even in the Supremest of courts!).  

So first of all: as society’s needs grow and evolve, we undoubtedly adjust--dare I say, change--our minds right?

Well, the First Amendment is our reminder that it’s ok to question what we know, once it begins to feel off-kilter, unpleasant, or downright wrong.

And the other lesson flanking the hip of the First Amendment is that we can have the right to free speech all day, but in order for our voice + our arguments to be properly heard, we have to first accept that all beings have this same right: 

to speak up and be heard.  

Said another way, if we’re going to speak, we need to do so in a way that others can somehow accept (*even if* they disagree!).

So these are things I want my students to understand before wading into the waters of open argument.  

No matter what perspective they begin with, I want them to recognize that in the real world, a little listening might yield different results in their viewpoint in the end. 

I want them to recognize that it’s OK to change your mind when the logic and evidence warrant it!  

Specifically, for our students, the debate shouldn’t just be about challenging others, it’s about challenging themselves, and questioning their own perspective as they hold it up against alternative, opposing, and nuanced views.

Now...let a Higher power take the wheel here, because all of the above involves their willingness to be vulnerable while also accepting that they are not ‘always right’...

(Try that combo with teenagers, right?!  Kidding. Sort of. Not really...)

But in building this kind of classroom culture for my students, it’s my hope that they’ll enter any debate (in my classroom or otherwise!) with the greater goal of understanding as opposed to just winning.  

So then it’s into Debate we go!

But here’s the 21st-century catch…

If we think for a moment about how our Debate units translate into real-world application, we’ll find a bend (or a hairpin curve!) in the road.  

Long gone are the days of Cicero, where the audience was in earshot and there was a max capacity for how far the voice could carry.

Today, the friendly fire we exchange takes place online--in forums, inside comment threads, and on social media.  And the audience to hear it is infinitely-reaching.

And because we exist as a digital username + profile pic online, it’s much easier to skirt away from responsibility in how we treat others, and how we respond to those points of view which are different from our own.  

So what can we do in the classroom to teach debate in its modern context, but with that traditional, face-to-face vibe in order to keep empathy on the communication main-stage?

Insert ‘Debate 2.0’, an activity developed by fellow colleague, teacher + trailblazer, Paige Beamesderfer.  

A Florida ‘west coast’ gal, Paige was looking for a way to try out the original ‘silent debate’ (circa 2015 Global Pen days!) while also utilizing the new laptops her administration recently approved for her learners.

The original ‘Silent Debate’ 

For the ‘O.G.’ (i.e. analog) Silent Debate, (see also, its close-cousin activity, the Color Carousel brainstorm discussion), students are placed into groups of four, then divided into teams of two (Team A and Team B).  

A debatable question is posed, and teams determine the perspective they’d like to take before beginning.  Then they’re either given articles to read or are asked to seek out information themselves regarding the contemporary issue. 

And finally, they use their research notes to debate it out with the person sitting opposite them (so Team A is facing Team B; the persons sitting directly across from each other are sparring partners, so team members A1 and B1, A2 and B2).  

Team partners can confer in between rounds, but during the round itself, it’s totally silent...

Instead of verbally defending their perspective on the matter, participants craft this position in written form!

Kinda like passing notes back and forth to a friend in class, but with an argumentative twist.

You can use learning targets to direct required tasks for each round, and you can have as few or as many rounds as you want.  

But at the end, groups pass their response packets to another group, who then reviews the collective back-and-forth between Team A and Team B, before determining which team had the stronger argument overall.  

(When they share out, judges obviously need to pitch their own arguments, justifying why the winning team had the stronger argument!)

So why the silence?  

The original intent of the Silent Debate was to take the pressure off that ‘on-the-spot’ feeling students get when debating aloud (Disclaimer: I was also mimicking somewhat the format for an impending, state-standardized assessment!).  

By writing their responses and reactions, it gave students time to process what they wanted to say, which led to a deeper, more thoughtful approach to their reasoning, especially since it wouldn’t just disappear in verbal passing.

Kinda like when you read your writing aloud to shake out the kinks; only this time, you’re writing your *speaking* down to process what you want to say in a slower manner!

Silent Debate ‘2.0’

For Paige, she wanted to work in the 21st century dynamic of communicating via shared documents. 

So the Silent Debate afforded her the perfect opportunity to meld together a classic, classroom activity with a modern mode of communication...  

And she dubbed it ‘2.0’ for this reason!  

So thank you to Paige for innovating on the basics, and for sharing your notes + inspiration with us (see ‘How it Works’ below)!

How it Works 


‘I wanted to try a silent debate with my students, but I also wanted to utilize the laptops my administration granted my students.  I had to bring the two together for a 21st-century classroom. By using Google Docs, I was able to give life to Silent Debate 2.0.

Day 1—

I started by giving my students an article to read as the foundation of their argument.  The topic was based on the tenet that a patient has the right to deny life-saving treatment.  The opposing argument supported the doctor’s obligation to treat his or her patient. They used Day 1 to read the article and research similar cases.

Day 2—

The class was split into two opposing teams (team 1-patient’s rights and team 2-doctor’s duty).  

Each team was given class time to research and gather evidence supporting their argument.  Each person within the team had a role.  

Two people were in charge of technology: create the Google Doc, make sure the doc was shared with everyone on the team, and format the doc.  

Other team members worked together to research information from different perspectives, including the patient, family members, court system, AMA/medical ethics, etc.  

These students would enter their information on the shared doc while the ‘techs’ formatted the information into an easy-to-read list.

Day 3—Debate!! 

I selected my students, at random, to be paired with someone from the opposing side.  The students were already sitting with their teams when I gave each team member a number.  

Each person on one team had the numbers 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, etc.  Each person on the opposite team had the numbers 1b, 2b, 3b, 4b, etc.  

I then placed them in seats across from each other, like a chess match.  The student with 1a sat across from the student with 1b, 2a across from 2b, 3a across from 3b, etc. 

  • Everyone on the “a” team created a Google Doc to share with their “b” opponent.  
  • They used two different text colors in order to track who was saying what, and to make it easier for me to identify one student from the other.  
  • They turned their document into Google Classroom when the time was called for the debate.  
  • They were only allowed to have two documents open, no additional internet research could be done, so  Doc 1—the notes created on the previous day with their teams, and Doc 2—the current document for argumentation.

As for timing, I gave them roughly 35 minutes to debate.  This was a good amount of time because five teams conceded their argument and moved on to a new topic, assisted suicide, while the rest continued their debate on patient treatment.  

It was just enough time for them to feel the “heat” of the debate without losing interest in the competition.  (The goal was to introduce an argument so strong their opponent could not counter and had to concede the argument.) 

During the debate, they wanted to talk but knew they couldn’t, so they resorted to facial expressions and body language to communicate the strength of their argument or disagreement with their opponent’s argument. 

It felt like a high-stakes chess match because they were trying so hard to create a strong enough argument to stump their opponent and force their opponent to concede! 

Most ended with a draw and they were upset when I called time.

My students loved this exercise!  They tried it again with the topic of animal testing and a backup topic of trophy hunting.  They’re still asking to have one more debate!’

Why I Love It

Remember when I asked how we can teach debate in its modern context (i.e. digitally) while maintaining the face-to-face vibe?  

That’s the beauty of 2.0.  

Students are sitting right in front of their partners.  Though they’re not engaging directly, their presence is felt (and their facial + body language tells all!). 

It feels like they're communicating as usual online, but at the same time, it reminds them that there is someone on the receiving end of their digital responses to the (well-meaning) provocations coming in!

A few, other reasons I’m such a super fan of the 2.0: 

  • It uses technology meaningfully.  It’s not dumped on top of the lesson, it’s woven seamlessly into it.  
  • Each student has a role, but the roles work interdependently (not in isolation!) to prepare for the debate (re: formatting + research).
  • It speaks to the core characteristics of 21st-century learners: that they like a challenge, and that they like to win.

Reflect to Correct

You can certainly create your own rules and parameters for an analog or digital Silent Debate, but no matter how you format it, don’t forget to let your students get loud thereafter on all that silence!

Have students talk about how their behaviors during the 2.0 activity might translate into the real world.  

What are the consequences of debating digitally?

Where have they found themselves in heated, online debate (or observed others)? 

How similar or different to the way they behaved during the activity was their (or another’s) approach to response?  Unpack these instances.

How does empathy play a role in all this? 

And how can they set up or shift their online behaviors moving forward, to continue to acknowledge that there’s a human being (facial expressions, body language and all!) sitting on the receiving end of their digital duelings?

(It might feel woo-woo at first, but it’s in these reflective conversations that the magic happens.  Let the time tick in the background. On the most human level, it’s worth it!)

To wrap it all up…

If you try out the Silent Debate, you’ve *got* to share your good times with this funky bunch of awesome teachers here at my blog!

Post your comments below, and let’s celebrate your classroom wins!  

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