11/01/2006

Debate - It's misunderstood

Many teachers believe that debating is something you do once, or a few times, and then it's done. Or, alternately, they never have debates in class at all - thinking that there's no time (thank you, pacing guide!), or that they don't have the necessary expertise. I'd like to suggest that there's nothing intrinsically valuable about debate. Now, this may come as somewhat of a surprise given that I administer a debating website, direct a gigantic debating program, and have written a bunch of books about debating. When I say that there's nothing intrinsically good about debate, it's just like saying that there's nothing intrinsically good about writing a research paper. What's good about writing a research paper is the way that the project exercises a complementary set of component skills, such as researching, summarizing, outlining, constructing a thesis statement, making subjects and verbs agree, and so forth -- it's a convenient (if difficult) way to have students work on all of those different skills at the same time - the mental equivalent of cross training. Debate works in the same way. Done correctly, it builds research competence, media literacy, reading comprehension, argument literacy (more on that one in just a second), evidence evaluation, summarization and outlining, public speaking, conflict resolution, civil discussion skills, critical thinking, and note taking. I've even made a handy chart that details these skills in relation to our program. You can download it by clicking here. Done poorly, debate provides a mixed bag- people yelling at each other, students reading from scripts that they didn't write, and so forth. Students need the skills associated with debate first. And if they learn those, even if you don't have time to have a series of classroom debates, you'll still have taught the basics. I think there are three essential, basic debate skills: 1. Argumentation 2. Refutation 3. Note taking Note that public speaking and listening don't appear in this list. That's because listening is part of refutation and note taking, so I don't list it separately. I prefer to list the way it's operationalized. As for public speaking, I've found that students master speaking more effectively if they have the tools and content for their speeches- like most of us, they're more comfortable speaking if they know what to do, and speaking ability builds over time with debating. I think teaching content first is the best way to teach speaking, especially with students who are nervous about speaking (like most normal adults) or who don't speak English as their home language. So, a few notes about each of these skills: 1. Argumentation. The easy way to teach this is to reinforce it across all lessons by teaching the ARE method. Students learn that an argument is an assertion, reasoning, and evidence. An assertion is a statement that something is so. Reasoning is the "because" part of an argument, and evidence is the "for example" part, that supports the reasoning. It's used to validate or support the reasoning. 2. Refutation. We teach a 4-step refutation model. Step one is "They say..." That's the part where you refer to the argument you're about to answer. Step two is "But..." That's where you make your counter. You can make a counter-assertion ("They say the Backstreet Boys are a good band, but they're not.") or attack the reasoning or evidence that's been offered ("They say that the Backstreet Boys are a good band because they're popular, but just because you're popular, that doesn't mean you're good."). Step three is "Because..." This is the part where you offer reasoning (and evidence, if possible!) to support your counter-argument. Step four is "Therefore..." This is where you make your conclusion - essential summarization. Let's look at an example: They say that we can't teach debate because there's no time to have debates in class. But you don't need to actually have debates in class to teach debating. Because you can teach the skills associated with debate, like argumentation, in any unit. Therefore there's plenty of time to teach debate in class. So easy! 3. Note-taking. This bit is essential to debating as well as to success in school. But students aren't (let face it) very good at taking notes. As my colleague Anthony Gibson has noted, teachers are always saying that students need to take notes, but there are very few situations in school where students actually need to use the notes for something- even when the teacher says the notes will help on the test, they often don't. One of the many nice things about debate as a teaching strategy is that it creates an incentive system for students to take notes. The better their notes, the more they'll win. As you can see with the refutation method above, students are expected to refer specifically to the argument they're about to answer. They need to have it written down to answer it. As debates get more complex, with multiple students in the discussion, students need better skills to track arguments as they develop (or don't) in discussions and debates. So, they learn to be better note-takers. The problem is that conventional ways we take notes (and even Cornell Notes) are ineffective for debating and the give and take of ideas in a dynamic discussion. That's why graphic organizers with multiple columns are essential for taking notes in a situation where ideas are being exchanged, developed, and refuted. In the MSPDP, we have students (and judges) learn to use a "flowsheet," which is a multi-column organizer. You can download an example here. Notice that speeches are given their own columns. To see some that are filled out, you'll have to download our Teachers' Guide (free but gigantic, at 11 MB) here. That link takes you to the page it's on, not the document itself, by the way. In my next post, I'll talk about some formats for whole-class debate and apply these ideas to them. But even if you never "have a debate" in your class, you can still add some value to your classroom by taking different parts of debating and integrating them into everyday instruction.