How to Use a Four-Corners Debate Lesson in Social Studies Class

four-corner debate engages students in a high-level thinking activity that reinforces content learned and hones speaking skills. Throw in some kinesthetic activity and you have a winner of a lesson. You can conclude the lesson with a reflective written response to really knock it out of the park!


Students formulate opinions about controversial statements that are based on the unit being covered. They choose from four points of view: strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree.

The fundamentals of a 4-corner debate are as follows: You, as the teacher, create controversial statements about the topic to be covered. Each student chooses their level of agreement or disagreement and records evidence to support their stand (hopefully reflecting content knowledge of the subject matter). Next they physically move to one corner of the classroom labeled with their stand (hence the name) and the debate ensues.


  • This method of dividing students into 4 groups rather than the usual 2 when debating gives more students a chance to be heard.
  • It includes various learning styles: writing, speaking and listening in a very active manner.
  • Students are moving around, oxygenating their legs and brains.
  • This is a great way to reinforce content that has been covered. A student who may have forgotten or not been clear on an event will hear it again as evidence in the debate.
  • It encourages deep analysis of the material.
  • Administrators LOVE to see a good debate in class. Consider trying it a couple of times until your students really have it down and use this format for your observation lesson.


  1. Prior to students entering the room post 4 clear signs around the room: STRONGLY AGREE, AGREE, DISAGREE AND STRONGLY DISAGREE
  2. Distribute a student handout (if you don’t have time to make your own try mine) as they enter the room. Allow 5-7 minutes for them to contemplate and respond in writing to each controversial statement.
  3. Students are then asked to stand at the corner of the room labeled with their opinion.
  4. The 4 groups discuss and identify their strongest arguments. Each group can choose a presenter.
  5. Each corner of the room delivers their best 1-3 arguments.
  6. Groups can question each other or refute arguments.
  7. When the discourse is slowing continue on to the next controversial statement and repeat steps 3-6. So they will be moving to a diffierent corner, depending on the issue to be debated.
  8. As a conclusion students can choose one of the statements they feel the most strongly about and write a paragraph defending their stand.


Sometimes you will get a student who adamantly states that he does not have an opinion on a particular statement.

When this happens I have him stand in the middle of the room, listen to the four points of view, them join a group and explain why he chose it.

I like to have at least 3 controversial statements for a single-period class. You may not get to debate all three AND have the students write a reflective paragraph, but if one of the topics falls flat you can just jump to the next one.

After a single round of debating, you can poll the class to see if any students want to change corners, based upon some strong argument from another corner and discuss why.

This lesson can be scaffolded and made into a two-day lesson.

  • Day one would entail students reading documents that would help them to formulate and support their opinions.
  • Day two would be engaging in the actual debate and the reflective paragraph summing it all up. (I would use at least 4 controversial topics if you use this variation)


World History 

  • The Neolithic Revolution was a negative turning point because it created social classes and all ensuing problems in society.
  • Imperialism is natural; the strong will always control the weak.
  • India and Pakistan should have created one nation when they gained independence.
  • Nationalism/Religion/Industrialization caused more harm than good.
  • Communism is the most equitable political and economic system.
  • Marx was right, no individual should own property.
  • Capitalism rewards the best and the brightest.
  • Rwanda would have been better off had they not gained independence.
  • The Hutus had the right to seek revenge against the Tutsis
  • Geography is no longer a hindrance to economic growth.
  • Human trafficking can never be obliterated.

United States History  mount rushmore

  • Words do cause harm; therefore the First Amendment should be weakened.
  • Private citizens should not own guns.
  • George Washington is not a hero because he owned slaves.
  • The U.S. treatment of native Americans is natural; it’s Social Darwinism at work.
  • Lincoln’s refusal to allow the south to secede was an act of imperialism.
  • The Civil War was necessary.
  • The south should have had the right to secede as a sovereign nation.
  • Descendants of slaves should receive reparations.
  • The protests of the 1960’s caused more harm than good.
  • The conformity of the 1950’s created a more peaceful society.
  • The Supreme Court should not have the power to change laws because the people do not elect them.
  • Nationalism/Industrialization caused more harm than good.
  • A flat tax is more equitable than a progressive tax.
  • Corporations should not pay taxes because they create jobs.


I have used this four-corners model many times and it almost always works well. As with all teaching methods, students often do better after they have practiced a few times.

You can utilize these debates at the end of any unit or topic, but they must have enough background knowledge to speak to the subject. A homework assignment the night before can also better prepare students.

4-corner debate resource cover
Click on the picture to check out the resource

If you have any comments or questions please share them at

Warmest wishes, Joan

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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