A Four Corners Debate requires students to show their position on a specific statement (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) by standing in a particular corner of the room. This activity elicits the participation of all students by requiring everyone to take a position. By drawing out students’ opinions on a topic they are about to study, it can be a useful warm-up activity. By asking them to apply what they have learned when framing arguments, it can be an effective follow-through activity. Four Corners can also be used as a pre-writing activity to elicit arguments and evidence prior to essay writing.
Step one: Preparation
Label the four corners of the room with signs reading: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Generate a list of controversial statements related to the material being studied. Statements most likely to encourage discussion typically do not have one correct or obvious answer, elicit nuanced arguments (e.g., “This might be a good idea some of the time, but not all of the time”), and represent respected values on both sides of the debate. Examples of effective “Four Corners” statements:
- The needs of larger society are more important than the needs of the individual.
- The purpose of schooling is to prepare youth to be good citizens.
- Individuals can choose their own destiny; their choices are not dictated or limited by the constraints of society.
- One should always resist unfair laws, regardless of the consequences.
- I am only responsible for myself.
This exercise can be used in combination with an anticipation guide.
Step two: Introduce Statements
Distribute statements and give students the opportunity to respond to them in writing. Many teachers provide students with a graphic organizer or worksheet that requires students to mark their opinion (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree), and then provide a brief explanation.
Step three: Four Corners Discussion
After students have considered their personal response to the statements, read one of the statements aloud, and ask students to move to the corner of the room that best represents their opinion. Once students are in their places, ask for volunteers to justify their position. When doing so, they should refer to evidence from history, especially from material they learned in this unit, as well as other relevant information from their own experiences. Encourage students to switch corners if someone presents an idea that causes a change of mind. After a representative from each corner has defended his or her position, you can allow students to question each other’s evidence and ideas. Before beginning the discussion, remind students about norms for having a respectful, open discussion of ideas.
Step four: Reflection
There are many ways you can debrief this exercise. You can have students to reflect in their journals about how the activity changed or reinforced their original opinion. Some of their views may have strengthened by the addition of new evidence and arguments, while others may have changed altogether. It is quite possible that some students will be more confused or uncertain about their views after the four corners debate. While uncertainty can feel uncomfortable, it is an important part of the understanding process, and represents the authentic wrestling with moral questions that have no clear right or wrong answers. To clarify ideas shared during the discussion, you can chart the main for and against arguments on the board as a whole-class activity.