Slow Learning: Mitten Ball Debates — Shannon Dea, Department of Philosophy


Sometimes, great teaching and learning solutions are right at our fingertips.

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a winter term night course. It was mid-way through the term and the students were clearly exhausted. My usually participatory class clammed up, and I had to do something.

I stopped “delivering lectures” per se years ago. As I’ve grown into my teaching, I’ve become less and less concerned about transmitting content, and much more interested in helping my students to engage with the material sufficiently that they’ll be motivated to seek out the content on their own. So, nowadays, I’m more of a facilitator or master of ceremonies than a lecturer. I don’t tell my students what the readings say; they tell me. And, as they do so, they tell me what’s plausible about the positions we’re considering and what requires a more critical response.

I’ve developed a bunch of different methods to encourage students to participate in class discussions, but that night nothing was working. My mind raced as I struggled to think of a way to kickstart the conversation. And, then it clicked.

I grabbed my wool mittens from my coat pockets, turned them inside-out into a soft ball and told my students, “Ok. Time for a mitten ball debate.”

I wrote a controversial statement related to that week’s material on the board. Then, I drew an imaginary line down the middle of the lecture hall and told the students that everyone left of the line was on the “Pro” side and everyone right of the line was on the “Con” side.  I gave them a few minutes to gather their thoughts and jot them down before elaborating the rules of the game:

  • The only person permitted to speak is the person holding the mitten ball.
  • Speakers must make new points, not repeat those points other speakers have already made.
  • No one may hold the mitten ball more than once.
  • After one has finished speaking, s/he must toss the mitten ball to someone on the other side of the lecture hall (and, hence, on the other side of the debate).
  • If you catch the mitten ball and have nothing to say, you may toss it to someone else on your side who has not yet participated.
  • Whichever team runs out of novel comments first loses. (Or, more constructively, whichever team doesn’t run out of points wins.)

I closed my eyes and tossed the ball toward the students.

And it worked. The discussion that followed was energetic and engaging. And, in the remaining weeks of the term, the students themselves several times requested mitten ball debates. There were several mentions of the mitten ball on student evaluations of the course, including such pseudo-koans as “Trust the mitten ball.”

So, what is it about mitten ball debates that students like? I’m still working it through, but here are a few of my ideas about this:

  • It’s fun to throw things. Moreover, having to follow a projectile with one’s eyes, to throw and to catch, pulls students out of the “alpha state” they so often slip into in three-hour classes. Just that little bit of physicality can make a huge cognitive difference.
  • Mitten ball debates involve everyone, not just the smartypants who sit in the front row with their hands up all the time. Students too easily fall into patterns about who the speakers are in the class and who the non-speakers are. Mitten ball debating is premised on breaking those patterns. And, students are often grateful when the usual suspects don’t get to weigh in three times on the same point. (The corresponding advantage for instructors is that, in a mitten ball debate, one need never say, “That’s another really great point, Smartypants, but let’s hear what someone else has to say…”)
  • Mitten ball debating takes the pressure off to make the best point. Since the game just requires teams to come up with as many points as possible, students are helping their team just as much with comparatively weak points as with strong ones. This means there’s less stigma associated with “saying something stupid.”

There are a few different ways you can run a mitten ball debate. You can, as I did, arbitrarily assign a position to each side of the class. Or, you can allow students to move to whichever side of the class corresponds to their own view. Alternatively, you might ask students to move to whichever side corresponds to the opposite of their own view. Adducing evidence for the opposite side is always a great exercise!

And, of course, there’s nothing saying you have to limit the teams to two. In a Classics class, for example, one could divide the class in three and have a mitten ball debate about the comparative merits of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Crassus.

When I’ve held mitten ball debates, inevitably, some students colour outside of the lines – either “crossing the floor” once they become persuaded of their opponents’ position, or remaining where they are but shouting suggestions to the opposite side when they notice an argument the other team has neglected.

Fine by me. After all, the point of a mitten ball debate isn’t to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules, but to warm students up to a topic that at first leaves them cold. I suppose it should come as no surprise that, even in the depths of the winter term, mittens help to provide a little warmth.

Have your own ideas about why mitten balls work? Or, tips to share about cool teaching and learning solutions you figured out on the fly? Log in below to comment, or email me at sjdea at uwaterloo dot ca.

Shannon Dea is currently the Teaching Fellow for the Faculty of Arts. This blog post originally appeared on the Arts Teaching Fellow Blog

Leave a Reply