The mock debate: a teaching method that is useful for both foreign languages, as well as subjects that deal with politics, history, culture and literature. Students involved in the debate can argue their opinions, using facts obtained through research, while at the same time, gain confidence in speaking. Even more so, when debating in a foreign language, students can learn new vocabulary through speaking and listening to others, while become as much at home with the language as with their native tongue. In general, students can become acquainted with the process of Problem-Based Learning, a method created by Howard Barrows at McMasters University in Ontario (Canada), which puts the students in a simulated situation that is similar to reality. PBL is especially useful for teaching/learning foreign languages, and the debate is part of this method that is used very often in the classroom, regardless of class size, age, language learning niveau, and educational institution where the foreign language is being taught.
There are two forms of a mock debate which can be introduced in a foreign language class: the closed version and the open version. In a closed version, each student is given a role to act out, in connection with a certain topic and situation. The arguments the students produce have to fit the roles that are given to them. Many foreign language books feature these types of roles, where a situation is given, the roles are provided, and the students have to act out a given role. Yet in some cases, you can create your own situation in connection with a current event and provide roles for them there. I had done this with a couple themes during my time as a teacher at the Volkshochschule in Germany (Eng.: Institution of Continuing Education) a few years before the Flensburg Files was created in 2010, where I had chosen the theme of healthy food in a fast food restaurant. This theme was in connection with the lawsuits against McDonald’s in 2002 for ill-informing customers of the ingredients in the burgers and making them fat. The scandal was documented further in Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me,” produced in 2004. Yet, as I had seen in the Sloppy Joe’s Restaurant debate, students receiving roles often feel constrained to produce arguments for the debate, even though they may be of a different opinion to the argument that was supposed to be made in accordance to the role. Therefore, it is advisable to provide sufficient time for them to prepare and allow them to choose the roles they want to play- a role that best fits their personal opinion of the subject , sometimes makes the mock debate more interesting to watch, let alone participate.
The other kind of mock debate is the open one, where there are no roles, and students are free to prepare their arguments in connection to the theme that is given to them. Before starting the debate, you divide them into groups. Each group is given a task for them to complete, where they can come up with arguments in small groups, before presenting them to the other groups. In other words: preparing in small groups, presenting in a big group. The downside of the open version is the competition to see who can speak the most. The unequal amount of time can be fatal for those whose knowledge of the language or subject is limited as well as those who have the ability to speak but not the confidence. There, incentives are needed so that every member has the chance speak during the debate. Also useful is a moderator, who introduces the topic, regulates the amount of speaking time, asks questions to each group after stating their arguments and closes the debate with questions and/or voting.
An example of such an open debate is the topic I’m doing at the present time: The Great Crash of 1929 and the Question: Was Herbert Hoover responsible for allowing the crash (and subsequentially, The Great Depression) to happen? Herbert Hoover was President of the USA from 1929 until his landslide defeat at the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. While many sources and historians have claimed that Hoover allowed the economy to crash and did not help ease the pain of farmers losing their homes and businesses closing down, other sources have argued that Hoover tried to pass laws to encourage businesses to continue operating, but the Crash was the result of “The Invisible Hand” going wild, with no chance to control the destruction on Wall Street. My father and I have argued about this topic for years (as he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat), and I therefore decided to play the Devil’s Advocate and ask this question to my 9th grade history group at the German Gymnasium. They were divided up into three groups: Those presenting the facts about the Great Crash, those who claim that it was Hoover’s fault, and those who disagreed. Moderators were selected as well. Preparation was needed for vocabulary words needed to be present, and students needed time to prepare and practice.
How you decide on the Mock Debate depends on the language knowledge of your students. If your students are weak in speaking, then perhaps it is not a bad idea to use the open debate, to encourage them to use their language knowledge and exchange ideas and vocabulary with other group members. If students are superb in their knowledge, and you want to challenge them on a topic, like the environment, food and nutrition, business topics, and the like, then the closed version is perhaps a good way of going about the topic, as they can learn new vocabulary through their own research and preparation for the debate. Yet one needs sufficient time to present the topic and prepare beforehand. An hour at least is needed for preparing and carrying out the debate. Yet in the end, when the debate is finished, students can take comfort of the fact that they have learned to express themselves using new vocabulary and become more confident in their oral skills. As for the the teacher, if the mock debate is successful the first time around, he will most likely use this method again in another class.
This leads to my question for the readers, as we are about to present our debate in the next week: Was Herbert Hoover responsible for the Great Crash of 1929, or was he a lame duck already because the Crash was beyond his control? State your arguments and reasons here in the comment section, or on the Files’ facebook pages. Deine Kommentare auf Deutsch sind herzlich wilkommen.
Author’s Note: If you are interested in the Closed Version example of the Mock Debate and Sloppy Joe’s Healthy Meal Plan for your class preparation, please send me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, and a copy will be sent to you, via e-mail and in PDF format.