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Balloon Debates

It can be difficult to think of debate topics that get students engaged. One that rarely fails is the balloon debate, as students have to debate as though their life depends on it!

The basic idea is that a number of people are travelling on a hot air balloon. As they approach a mountain they realise there is not enough fuel to get over the mountain. The only option therefore is for one (or more) people to make the ultimate sacrifice.

debate topics
A balloon debate brings a sense of urgency and danger that isn't found in other debate topics.


1: Assign roles to students for this exercise. You could ask students to think of a celebrity, which they write and pass to the person on their left. It is worth ensuring all students have a different celebrity.

2: Explain the premise of the activity. All the students are enjoying a hot air balloon ride and are passing over a mountain range (using local geography may increase interest). Unfortunately they haven’t got enough fuel and will crash unless they eject one (or several) celebrities. To decide who gets to live, they will have a debate.

3: Give students time to prepare their arguments for why they should get to live. Students may find it useful to consider questions such as “how does their job help people?” and “what can they give back after?” Students can also suggest other people to be thrown out and give reasons why.

4: Conduct debate. Allow each person to present their case for why they should stay. After, allow arguments about who they should throw out of the balloon and give these people a chance to defend themselves.

5: Finally, hold a vote to decide who to throw out of the balloon.

S1: I should stay because I’m a pop star. I have entertained millions of people. Little girls look up to me and will be heartbroken if I die. Also I have done a lot of charity work. I have given some of my wealth to schools in Africa. If you let me stay, I promise I will use all of the money from my next tour to fight poverty.
S2: I don’t think we need singers. Besides, she hasn’t had a good song in years. Anyway I’m a businessman and my empire is worth billions, so I can give more to charity.


1: The balloon occupants need not be celebrities but simply representatives of professions (e.g. a footballer, a nurse, an engineer). It may also help to provide students with role cards of the various professions in this case.

2: Because students benefit from repeated opportunities, this exercise can be easily refreshed. Instead of a soon-to-crash balloon, students could imagine they are in a plane with two few parachutes, or on a sinking ship with insufficient space for all on the lifeboat. It could also generate other debate topics based on the idea of scarcity and its impact on differing social groups. More advanced students may even be able to come up with their own debate topics.

Follow on:

Imagine you are back in civilization and speaking to a reporter/lawyer about the terrible events that happened on the balloon. Write a statement to sum up what happened on the balloon.

Example Roles:

The scientist

You are a researcher at a major university. You had a scientific breakthrough ten years ago when you discovered how to treat a rare disease. Presently you are focused on curing cancer. However, after ten years of research, you don’t appear to be any closer to a solution. You are divorced and never had children.

The factory worker

You are a low level employee in a big factory. You are married with five children. Your oldest child starts university soon. In your spare time, you are an active member of your community – coaching a children’s football team, helping out at a homeless shelter and driving a minibus for blind people.

The doctor

You are a sixty year old surgeon. Last week you saved three people who had been in a horrible car accident. You have been in medicine for thirty five years, but you will retire in the next few years to spend time with your wife, children and grandchildren.

The footballer

You are a young, gifted footballer with the potential to play for the biggest clubs. Already you earn a lot of money, but you have spent it all on cars and parties. You are single with no children.

The politician

You are a local politician who has been in office for five years. You are married and have two children at university. Recently you voted on several unpopular decisions, which has turned local people against you. However, you believe the decisions you made were in the best interests of the city.

photo credit: jurvetson Balloon in the French Alps via photopin (license)

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