Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Making the Case for Teaching Students to Debate

By Paul Deards — August 12, 2014 5 min read
Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas … John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon ... even Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan Quayle—American history is filled with great debates that have made an indelible impact on our country’s collective memory. In fact, debating could be seen as a national pastime, as American as apple pie and baseball.

Today, as we in the education world consider how best to modify our curriculum to help students navigate a rapidly changing world, I strongly recommend that any changes incorporate the study of debate. While debate is typically a college- or high-school-level pursuit, some middle schools (including mine) are introducing formal debate study, and I would urge more middle schools and even elementary schools to do so.

Research supports this development. It has been demonstrated already that debaters in high school show improved academic performance and fewer disciplinary and behavioral problems than non-debaters. Student debaters also have a much higher likelihood of attending and graduating from college than their non-debater peer groups. But research also tells us that middle school is a period of considerable brain growth with the shift from concrete to abstract processing and growing capabilities in problem solving, planning, and critical thinking. Debate can support and enhance brain development as an activity requiring and honing these skills.

There are various debate formats, but all share the following: structure, rules and procedure, teams of participants, reliance on evidence, and the need to rebut arguments presented. In the fledgling arena of middle school debate competition, students are given a topic to prepare for, usually in teams of three. The topics can be edgy: “Do common-core standards work?” “Is Edward Snowden a traitor?”

The process is valuable for all students because it teaches many of the so-called softer skills now linked to future success."

Interestingly, student-debaters generally do not learn which side they will be assigned in advance. This uncertainty requires them to think through the issue with an open mind and, channeling empathy, to see how others might present a case in which they might not personally believe.

During preparation, the students might start from a given information package, but they will certainly use the Internet to find additional news articles and information to amplify their understanding of a topic. (The debate format allows an opponent to challenge each point a speaker makes, so the ability to cite sources is critical.)

Young debaters have to also figure out who will speak first and who will make what points; earlier speakers, in particular, must draft persuasive language to convey the points.

Once an actual debate commences, other skills come into play. Thirty minutes before a debate, children find out which side they are arguing. They then must transcribe their notes onto one sheet of paper. Because that is all they can take into the debate with them, facility with consolidation is key. This demonstrates the new challenges presented by the ever-increasing volume of information at our fingertips. The modern problem is not finding information; it is identifying the truly important information and separating it from the white noise.

Kids also have to stand in front of a crowd and speak, a skill that improves with practice. They have to think on their feet when challenged and listen carefully to the other side, noting every argument and, in real time, find an argument to refute each point.

Teamwork is critical here, and rapid whispered communication of ideas is essential, as is the ability to bolster the spirits and enhance the positions of a teammate, even if he or she messed up. And, importantly, students must listen to the judges’ comments and suggestions calmly and, win or lose, show grace and, ideally, leave determined to try even harder next time. The process is so engaging that the rewards of hard work are immediately evident.

I have witnessed these rewards firsthand on many occasions, most recently in June, at the Speyer Legacy School in New York City, where I serve as head of the middle school. Almost 100 elementary school children—30 students from Speyer and more than 60 students from high-poverty public schools in New York City and Washington affiliated with the nonprofit organization Turnaround for Children—participated in a one-day debate “boot camp” during which the kids were divided into 30 teams of three; each team included two Turnaround students and one Speyer student. All of the students were coached on debate tactics by 30 trained volunteers from Goldman Sachs as part of the company’s Community TeamWorks 2014 initiative.

For the children at my school, such a program is nothing new. Debating is part of the established curriculum here; it is introduced to children in kindergarten as a way to stimulate minds and discourse, and then reinforced in subsequent school years, both in the classroom and through the school debate team. For the kids from high-poverty schools, however, the day was eye-opening. While they had learned about debating in the weeks leading up to the boot camp, their debate knowledge accelerated during their time at Speyer.

Clearly, for all students who take part, debate offers more than simply academic enrichment. The process is valuable for all students because it teaches many of the so-called softer skills now linked to future success. Thinkers such as Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, focus on young people’s need for subtler abilities.

These skills, loosely categorized as elements of emotional intelligence, include the capacity to persevere through setbacks (grit), the facility to bring existing knowledge to a novel situation (creativity), comfort in working with others and knowing when to lead and when to follow (collaboration), the capability to confront the seemingly infinite volumes of information on any topic and select the relevant data (research), and sensitivity to what a target audience is thinking so that such data can be presented persuasively (empathy). The debate curriculum teaches young people much of what they’ll need to know in these areas by active, engaging, and highly direct means.

The increasingly polarized nature of our national political conversation, the exponential growth of technology’s impact, and easy access to competing statistical claims can be daunting and perhaps disheartening.

If we want future generations of students to see beyond the haze of 24-hour news punditry and to use critical thinking to get to the heart of what’s important, if we want them to go beyond participating in a conversation to actually raising the level of national discourse, and if we want them to stop the use of contrived political debate as a tool of distraction and begin its use as a tool to address complex problems, we had better start teaching them the means to do so early.

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