SPAR (Spontaneous Argumentation)

Rationale

In this structured debate modeled after an event in forensic competitions, students frame their argument in one minute and then react quickly to their opponents’ ideas. This strategy helps students practice using evidence and examples to defend a position. Because students aren’t given much preparation time, SPAR is most effective when students already have background information about the topic. With practice, students become increasingly comfortable with and proficient in using this method to unearth the “pro” and “con” sides of controversial topics.

Procedure

  1. Prepare the Class
    Divide class in half. Assign one side to take the “pro” position and the other side to take the “con” position. Have students move their desks so they are sitting opposite an opponent. Write a debatable proposition on the board (e.g., “It is always best to use nonviolent methods to achieve greater civil rights” or “After conflicts and violence, restorative justice is a better tool for rebuilding society than retributive justice”). The proposition should relate to material you have been studying, and students should already have some background information on the issue.
  2. Students Brainstorm Arguments
    Give students one to two minutes to write down their arguments and evidence for or against the proposition. You can give the students a graphic organizer to help them structure their ideas and take notes during the debate.
  3. Students Present Opening Statements
    The “pro” students present a one-minute opening statement making their case, while the “con” students listen quietly and take notes. Then the “con” students present a one-minute opening statement while the “pro” students listen quietly and take notes.
  4. Students Discuss
    Give students 30 seconds to prepare ideas for what they want to say to their opponent. Then invite the pairs to engage in a three-minute discussion during which they may question their opponent’s reasoning or examples or put forth new ones of their own.
  5. Students Present Closing Statements
    Give students 30 seconds or one minute to prepare a closing statement. “Con” students present a closing statement for one minute while the “pro” students listen quietly, and then the roles reverse.
  6. Debrief the Activity
    Prompts you can use to structure a class discussion about this activity include:
    • What did you learn from participating in this SPAR debate?
    • What were the arguments for or against the issue?
    • What is the value in arguing positions with which you don't necessarily agree?
    • What was hardest about taking part in this type of debate? What did you like about it? Should the format of the debate be adjusted? If so, in what ways?
    Before facilitating a class discussion about any of these questions, give students the opportunity to respond in their journals.

Variations

  • Research SPAR: SPAR can be modified to include time for students to gather more evidence to support their positions. Research can be as informal as giving students time to look through their notes (possibly as a homework assignment the night before) or can be as extensive as a formal research project.
  • Jigsaw SPAR: Students can first meet as “expert” pro and con groups (pairs or triads) to develop ideas together before beginning the debate.
  • Fishbowl SPAR: Half the class can do the debate while the other half of the class observes. Then the positions switch. In this variation, all of the students can debate the same proposition (the second group learning from the experience of the first group), or they can be debating different propositions in each round. The observers can make note of the strongest arguments on either side.
  • Facing History Resource SPAR: Use the following propositions to structure a SPAR debate while teaching with one of our resources:

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