We recently sat down with math teacher and new author, Chris Luzniak, to learn more about what’s inside his new book Up for Debate! Exploring Math Through Argument for grades 6–12. Find out how incorporating debate techniques into your middle and high school math instruction can get students engaged and excited about math.
Q: What inspired you to try using debate practice in math class?
A: When I started teaching, I coached a speech and debate team. I really loved seeing how engaged and excited students were about researching and debating deep conceptual ideas in their spare time. I wondered how I could combine that excitement and that richness with the subject I love teaching, mathematics. I wanted to bring the student voice out through reasoning and argumentation, so I found ways to practice debate in math class.
Q: Some people would be surprised about the idea of debate in math because they think all the answers are right or wrong. How can debate and opinion fit into math class?
A: I think math and numbers can be very opinionated and I want students to dig into that. It's important for students to talk about all the methods they have, all the techniques, their favorite kind of problem, the best of all the mistakes they've seen, the problems that resonate with them, the coolest, the weirdest. Debate helps them feel a personal attachment to the math or the process or the problem. It's not just about answer-getting. It's about reasoning, making sense, and adding value to what they're doing.
Q: How can teachers make time for debate when they have so much content they're supposed to cover?
A: I want debate to be a part of the teaching and learning of the content. The easiest way to do that is to use it as a warmup. For example, take four or five minutes at the start of class every day and have a handful of students stand up and debate the best method, the best mistake, or whatever problem they want. After a while using this as a warmup, it will start to spill into the classroom. Students get into the routine and soon they automatically think, I'm going to debate, I'm going to argue, I'm going to justify, even if it wasn't a requirement of that activity. Little practices can pay off big if you invest in the routine.
Q: Questions in textbooks are not normally debatable; there's usually one prescribed way to solve a problem and one right answer. So how do you help teachers learn how to take what is in textbooks and turn it into something debatable?
A: In Up for Debate!, I talk about some key words that we can add to some problems to make them opened up into an opinionated question. For example, let's say we have three or four straightforward problems, like a quadratic formula or whatever it may be, we can talk about which one was the most interesting to solve or about the most common mistakes. There are many ways we can pull apart a standard textbook question and still have a discussion around it. I think anything can become debatable and that is my challenge to teachers: give me something that we can't debate. I haven't been stumped yet.
Q: What will teachers find inside the book?
A: The book is an introduction on how to start debating tomorrow in your classroom. It shows you how to set students up with talking and listening routines so they know what to do and how to act in a debate setting. There is guidance on ways teachers can turn traditional questions into debatable questions, and lots of examples throughout the whole book. I hope that with this book, teachers will have the tools to start doing quick, warmup or closing debate activities in their classroom tomorrow.
Q: What would you say to teachers who might be apprehensive about introducing this into their classroom?
A: My advice to teachers is just give it a try. Give yourself five minutes. Plan it out in detail. If you'd like, tweet at me, we'll talk. Reflect on it, try it again. If you allow yourself time to practice it a little bit every now and then it will become more comfortable. It's something that is now second nature to me.
Up for Debate! is scheduled to be released in fall 2019 and is now available for preorder at Stenhouse.com.