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Debates and Hotseating in the History Classroom

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#1 Russel Tarr

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Posted 18 November 2003 - 04:28 PM

Whilst all teachers would like to think that their classes hang onto their every word with grateful awe and rapture, students will actually get rather bored hearing the same voice wittering on at them day in, day out. Hot-seating and role-plays allow teachers and students to use and hear different voices. Not only that, but bringing historical characters to life to answer questions about their lives, beliefs and achievements is a great way of imparting knowledge, understanding and issues of interpretation.

The most straightforward hot-seating activity has the teacher doing the acting. Answering questions as if at a press conference, King John could defend his actions against a vicious panel of questioners; Henry VIII could justify his changes to the church; Chamberlain could defend appeasement. Don’t worry about your thespian skills - ham it up and they’ll just lap it up!

Saying that, hot-seating is not the same as flying by the seat of your pants. To deliver a worthwhile performance, you need to know what questions to expect. Provide younger students with worksheets with pre-prepared questions to be volunteered during the ‘interview’. Better still, use the first half of the lesson prior to the interview as a means of getting pairs of students to come up with their own questions. Then lead a class brainstorm until a dozen or so different questions have been written up. Each student then votes for their three favourite questions on the board. These can then be placed in rank order – the most popular to be answered first – with the student who framed each question being given the job of posing it to the interviewee. Between the two lessons, you will then have enough time to do any necessary research to answer every question effectively.

Whilst interviewing a single character can be great fun, a whole extra dimension is added by making the interview a “head to head” between two characters with opposing opinions. One of my favourite Year 8 lessons involves presenting myself as Martin Luther and giving deliberately provocative but substantiated responses to a series of pre-prepared questions (“Do you think that the Bible should be in Latin?”, “Are pilgrimages important?”). Storming out at the end of the interview, I then return as Pope Leo X to answer exactly the same questions from the opposite viewpoint. In the follow-up lesson, students explain which point of view they found most convincing and consider what the speakers agreed about (issues of fact) despite their obvious differences (issues of opinion). Biased newspaper reports can then be produced in favour of their candidate (“Luther wisely argued….but the Pope stupidly raged that…”), complete with a suitably one-sided headline. More challenging still, get students to act as arbitrators, writing a verdict on the key issues which they hope will prove acceptable to both sides. This format can easily be adapted for any historical issue in which partisan viewpoints are the order of the day: the clash between Becket and Henry II, the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland, the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.

Pushing things further, the ideal scenario involves the teacher taking the back seat and the students getting into the hot seat. For example, a classroom witch trial could involve selecting five girls to play women accused of witchcraft and inviting them to choose their own defence lawyer. Whilst they proceed to sit down with each other, the rest of the class is divided into 5 prosecution teams. The first “witch” is then given an information slip outlining the case against her, and the first prosecution team is handed the same information. Different scenario slips are handed to the other four pairs of teams. The job of all ten teams is to come up with three questions for their “witch”, either designed to let her off the hook (in the case of the defence – e.g. “Is it not true that you only confessed because Matthew Hopkins kept you awake four days and nights?”) or to damn her (“Is it not true that directly after you cursed the farmer he dropped down dead?”). Each defendant then stands in “the dock” answering questions from each side, with the rest of the class taking notes in a structured worksheet. At the end of the trial, each student is given three votes to cast against the witches they think are most guilty. The one receiving the most votes is then subjected to the dreaded “water test” by having a glass of “holy water” poured over their heads. If it appears to “reject” them by dribbling off, then they are guilty, whereas if it soaks into them they are innocent. From my experience, this lesson is an absolute hoot for everyone, even for the witch: just make sure the weather is isn’t too cold and the glass isn’t too full!

At this point, we are moving towards a full-blown debate, with the issues becoming more important than personalities. At GCSE, one of my favourite debates concerns the causes of World War Two. Students are put into small groups representing Italy, France, Britain, the USA, Germany and the USSR. Each pair of countries is then assigned to come up with one ‘killer’ question for the other designed to establish its guilt. These are then written up on the board and each team is given ten minutes to prepare an answer. One representative from each country then has to take the stand and answer the question given to them using whatever evidence they have available. The rest of the class jots down notes throughout the trial and, at the end of the exercise, allocates blame between each country to a total of 100% and explains their reasoning in a homework structured answer.

"There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good" - Stephen Colbert

#2 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 18 November 2003 - 07:22 PM

I am increasingly using hotseating in my lessons and it is a very enjoyable and stimulating activity. I have used a variety of different scenarios and a variety of different groups and as the students become more familiar with the technique the better the outcome. One of the most successful times came from a piece of work on the factory conditions in the 19th century. The class had built up a lot of prior knowledge about the conditions but I wanted them to understand more about the mindset of the factory owners (some positive, some negative). I asked the G&T students to research various factory owners and in the lesson the other students interviewed the G&T boys in their roles. It was really entertaining and excellent for both the interviewers and interviewee who were really stretched. Hotseating is a particularly good way of improving our students speaking and listening skills.
Until the lion has a historian of his own, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

#3 Andrew Field

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Posted 18 November 2003 - 07:29 PM

Indeed - as has already been said, hotseating is a fantastic activity to be added to the arsenal of potential teaching techniques. The fact that it is student-centered is the real bonus.

Setting two students against each other works particularly well, especially with the more able groups. The thread on Historical Boxing matches (now developed into historical tag team wrestling) is very relevant here. http://www.schoolhis...p?showtopic=838

Hotseating improves the skills that other activities don't cover - and is an excellent way to bring another dimension into the classroom. It also allows you to have a 'Historical Stars in their Eyes' moment when students leave the room as themselves to return in role. :D

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#4 Elle


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Posted 24 November 2003 - 07:40 AM

I enjoy hotseating lessons, but I don't do them that often. I did however try out the historical dueling which was mentioned in a previous thread I think the same one which Andrew is talking aboout) and the class losved it. They keep asking me to end early so that they can play it again.

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#5 Russel Tarr

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Posted 27 November 2003 - 09:37 PM

The Dissolution of the Monasteries Role Play is a lesson I have used just this week with great success - as well as getting the class buzzing in role as different characters, it really highlighted well the issue of utility and reliability in evidence.

"There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good" - Stephen Colbert

#6 johnmayo


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Posted 30 November 2003 - 12:10 PM

I have done a variation on Hotseating called the Great Cadbury Creme Egg Challenge. It is used as a revision activity. The class revise a chapter the night before. They draw lots on who goes first. If they can get five questions correct asked by their classmates, they get an egg. There is a time limit so it is in the class interest to get the the hotseater out so they can get their turn. Questions asked by desk rows.

One mistake I made the first time I tried it was to give an egg to a person who asked a question that was answered incorrectly. Basically it was a egg for every question asked. 21 creme eggs can be very expensive.

The only thing in life achieved without effort is failure


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