Truth or Triumph: why the classic 'debate' activity deserves an update

pedagogy Mar 11, 2019

Just as you can count on fireworks on the 4th of July or leftovers on Boxing Day, you can expect a good ol' fashioned debate in the high school classroom.

Whether it take the form of a single-day activity or a weeks-long research project, many of us rely on the classic 'Debate' activity as a means for scaffolding the writing process, teaching students about the importance of research, and helping them hone the craft of public speaking.

But perhaps one of the best things about running a debate is the engagement it inspires. Suddenly, students who've never said *boo* during class discussion are on their feet, arms flailing, pens scribbling, whispering feverishly with their partners as they hastily prepare what they're going to say on behalf of the team.

And much of this magical behavior has to do with the interest teens take in winning. They enjoy a challenge, and they're motivated to be on-point as a reflection of their own, personal best.

What's more (they don't even realize it but), engaging in debate equips our kids with a serious, 21st-century skill set. The process teaches them everything from collaboration and creativity, to grit, empathy and resilience.

But there's an underbelly to the almighty debate, too...

Former national debate champion and current Yale U undergrad, Jack McCordick, shares from 'student perspective' how debate may be to blame for egging on the increasingly divisive culture we're surrounded by these days.

In an article he wrote, 'The corrosion of high school debate--and how it mirrors American politics', McCordick tells about his previous experiences as a member of the debate team at his high school in New York.

In particular, he reflects on how the quality of the program's focus has declined over the years: 'high school debate today is basically an intellectual game, not an exercise in truth-seeking...with little care for the argument's...real-world application.'

He's speaking, of course, about the unintelligible speed-speaking, the sly rhetorical tricks, and the overall warped logic that have come to characterize many a Policy and Lincoln-Douglass debate.

So *granted*, our innocent ELA-based Debate Unit isn't attached to the intensity of the National Forensics League or anything...

...and as such, we aren't coaching our kids to 'spread' (speed + read) at the rate of 300 words per minute. We're not having them read their speeches while clenching a pen between their teeth, practice tongue twisters, or read their work backwards in order to 'improve' their ability to annunciate.

We're not in that deep, yo.

Our students are just practicing the art of argument in the form of a project or activity. We learn, we have fun, and then we move on.

But it's what McCordick said that really got me thinking about the role of debate as we know it in our classroom, and I found myself asking:

Does our well-meaning, classroom debate activity inadvertently place value on victory (of the act) over truth (of the research)?

I found myself realizing that in this brave, new, digital season, it might be time our classic, classroom 'debate' got an update...

For years, I did what any well-intended teacher might do when running a student-led debate. I'd strike the bargain that they could pick their topic, so long as I got to pick who would argue on which side.

That way, they'd genuinely be interested in what they're studying, but wouldn't necessarily get the angle they wanted, thereby forcing students to rely on their understanding of 'argument,' as opposed to emotion, personal opinion, or preconceived notion.

So once students organized into groups of 4, I would issue their assignment by splitting each group into two sides--affirmative and negative teams. From there, debate partners got right down to work unearthing research to back their positions before hitting the podium for the main event.

And then off we went...round after round, rebuttal after rebuttal. Timer in hand, strict guidelines for letting the speaker speak.

They were excited, they were respectful. They were into it.

In fact, they positively couldn't wait for the final call:

'Who won, Miss??' they'd beg.

The excitement in the room was palpable, with every ear perched for the result. (We, teachers, kill for these hyper-engaged moments!)

But man, did I have it all wrong.

In many of these instances, my students were so busy focusing on the product, they had no eye for the process. Instead of trying to understand the varied, and unique perspectives (as these drive the argument and all), they immediately lost themselves exclusively in their own defense.

And all that mattered was winning the audience over.

In other words, once our debaters are given a side, sure, they might look at opposing views as part of their research (you might even require them to, like I used to). But even still, it never occurs to them to give genuine consideration to positions beyond their own *other than* prepping these ideas for rebuttal...

Over the years, I tweaked my unit to include a 'preliminary research phase'. During this initial phase, I required them to research both sides evenly, preparing themselves for whichever side I handed them as their assignment.

That'll get 'em, I thought.

But this step was *still* cockamamie because once they received their 'real' assignments for the actual debate, an air of certitude lingered oppressively over all proceedings...

And boy was their allegiance fierce.

Even during rebuttal rounds, where listening is crucial, they weren't actually hearing each other.

When we ask our students to argue for or against preset claims, we're inviting them to blindly accept only information which aligns with the belief we've assigned them to, and we're asking them to defend at all costs their side.

(And if this sounds familiar to the current socio-political climate, you're probably right...)

So it's therefore quite possible that the current framework for debate inadvertently communicates this idea that 'research' is merely a process by which one ceaselessly seeks victory over truth.

So what can we do to keep the classic activity we love, yet redirect this message?

Well, the pivot is in the process, y'all...

Literally! By focusing on the process as opposed to a win-lose product, we can help our students better understand how real arguments work, and how they can help make the world a better place.

The goal of researching for a debate should be to develop thoughtful, complex, nuanced perspectives, not blindly accept-and-fight-to-the-death an assigned or preconceived one.

So here are a few tweaks worth making to your existing framework:

#1 | Let them change their mind.

One thing the current debate framework doesn't tolerate is allowing students to change their mind. This is not only unrealistic, but it also minimizes the opportunity for students to develop rich, nuanced perspectives. Instead, they retreat to one of the two, polar opposite poles and don their crown of certitude as they prepare their 'research' for the main stage.

Not the kind of social citizen I envision as productive, you know what I mean?!

So first of all, you're welcome to help yourself to this free handout as a starting point, which talks to students about the genesis of nuance, i.e. how to express their ideas in more nuanced ways:

And second of all, think about restructuring your debate format from a binary to a continuum. Instead of picking or assigning sides, and only focusing on that as the research, let students start on a side but move as they learn.

Recently, I did a webinar on several of the mistakes we might be making in teaching argument in the high school classroom. Mistake #2 involved the issue of teaching issues in black-and-white, or teaching argument as a binary. Watch the clip below:

In short, consider shifting your debate structure toward something more akin to Philosophical Chairs, where students begin by taking a side, but then use dialogue and exchange as a fulcrum for movement along the continuum (as opposed to cherry picking readings online that fit the echo chamber of their original position!).

In the end, you can ask them to defend their position in traditional debate format, but only after they've seen their way thoroughly through the process of arriving at that perspective!

In this sense, the debate becomes an inside job. It shifts the burden onto truth-seeking, and away from mere 'trophy'-winning.

Aside from a variation like Philosophical Chairs, I also invite you to explore the Change My View (CMV) framework in your classroom. In a previous post, I talked all about the amazing benefits of this approach to argument (literally a mindset shift away!) because the emphasis is, again, more about truth-seeking than winning.

And by the way...if you don't feel comfortable using the 'live' CMV platform in your class, which is a public, online forum, then by all means, mimic the nature of its structure! (e.x. CMV's system for awarding deltas is a great way to speak to students' interest in winning without making it all about 'the win'.)

#2 | Change the way they read their research.

For each article or other bit of research your students gather, ask them to work through Peter Elbow's process of 'believing and doubting' (Writing without Teachers):

First, they would read the article looking for spots where they're nodding in agreement; then they read it a second time looking for instances where skepticism sets in. You can have them add this information to large posters or onto sticky notes that go into their research notebooks.

TIP| If your students have difficulty wrapping their minds around this concept of reading the same article from two different angles, try 'The House' as a warm-up, which is a reading activity meant to help students understand purpose and perspective.

In this activity, you read the description of a house/property, with students listening to the details from different perspectives: a homeowner, a real estate agent, a thief, etc. Depending on which set of ears they're listening from, they'll find value in very different details!

#3 | Encourage consistent reflection + other metacognitive practices.

Instead of debate in the traditional sense, what if the 'main event' wasn't always a mere 'presentation of evidence' as the primary means for persuading the audience, but instead, a presentation of the process students went through to arrive at a given perspective?

As a spin on the old speech, students would approach the podium with the same intentions--to convince their audience--but in addition to 'all the facts' they've learned about the issue, their argument would be colored with the decisions they made as they engaged with this evidence.

So they would frame their speech around how and why they changed their mind--or what information and exchanges they encountered that shift their mindset--as a means for convincing us to do the same!

By doing it this way, the debaters are not just regurgitating the facts they found (and doing so at an alarming rate, lol), they're showing how they actually processed these facts and made sense of them in order to arrive at a judgment. This is the deeper work of critical thinking.

To wrap it all up...

I'm not saying debate is wrong. The research is there to prove the tremendous benefits it has on student growth and development. And by the energy it creates in my classroom, debating days are far from over for me.

But I am calling into question how we carry out this age-old classic i.e. where we place the emphasis of its point and purpose.

We have to be sure we don't pit our students in a binary of pro/con when we teach them about arguments because this is the kind of practice that begs polarized thinking.

And we have to be mindful of where we place the value when carrying out debate. Is it about victory? Or is it about truth? Are we assigning them what to think? Or are we letting them linger on their thoughts before committing to a claim?

Rather than cutting straight to a fixed (whether self-selected or assigned!) mindset, students need time to unpack perspectives before wedding themselves to them, thus nurturing nuance and building empathy along the way.

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