Phrasing Debate Propositions

Debating is a practical way for students to develop communication and critical thinking skills. However, it is often the job of the teacher to find debate topics and to form these into propositions. A proposition is a strong statement that identifies the central issue/problem of a controversial topic.

There is a clear process for this that should be followed in order to allow the students to focus on develop their arguments rather than on trying to figure out what they are to debate about.

This post will provide guidance for teachers on developing debate propositions. In general, debate propositions have the following characteristics

  • controversial
  • central idea
  • unemotional word use
  • Statement of affirmative’s wanted decision

We will look at each of these concepts in detail

Controversial

Controversy is what debating is about. A proposition must be controversial. This is because strong statements for people to take a position. With a slight push to the edges students are not required to dig deep and understand the topic. Below is an example of an uncontroversial proposition

Resloved: Illegal immigration is sometimes a problem in the world

This is not controversial because it’s hard to agree or disagree strongly. The mildness of the statement makes it uninteresting to debate about. Below is the same proposition but written in a more controversial manner

Resloved: Illegal immigration is a major problem that destabilizes nations all over the world.

The revised proposition uses languages that is less neutral yet not aggressive. People have to think carefully where they stand.

Central Idea

A debate proposition should only address one single idea. The safest way to do this is to avoid using the word “and” in a proposition. However, this is not a strict rule but rather a guideline. Below is an example of proposition that does not have one idea.

Resloved: Illegal immigration and pollution are major problems that destabilizes nations all over the world.

The problem with the proposition above is to determine if the debate is about illegal immigration or pollution. These are topics that are not connected or the debaters must find ways to connect them.  In other words, this is messy and unclear and the proposition cannot have these characteristics.

Unemotional Words

Propositions should avoid emotional language. One of the foundational beliefs of debating is rational thought. Emotional terms lead to emotional thinking which is not the goal of debating. Generally, emotional terms are used more in advertising and propaganda than in debate. Below is an example of emotional language in a proposition.

Resloved: Illegal immigration is an abominable problem whose deprived, lawless, existence destabilizes nations all over the world.

The terms here are clearly strong in how they sound. For supporters of illegal immigration such words as abominable, depraved, and lawless are going to trigger a strong emotional response. However, what we really want is a logical, rational response and not just emotional attacks.

Statement of affirmative’s wanted decision

This last idea has to do with the fact the proposition should be stated in the positive and not negative. Below is the incorrect way to do this.

Resloved: Illegal immigration is not a major problem that destabilizes nations all over the world.

The proposition above is stated in the negative. This wording makes debating unnecessarily complicated. Below is another way to state this

Resloved: Illegal immigration is beneficial for nations all over the world.

This slight rewording helps a great deal in developing clear arguments. However, negative affirmatives can appear in  slightly different manner as shown below.

Resloved: Illegal immigration should be decriminalize.

The problem with this statement is that it provides no replacement for illegal immigration. When debating identified problems must be matched with  identified solutions. Below is a revised version of the previous proposition.

Resloved: Illegal immigration should be decriminalize and replaced with a system of open borders who monitor the movement of people.

This proposition has a strong opinion with a proposed solution.

Conclusion

This is not an exhaustive list of forming debate propositions. Rather, then goal here was to provide some guidelines to help teachers who are trying to encourage debating among their students. Off course, the guidelines provided here are for older students. For younger, kids it would be necessary to modify the wording and not worry as much about the small details of making strong debate propositions.

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