Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Balloon

On Friday I had the great pleasure of working with Chelsea to develop a lesson plan which incorporated a maker kit. We had such a high-energy discussion that we came up with a series of integrated, cross-curriculum lessons. We wanted to have a balloon debate. Before the debate, our students would use the squishy circuits kits to design and build voting machines. During the debate they would be voting for one of five characters by lighting the relevant colored light on their voting machines.

Here are the kits.

In our revised plans, Chelsea has concentrated on the building of the voting machines. (link to her post)

I have revised and fleshed-out the lesson on the research and conduct of the balloon debate. We based our debate on the characters from the first Harry Potter book, in order to give readers a template they might understand readily. We’re not suggesting that Harry Potter is the ideal book for 7th grade literature (although it could be). In the U.S., the book is titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In the U.K., however, its original title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I have adapted the U.K. title for this post, because a good balloon debate is, indeed, an inquiry-based philosophical discussion.

Pedagogically, the lesson plan is inquiry based, and requires high-level collaboration and analytical skills.

Balloon debates should only be used where this is no clear right answer. Balloon debates must be moderated by the teacher in such a way that who wins is irrelevant to the engagement of all. Indeed, properly moderated, students will have as much fun being thrown out of the balloon, as they have staying in it.

If the teacher, as moderator, achieves this, then a balloon debate will be inquiry based from start to finish. A  poorly moderated debate degenerates into a competition, and the benefits of inquiry cease. The activity of preparing and presenting your character’s case, responding to other cases, and deciding how to vote, are all inquiry based. The energy in the room during this process is testament to the creativity of the activity. There is no source that will provide the answers – students must create something new.

A high velocity activity like a balloon debate will generate a lot of conceptual material for students to process. The reflection questions are set as homework (or a next day activity) in order to switch the students into a processing mode, where they make their own sense of the materials presented. As the activity has two layers – the content and the process of the debate – students need time to reflect on both levels. “Was my character treated fairly?” and “Was I treated fairly?” are equally relevant questions. Solo, quiet reflection allows students to address both. A group discussion, on the other hand, may limit the reflection to the content at the expense of the process. Both are sources of learning.

A successful balloon debate followed by individual reflection will capture the benefits of inquiry on many levels, and  make explicit the link between  the development of characters in stories, and the development of the individual who is reading the story. Because that, after all, is why we study literature. There is no other subject in K-12 education on which we spend so many instructional hours without any thought of it leading to a specific job skill. I contend that we study literature because it provides the multiple contexts that, as Bransford, Brown, and Cocking state, allow for abstraction. Students abstract human nature and use it to inform their own development.

References Bransford, J., Brown, A.L. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (pp. 3-27). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

You can find my revised lesson plan here:


Harry Potter and the ultimate debate.
Harry Potter and the Ultimate Debate. Film poster for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II”, Warner Brothers.