The Case for Debate: Intrinsic Motivation for Critical Thinking and Writing
From the oration that convinced the Athenians to spare the rebellious people of Mytilene, to this month's oral arguments before the Supreme Court, debate has proven itself an indispensable form of truth-seeking and discernment. Liberal democracies worldwide have consistently turned to the intellectual rigor of debate to make decisions that affect the lives of their citizens.
But debate is not just for discerning policy or settling legal disputes. It can be just as powerful in the classroom for exploring controversies and experimenting with logic and rhetoric. Perhaps most of all, however, debate is highly valuable in preparing students for the kind of writing and research they can expect at the university level.
It seems quite fitting, if not quite conventional, to present my arguments on the value of debate in the form of a debate case. With that in mind, and pleading my readers' forbearance, I affirm the resolution: High school debate is an ideal training ground for academic writing.
Contention One: Debate strengthens critical-thinking skills for academic writing.
I have coached and taught debate for several years, and my debaters keep telling me how much debate helped them become better writers in their academic courses. In terms of higher-order thinking and communication skills, debate and academic writing have a lot in common. To produce an effective, thesis-driven essay or to compete in a debate, a student must
- contextualize a topic for an intended audience;
- craft a reasonable thesis to anchor argumentation;
- develop and organize defendable contentions to support the thesis; and
- use clear language throughout to explain and persuade effectively.
Debating, however, has its advantages over essay writing that make it a more engaging form of discourse for high school students, as I will explain.
Contention Two: Debate builds robust research skills.
The difference between winning and losing a debate sometimes comes down to thoroughness of research. To be fully prepared, a debater needs to
- explore a range of relevant print and online sources, especially in academic journal databases such as JSTOR;
- engage in sufficient background reading to acquire a sound grasp of the topic;
- evaluate and select credible sources for closer reading; and
- search for and collect appropriate evidence for incorporation into contentions.
Contention Three: Competition challenges debaters to be rigorous.
Debaters have to compete on both sides of a resolution, so they are forced to see each side from the other's perspective. As debaters carefully design their rebuttals and lines of questioning in hopes of landing a few intellectual punches against opponents, they develop the insight necessary to make each case defendable against a variety of attacks. This is much like the work a scholar must engage in when writing an academic article. Through practice, debaters develop more rigorous habits of mind, which leads them to instinctively question and challenge their own arguments.
Competition affords an authentic sense of purpose in debate. Debaters know every argument, question, attack, or defense they prepare might come in handy. They continually learn from mistakes during practice and iteratively revise their cases and rebuttal strategies.
Contention Four: The game of debate makes critical thinking fun.
Debate has been fittingly described as an intellectual sport. As with any sport, the thrill of competition and the uncertainty of outcome serve to energize the whole team. Debaters are players; those who are committed instinctively aspire to ever-higher levels of play. They are judged on the skill evident in their performances.
A good debate is both serious and playful. Debaters soon become skilled enough to achieve what my students call "the zone," or what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls optimal experience or flow—the experience of focus and complete involvement in an activity that is often "so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it" (1991).
Contention Five: Debaters learn best from each other.
Many incentives can be found in the project-based character of debate, but probably none more important than teamwork. In the weeks leading up to a competition, debaters make use of countless opportunities to work effectively together and to learn from one another. For example:
- brainstorming arguments and counterarguments in pairs
- debating as partners (or even in groups of three)
- discussing strategies in a large group
- practicing cross-examinations, rebuttals, or whole debates
- editing each other's cases
- student-judging practice debates
On the day of the tournament itself, preparation gives way to a more palpable sense of sportsmanship and a team spirit that fortifies everyone. At the end of the day, the senior finalists—whichever team they belong to—become role models who inspire younger debaters in the audience toward future success.
Contention Six: Debate can thrive almost anywhere.
Although committed debaters might be most at home on a team, all students can reap critical-thinking benefits from a debate unit in almost any course. The spectrum of controversy is broad and evident in every discipline. A few examples:
- genetically modified foods (science)
- justification of involvement in past wars (history)
- censorship of literature (English)
- immigration policy (economics, math)
- capital punishment (philosophy)
While incorporating debate into a course can be somewhat daunting at first, it is well worth the investment. And if your school is committed to seeing graduates flourish at the university level, then the critical-thinking skills students can gain from debate will go a long way toward helping them get a strong start as confident scholars and writers.
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Mitchell, M. (2006, November). Teaching for critical literacy: An ongoing necessity to look deeper and beyond. The English Journal, 96(2), 41–46.
National Speech & Debate Association. http://www.speechanddebate.org
Pace, D. (2003). Controlled fission: Teaching supercharged subjects. College Teaching, 51(2), 42–45.
Jon Kendall is the debate instructor at TASIS, The American School in England.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 14. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.