‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

‎”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video—one of WKCD’s “Case Studies in Practice” series—two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of the Urban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

Results are clear. A peer-reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League suggests that African American male students raised their GPAs by 50% of a letter grade and were 70% more likely to graduate from high school than non-debating peers. Compared to their non-debating peers, African American male debaters were 70% more likely to reach the ACT College Ready benchmark in Reading and twice as likely to reach the College Ready benchmark in English.

Michael said his grades, too, improved tremendously. “The season’s over, my last year is over,” he mused. “But I got into that habit, and that work ethic is going to stick with me. It’s good for yourself to know these things. You learn a lot of stuff that people should be knowing about, but actually don’t.”


3 thoughts on “‘With all due respect’: How debate sharpens thinking

  1. For all the quality information and reader insight present on this website, I can’t help but feel a bit disheartened to not see any comments or contributions on the subject of debate. From an old curmudgeon teacher perspective, this disappointment is nearly on par with the same feeling I get when I hear the manner in which a majority of today’s youth (i.e., my students) converse with one other. If it’s not their penchant for habitually using the word “like” as an interjection, or their constant relying on hedging thought, or “know what I mean” validation, then it’s their mind boggling ability to converse with each other in a manner that is far closer to the look and sound of a monologue being delivered to an absent, or entirely indifferent, audience than anything that I recognize as genuine conversation. Listening to their one-way speeches leads me to thinking about just how much today’s youth use and rely on technology as their preferred choice of communication at the expense of good old face-to-face listening and speaking. These eerily impersonal, one-sided exchanges make me reflect on the value of learning debate and reestablishing its art and discipline in the classroom.

    In the classroom, when we talk about effective student learning, we talk about many things but one thing that should never be forsaken in this discourse is the effectiveness of debate. Because debate addresses all the critical communication skill sets students need to learn and know, students and teachers alike would benefit greatly by reestablishing, or moving it closer, to the central learning objective and activity of the classroom.

    From a teaching English perspective, if we consider, for example, the common core standards in the five disciplines of English Language Arts: reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing, debate demands that we incorporate all of them effectively into one activity. Debate demands reading and research to gather useful, relevant information. Debate requires writing to craft research into coherent, logical order. Debate asks students to synthesize research, evidence and belief into effective speaking. Debate insists on close listening and attention to inform discourse and persuasion. Finally, debate reacts to and relies on viewing body language and relevant visual cues. How perfect of a single activity is that for making a connection between teaching goals and student needs? The sooner teachers can model and teach the debate process, the sooner the majority of common core learning standards can effectively be addressed, and the sooner we will see our students’ face-to-face conversation skills improve.

    Still, the question remains: Why is debate not being used more often as an effective teaching and learning tool in the classroom? The immediate response that comes to my mind is the simple fact that learning effective debate is no easy task. From the student end, learning effective debate skills takes diligent study and practice. From a teacher’s end, debate does not easily lend itself to efficiently moving students into higher order thinking. It takes diligent modeling and quality scaffolding. But there are ways to combat the debate learning curve. One way is to begin by modeling mini debates that scaffold each step in the process. A mini debate, for example, might consist of two students pairing off, choosing a common subject of interest and each taking an opposing viewpoint. The mini debate task would consist of developing a position that considers both a pro and a con and synthesizing that position into a three-sentence body that includes at least one piece of evidence, an introduction statement and a concluding sentence. After the initial debate presentation, students could then do a second run through where active peer critiquing (something strong–something weak, effectiveness, etc.) would be included.

    From a teaching perspective, scaffolding a mini debate exercise might look something like this: Assign research and writing process as a one-class period task using Internet or library resources. In the follow up class period, student pairs would then be required to make their first and second presentations in 5 minutes or less. Speed practicing a series of 1 to 2 minute mini debates with tight limits on presentation time could help decrease anxiety students may feel for public speaking while at the same time demand that they sharpen self editing skills to immediately hone in on key points. As student familiarity and confidence with debate form and effectiveness increases, debate time and depth could be expanded.

    These are just some thoughts and ideas from an old curmudgeon, nonetheless my sentiments are genuine; let’s keep the art of debate alive, well and prospering in our classrooms for it is an ideal learning platform that reaches across all academic disciplines to teach valuable communication and life long skills. In conclusion, let’s bring debate back to the classroom, because, umm, like, our students’ future depends on it – know what I mean?

  2. I really enjoyed reading Fires in the Mind. Motivating students to continue their learning outside of the classroom is a problem of the past. Now, teachers struggle to bring real learning into the classroom. Teachers struggle to create an in-school, classroom experience that is a relevant education for students who are sophisticated and engaged in activities that are meaningful to them but that do not connect to the school curriculum. Without being able to connect their classroom education to the stuff that matters to students after school, students lose interest in school. Can we blame them? They don’t see the point to succeeding in school, and as teachers we often forget to explicitly link success in school to success and satisfaction in life. The bottom line is that we need to make students realize that their in-school learning is part of their deliberate practice for living and working in “the real world,” and not just a pointless end in itself.

    This post on the Urban Debate League is a specific way to tie what we try to teach students in school to what they see as relevant and meaningful. As a student teacher in a high school English classroom, and a former lawyer, I see great value in teaching students to formulate clear arguments. Good argument is the result of careful reading, critical thinking, and effective communication skills, the ideals of the English Language Arts curriculum. In my brief but intensive teaching experience, I have found that it is difficult to convince students they need these skills for the rest of their lives, whether they plan to be a mechanic, basketball star, or a doctor. As Cushman has shown us, students avidly pursue their interests in cars, sports, and medicine outside of the classroom. So as teachers, we can bring their interests into the classroom, especially as English teachers, by letting them persuade others of how great their area of interest is, or why there are of interest is important. Such persuasive work is a gateway—after arguing itself becomes a student’s area of interest—into more practice arguing about content new and unfamiliar to the students, which will develop into lifetime language arts skills. So far, I had planned on having a mock trial this semester. Now I see that smaller debates in students’ areas of interest would further develop students’ persuasive abilities in a more sustainable way than a one-time trial.

    The high school where I teach does not have a debate team, unfortunately, and I did not take part in debate in high school. However, when I get my teaching license, I will be a part of the debate team, and if necessary, I will start my school’s debate team. This team will be incredibly important because it will expose students to experiences that Kathleen Cushman shows us are essential to sparking fires in students’ learning minds: Debate allows students the opportunity to have a place in their community. Debate places students squarely in the national community, by allowing them to argue about pressing, relevant national issues. Debate also actively positions students in their local community, by giving them the chance to appear in public to express themselves, either through performance and practice in debate team competitions, or through their increased profile in the community as informed citizens. Finally, debate builds students’ confidence in their ability to use what they read, write, and say to influence people and change the world. I had already decided I want to be part of the debate team when I become a certified teacher. With this extra push from Cushman and her motivated student subjects, I am very excited to get started!

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