In Brief 

In this lesson, students explore the influence of physical space and framing language on the chances of a discussion remaining hospitable to multiple voices.


  • Students will compare the effects of different physical environments on deliberative processes.
  • Students will analyze factors that create nudges toward conflictual modes of engagement.

Thinking Ahead 

The debate is an appealing format for popular media, with its promise of an issue neatly laid out in two opposing sides and its potential for colorful conflict and partisan energy. Perhaps for similar reasons, staging a debate in class is a common school activity—but what does such an activity implicitly teach students about how issues are structured and how things move forward? Does it allow for a hospitable stance toward different perspectives, groups, and individuals? Many issues are much more complex than two opposing sides, and the zero-sum game of winning/losing a debate is often not the best approach to deliberation when trying to tackle civic challenges. This lesson asks students to step back from the process of debating and ask questions about how the framing of discussion by space and a label can influence how the discussion goes. You can refer back to the discussions in this class when other discussions arise in class later in the year. As you reflect with students on the stances implicit in ways of discussing and deciding, you may find it helpful to read the Insights material on hospitality and teaching.

Preparing the Activities 

For this lesson you will need:

Teaching the Activities 

Phase 1: Discussing Spaces (15 minutes)

This opening activity can be conducted as a whole class activity or in small groups according to your preference. If teaching to the whole class, display the four images of decision-making spaces on slide 1. (These are 1. The US Supreme Court, 2. The British House of Commons, 3. The US Congress (source), and 4. the Hemicycle of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.) If students are working in small groups, either make these images available to them digitally or provide them on the handout with one copy for the whole group. Ask students to comment on:

  • Who makes decisions in these spaces?
  • What kinds of decisions are made in these spaces?
  • Describe the physical features and layout of these spaces.
  • How might the various seating arrangements influence the decision-making process?

Debrief with the class and then list all the seating arrangements they can think of when it comes to spaces where people make decisions (horseshoe/fishbowl, lecture, pods, boardroom, semi-circle, circle, courtroom, etc.). Ask students to predict the effects of each of these on a discussion—how are we likely to discuss differently if we sit in a circle, or opposite one another?

Then ask students to read the article GOP Seating Arrangement Changed the Debate. The article is about seating arrangement and communication. If you would like to make this opening activity shorter, the article could be pre-read before class if assigned the day before. After allowing a few minutes for reading, return briefly to discussion—ask students to summarize the key points, comment on whether their predictions were confirmed, and relate these back to the layouts for deliberative bodies in the opening photos.

Phase 2: Debates (35 minutes)

The next step involves physically moving furniture around the classroom space. If your space does not allow you to move furniture into all the listed arrangements, you can just experiment with a select few. If your space does not allow you to move furniture at all, we suggest finding an alternative classroom space or an open space where movement is possible.

Since moving furniture can easily become time consuming and interrupt the flow, plan ahead to streamline the process. Providing an image on a slide of each arrangement that you plan to use and using a timer as an incentive for students to reproduce the assigned layout can help to speed things up.

Prepare a few simple, lively but non-threatening topics which students can briefly debate (e.g. pizza is better than pasta).

For each topic, follow this sequence (you should be able to complete it at least twice in the time):

  • Announce that students are going to briefly debate some everyday topics. Be sure to use the term “debate.”
  • Arrange the tables and chairs into one of the formations discussed in Phase 1. The goal here is to try a range of contrasting layouts—e.g. circles, rows facing one another, or all facing a presider.
  • Divide the class in half regardless of their actual preference OR allow them to choose sides based on their preference as long as it’s not too imbalanced.
  • Have them choose their own seats. How they choose to seat themselves will be discussed later.

This exercise is not meant to be a formal debate, so after posing the topic again, anyone can begin to make an argument for their side. However, you should still act as moderator, making sure they stay on topic. Allow 5 minutes for debate. Debrief their experience with the following questions for 6-8 minutes, encouraging students to notice factors such as eye contact, proximity, etc.:

  • When given the choice to choose your own seats, what factored into your decision?
  • Did you feel a sense of superiority or inferiority based on where you sat? Why or why not?
  • Did the seating arrangement help create any sense of unity or division? How so?
  • Did any location encourage or discourage you to speak? How so?
  • How did seating arrangement affect your ability to listen well? Did you feel well listened to?
  • Which arrangement was most hospitable to the most voices?

Phase 3: Final Discussion (10 minutes)

Finally, comment that during today’s class we asked questions about physical space and about how we interacted in it—what did we still take for granted? What was still left unquestioned? If students have other suggestions, respond respectfully to them; if students do not identify it as a possibility, ask them what expectations are set by calling the interaction a “debate”? Elicit that “debate” commonly implies two sides, two incompatible positions, and the need to arrive at a winner and a loser. Point out that popular media often frame current issues in terms of a debate or confrontation between two sides. Ask students what the downside of this linguistic frame might be for discussing complex public issues. What if we thought instead in terms of a negotiation, or deliberation, or council? How might the “debates” in phase 2 have gone differently if they were not thought of as debates or arguments but as, say, consultations?


Ask students to journal on the following prompt:

How do you know if a discussion was successful? Was it successful if you won, or if as many voices as a possible were heard, or if the issue was clarified, or something else?


It is common in civics programs to conduct a classroom exercise in which students work together to negotiate a class constitution with rules for their interaction. If you teach such a class, you can use the work in these two lessons, which ask students to reflect on parts of the process of coming to decisions, to frame how students approach the process. For instance, instead of starting with direct work on coming up with rules for the class, students could begin with intentional deliberation on how the process of arriving at rules should go, based on their reflections here.

Previous Lesson
Deciding How to Decide

In this lesson, students examine the rules and norms that shape the way citizens in democracies deliberate about concerns that they have in common.

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