Agree, Build or Challenge (ABC) – the silent debate version!

Debate… offers teachers the chance to engage their students in a variety of activities that inspire students to explain, justify, convince and counter. Also, debate does not only help students deepen their comprehension of the issue/topic in question and foster their critical thinking abilities, but it helps them enhance their language proficiency as well (Zare & Othman, 2013). Moreover, debate enables teachers to involve students in an engaging and cooperative learning process that facilitates the interaction of students with each other and with the content as well.

Majidi, de Graaff and Janssen (2015)

I’m not sure where I first heard of it but Agree, Build or Challenge is often used as a method to improve the student-teacher and student-student “conversation” which is sparked by questioning. However, I’ve started to mainly use it with written tasks.

Verbal version:

The way it works in the verbal version is:

  1. Teacher asks question.
  2. Teacher either picks on student or selects one with their hand up.
  3. Pupil 1 answers.
  4. Teachers either asks for someone to ABC – Pupil 2.
  5. Pupil 2 can either: (a) Agree, and state why they do; (b) Build, add to their answer with further explanation/an example (really, A and B are often quite inseparable); (c) Challenge, disagree with the stated view and justify this.

Another version sees you sticking with that same pupil after step 3 – so they build on their own answer or play devil’s advocate and discuss how someone may challenge their viewpoint. In a geography classroom, this might be them arguing against the use of groynes or sea walls to protect a particular coastline and instead vouching for more soft engineering. Although this does work to some extent with closed questions, it works best for open questions which have many answers/sides to the debate.

Written version:

In the written version which I do with my classes, the same principles are followed – but this time the ‘debate’ is silent, allowing time for all pupils to articulate their ideas in the written form after spending time carefully considering their opinions.

The way it works is as follows:

  1. Students write down their answer/thoughts on a question, for example the ‘Do Now’ fertile question.
  2. They swap with their partner and either Agree, Build or Challenge their writing in green pen.
  3. They swap back and in green pen they respond to what their partner wrote using ABC.

This exercise is designed to encourage deeper and more critical thinking and creates a more collaborative working environment. Students are actively encouraged to practice their justification/debate skills, both of which are essential to Geography.

Below are examples from Year 8 pupils studying the fashion industry and bottled water in two different lessons in our sustainability topic:

Having tried this across KS3 and once or twice with KS5, I find that pupils really enjoy it – you can sense the tension in the room as eager students patiently await their book back from their partner, wondering if they’ve dared to Challenge them or interested in how they’ve Built on their opinion: I’ve had to end some heated debates on occasions as pupils are adamant they need to get their opinion across and heard a few “Please sir, can I Challenge it one more time?!”

Clearly, not only does it create a space for pupils to have an extended period of time writing independently (which is very much desired in our classrooms), it also creates enthusiasm and engagement in a manner that is totally organic; you’re not forcing via posters, card sorts or the like, THEY are the ones driving the thinking and discussion and that is fantastic to witness!

As always, if you have any questions about this or would like to offer up advice/tweaks/improvements then please feel free to contact me via Twitter!

Abdurrahman Pérez (@mr_perez5)
May 2020

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