Balloon Debates

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How do you promote speaking and listening skills?

Have you been watching Channel 4’s Mutiny?

Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, nine men recreate the 4000-mile trip of Captain Bligh in a tiny wooden boat after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. In one episode, things got fraught and the crew voted for one of their social loafing shipmate Chris to ‘leave’ because he wasn’t pulling his weight, not acting in the interests of the team. The Captain, Ant Middleton allowed him to stay, but then Chris eventually voted himself off after realising he was so unpopular! Middleton and the crew breathe a sigh of relief.

This reminds me of a brilliant discussion-based ‘classic’ activity that always promotes plenty of talk and active listening – a balloon debate. Balloon debates are also known as lifeboat or raft debates and they all adopt the same idea – something or someone has to be ejected!

Hot Air

A balloon debate encourages children to imagine the hypothetical situation of a hot-air balloon which is too heavy and rapidly losing height.

The balloon basket might hold a group of famous people, authors, celebrities, particular professions or even objects, inventions, numbers or concepts. Children then discuss and debate why some should be allowed to stay and why something or someone should go (with a parachute of life jacket).

Rather than being just a lot of hot air, balloon debates are superb ways to improve children’s speaking and listening skills. They have to compare and contrast ideas together and share different trains of thought before attempting to reach a consensus. Some are easier than others but others can be more complicated and can involve some sort of moral dilemma.


You are in a hot air balloon which is rapidly losing height and unless you get rid of someone the whole balloon will crash. Who would you ask to leave and why?

President Trump, President Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un, Pope Francis, President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Theresa May

I won’t get into who or why in this debate but you can see the potential for discussion!

Very often the hardest decision to make when creating your own balloon debate is deciding what/who goes into the balloon basket. They are a great way of promoting research and they motivate learners to find out more about people they may never have encountered before. Here is another example,

Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Jane Goodall, Gertrude Elion, Irene Joliot-Curie, Hedy Lamarr, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie


Balloon Debates work right across the curriculum and this is just one of many strategies that you can find in Russell Tarr’s A History Teaching Toolbox. Richard is the author of

You will also find Richard’s other website immensely useful because on there you will find templates, tips and lessons devoted to balloon debates and how to run a balloon debate session.

I have always found them useful in my subject specialism for finding out what children know, don’t know and partly know about numbers and shapes.

For example,

6 numbers are in a balloon but one of them has to go but which one and why?

3.14, 10, 0, ½, 2, 6

Each number has a reason why they should be left in the balloon but can you think of the reasons why?

Although balloon debates focus on a particular feature, idea or theme , they are deliberately open-ended so that there are always a range of possible outcomes. Balloon debates are an exciting assessment opportunity because they can expose what children know about particular people, events or ideas and this is also a way of encouraging them to go and research more.

You can also find many examples of balloon debates to use in class with a range of learners and there are some great ideas at the University of Kent. Try also the English Speaking Union and their resource on holding a balloon debate.

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