Using Debates to Improve Metacognition

This article focuses on how to use debates to foster metacognition, metacognitive reflection and metacognitive development in your students. You can download our free Metacognitive Debate Starter Activity here.

Nothing drives critical and higher-order thinking harder, deeper and faster than a debate: the ego gets involved, adrenaline gets pumping, and students capacities are pushed to the limit as they are forced to defend their position. There is something inherently competitive about it - a debate has a loser and a winner, whether or not it is made explicit who the victor really is; suddenly a topic that seemed unimportant and uninteresting to a student has them riled up, passionately defending their opinion, nervously engaged and frantically searching for reasons and arguments to back it up.

Classroom debates can nurture rational thinking, citizenship, manners, organisation of thoughts, persuasion and public speaking; they can also be a fantastic way to help more shy students become comfortable expressing their views in class.

As a learning activity, debates are highly flexible. Debates can be formal or informal, they can be more involved (giving students plenty of time to reflect, collaborate as teams and write speeches) or they can be casual (where students are given multiple prompts and asked to debate them quickly). There are many formats a debate can follow: active debates where students move around, debates involving role-playing, formal debates with lengthily speeches, 'balloon debates' where students get eliminated one by one, or even silent debates that take place on paper! Discussing all of these formats is beyond the scope of this article: there are plenty of articles on other sites that already explore them. In this article we want to focus on how to use debates to enhance metacognition.

If you're already convinced: why not try our FREE Metacognitive Debate Starter Activity?

Examples of Debate Topics that Drive Metacognition

The following are some examples of statements that students might debate that can foster metacognitive reflection; which is to say that by engaging in these debate topics students will reflect on how they learn best and how they can maximise their learning-power:

  • "Intelligence is not a fixed trait but something a person can develop over time"

  • "Regular exercise is more important than a healthy diet in maintaining a healthy brain"

  • "The overuse of technology is having a negative impact on the learning of students in this school"

  • "The most important study skill one can develop is the ability to research information online"

  • "Some revision activities are more effective than others"

  • "The biggest obstacle for most students in this school is their lack of confidence and the negative beliefs they have about their own abilities"

  • "The student, not their teacher, is ultimately responsible for their success or failure"

  • "Meditation can help make students more effective learners"

  • "All students have their own, unique, learning-style"

As you can see: a number of these debate-topics refer to pedagogical theories (such as Growth Mindset and the now quite unfashionable theory of 'Learning Styles'), others refer to factors that influence learning-power, whilst others still refer to study-skills: there is a huge variety of possible debate topics that can trigger metacognitive reflection.

Advanced Teaching Resources for Metacognitive Debates & Discussion

Aside from our free resources, we've also made some more substantial resources to facilitate metacognitive debates with your students. They are:

  1. The Metacognition Debate Generator

  2. The Metacognition Group Debate Worksheet Kit

  3. The Metacognitive Thunk Generator

Each resource is suitable for students aged 11-16 and can be used by teachers of any subject. All our downloads include a whole-school license meaning that you can share the resource with other teachers in your school*

Let's have a closer look at them one-by-one!

1. The Metacognition Debate Generator

[Click Here to Download]

Each of the 101 prompts in this resource is designed to trigger reflection on a metacognition or learning-power issue, examples include:

  • "A health body leads to a healthy mind"

  • "It is possible to know too much" and

  • “Everyone is born with an equal capacity for success in school.”

Debates take an ‘agree or disagree’ format: students are asked to move from one side of the room to the other depending on their response to the statements that appear.

This format allows teachers to foster debates and discussions between students, it can be helpful to ask students to justify their reasons and use sensible arguments. Questions you might ask include:

  • “What is wrong with the other position in your view?”,

  • “Why did you choose to stand where you’re standing?”,

  • “Why do you think people disagree so much about this question?”

It is best to encourage students to pick a side rather than float in the middle: but it can also be fun to allow students to change side as the debate progresses, so that students can try to persuade one another to move.

This is a great resource to use at the end of lessons if you have a few minutes left, it can be used as an entire lesson.

2. The Metacognition Group Debate Worksheet Kit

[Click Here to Download]

This resource uses A3 Debate Worksheets to foster discussions about learning and metacognition amongst small groups of students. The intention is that students are in groups of 3-5 and that the debate worksheets circulate around the room, with groups rotating the worksheets every five minutes, so that different groups can discuss them and add ideas.

It covers five topics, each contains eleven debate worksheets. Each topic comprises a learning session, though the resources can be used as shorter learning activities. The five topics discussed are:

  1. Thinking Deeply About The Value of Education

  2. Thinking Deeply About Thought

  3. Thinking Deeply About Memory

  4. Thinking Deeply About Concentration

  5. Thinking Deeply About Independent Learning

A short instructional PowerPoint is also included so as to guide the learning sessions.

3. The Metacognitive Thunk Generator

[Click Here to Download]

This products features 101 metacognitive 'thunks': mind-expanding philosophical questions to make students think. It also includes a randomisation feature that allows you to generate seemingly random statements that the students cannot anticipate!

Like our other resources, this resource is focused entirely on matters pertaining to metacognition and learning. Example questions include:

  • "What is a thought made of?"

  • "What does the word 'intelligent' really mean?" and

  • "What is the difference between knowledge and belief?"

It's a highly flexible tool that allows students to practice their philosophical, critical-thinking, discussion and debating skills: teachers can experiment using different discussion formats as they see fit and practice their own questioning skills in the process. It's a fully editable presentation file so you can add your own questions if you want to!

This is a powerful way to bring metacognition to your school and develop students' Higher-Order Thinking skills!


*The Whole-School License allows for up to 50 users, resources must not be shared outside of your school.