Writing topics & issues

A well-written topic and set of issues provides the structure and direction necessary to make your debate assignment a success.

Controversy is an excellent way for students to encounter course material. Nearly any subject matter, from Civics and Social Studies to Science and Math, can benefit from providing students opportunities to exchange arguments about a controversial topic. Arguing for and against a topic engages students, promotes deep learning and--when properly organized--immerses the audience in consideration and evaluation of arguments that promotes metacognition.

Preparing your material for students begins with selecting the subject matter suitable for a debate. Perhaps it's competing explanations of natural phenomena, an ethical quandry posed by a newly-developed technology, the conflict between literary characters that leaves their morality in question or simply a dispute over public policy; whatever the case, arranging a debate for your students begins with writing an effective topic for the debate and structuring the students' inquiry with well-written issue questions.

Writing effective topics

Topics serve an important function in controversy: an effective topic defines the boundaries of the controversy, assigns Pro and Con responsibilities to the participants and serves as the standard for determining which sides arguments prevail. In strictly logical terms, the topic is a proposition with truth value. That is, the topic is a declarative statement that is controversial and which may be proved more or less true given the arguments the audience finds most persuasive.

Functional topics have three characteristics. Well-written debate topics are:

  1. Controversial: the subject should address a subject of legitimate dispute and should have a clear, binary focus.

  2. Simple: the wording should reflect an appropriate scope for the debate and should address a single point of dispute as a binary proposition.

  3. Balanced: the proposition should be phrased in a way that presents fair opportunities for both Pro and Con arguments.

Here are some examples to illustrate these characteristics:

“Alaska should promote public health”

This topic doesn't articulate a controversial subject: it's difficult to argue that a state should not promote public health; the controversy likely lies in the means by which that state does so. Moreover, the scope of this topic isn't well-defined: how should the state of Alaska promote public health? The nearly limitless ways in which they could do so doesn't give the debaters opportunity to prepare well for their debate.

Here's another poorly-written topic:

“Alaska should end the production, distribution, sale and consumption of all products that include any form of nicotine or other dangerous substances that may cause a significant public health risk.”

This version of the topic is unnecessarily complex and too broad in scope. Banning any of the proposed elements of tobacco use would likely be sufficient to focus the debaters on the controversy at hand and, more importantly, the phrase "or other dangerous substances that may cause a significant public health risk" is so broad as to include nearly any manufactured substance.

A final example of a dysfunctional topic:

“Alaska should ban the sale of deadly tobacco products that cause the needless deaths of millions of innocent people every year around the world.”

This topic is not balanced. The use of loaded language ("deadly tobacco products," "needless deaths, "millions of innocent people") predisposes the audience to the Pro side of the debate, denying the Con a fair chance to make their case.

A more well-phrased version of this motion would be

“Alaska should ban tobacco products.”

This topic is concrete and focused, identifying a particular policy suggestion related to public health. The topic also focuses on what likely would be a very controversial proposal, with plenty of ground for the Con side to argue that such a ban would have serious economic consequences and would deprive tobacco users of their rights. Finally, the topic is expressed clearly and without biased phrasing, allowing both sides in the debate a fair chance to convince the audience of their position.

Remember, you can always select from the debate kits already loaded into Argutopia for a well-written topic and set of issues.

Using Issues to structure controversy

Bundled up inside most controversies are any number of sub-controversies that may give focus and structure to a debate. Your students' debates will be more productive if you guide their preparation and execution with issues that direct their attention to these designated sub-controversies.

Where do issues come from?

Issues are the product of arguments made and the expectation that such arguments invite a response. When an argument is articulated in a context that demands engagement from an opponent, an issue exists. In most cases, this means that issues arise organically in the course of a debate from the arguments the debaters make. However, articulating a set of issues before the debate begins can direct the debaters' attention toward relevant points of dispute and scaffold the audience's consideration of the debate, making the exercise more productive for all involved.

While the potential issues for any given debate may be nearly infinite, limiting the focus and number of issues you provide to participants will give them confidence that they'll be able to manage the arguments in the debate. This scaffolded approach is key for students inexperienced with debating: by limiting the potential areas of argument for which they'll be responsible they gain confidence that their preparation will ready them to exchange arguments on the subjects identified by the issues.

We recommend planning for 2-5 issues for any given debate. Fewer than 2 means you don't benefit from focused consideration of various facets of the controversy; more than 5 becomes difficult for debaters to manage.

The most effective way to identify issues is to generate a list of arguments you'd expect to encounter in a debate (or, even better, have your students generate lists of Pro and Con arguments that may be relevant to the topic). From this list, you can begin to identify themes that contain the arguments from each side. Remember, you'll likely generate far more arguments than issues; well-structured issues are not necessarily inclusive of all potential arguments that may be made, but identify important and representative areas of controversy within which the debaters may make productive arguments.

Writing effective issues

Like topics, issues should be written to be controversial, simple and balanced. Unlike topics--which are written as declarative propositions the debaters attempt to prove true or false--issues are typically written as questions to represent the inquiry they invite.

The best issues are written as closed-ended or binary questions. Open-ended questions don't allow a clear distinction between Pro and Con ground and can be confusing for novice debaters. Thus, issues such as "Will a ban on tobacco products violate users' rights?" is preferable to phrasing the issue "How will a ban on tobacco products violate users' rights?"

Writing effective issues requires attention to several characteristics:

  1. Issues should be to inclusive: writing issues requires that they're sufficiently broad to accommodate all potential arguments for that subject but sufficiently narrow to capture those arguments in a useful, structured way.

  2. Issues should be equivalent: the potential amount of material in each issue should be relatively equal to other issues. Scoping issues properly so that they address a roughly-similar amount of material makes understanding the whole of the controversy easier for the participants.

  3. Issues should be distinct: each issue should focus on a discrete sub-controversy relative to the larger controversy. Well-written issues contain all potential arguments related to that sub-controversy and exclude other arguments that focus on a different subject.

Sequencing issues

Once you have a set of well-phrased issues, you can give some thought to the order in which those issues are arranged. In some controversies, the issues would likely be encountered by decision-makers in a particular order; it helps with the clarity of the debate to anticipate that order and sequence your issues accordingly.

Consider these potential issues for the "ban tobacco" debate:

  • Will a ban be effective in reducing rates of consumption?

  • Will a ban produce significant economic consequences?

  • Does tobacco use produce public health impacts significant enough to warrant banning?

From the perspective of someone making a decision about whether to ban tobacco or not (i.e.: the audience deciding between the Pro and Con positions in a debate), it makes sense to encounter these issues in a particular order.

The first issue that should be contemplated is whether the alleged problem is significant enough to warrant a dramatic legislative action such as a ban. If no problem exists or if that problem is insignificant, questions of whether a ban will work or the undesireable consequences of implimenting a ban are irrelevant.

Assuming the audience has been convinced that a problem exists, the next question they'll consider is whether the proposed solution to that problem works. In this case, arguments about whether a ban would deter a sufficient number of tobacco users to drive down the public health impacts of tobacco use are relevant.

Finally, if the audience is convinced that a problem exists and that the solution will produce results, the audience may move on to consider the unintended consequences of implimenting the solution. Such consequences may make the solution undesireable, despite the fact that it solves a problem.

Thus, the proper sequencing of the above set of issues would be as follows:

  1. Does smoking produce public health risks significant enough to warrant banning?

  2. Will a ban be effective in reducing rates of smoking?

  3. Will a ban produce significant economic consequences?

Remember, you can always select from the debate kits already loaded into Argutopia for a well-written topic and set of issues.

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