As teachers we want many of the same things for our students as parents want for their children. We want to raise the next generation of adults, to stimulate the intellectual abilities of the youth, and to guide our students to become strong members of our society. To accomplish this we realized our students needed to be deeply engaged in relevant learning, to process information in an abstract way, and to strengthen their problem solving, planning, and critical thinking skills.
In the beginning of our careers we went about teaching our subjects with the books and worksheets, activities, labs, and various other teaching tools used by teachers. As we excelled in our craft, our students were quickly able to recite important factors that precipitated the civil war, draw Bohr models and note the number of valence electrons, and identify universals in test questions in order to choose the most likely correct answer. But while these were excellent ways to teach the content of our various subjects, we saw a flaw in the process. Our students were not developing into the critical thinkers that we desired. Our students were excellent at reciting content and taking tests, but they were equally good at repeating incorrect information found in books and on websites.
So we wanted students to be critical consumers of information, cite reasonable sources for the things they think are true. We set about looking for ways to help our children to have an open mind, listen critically, challenge and identify weaknesses in the information they are presented by others. And when they were wrong, we wanted them to change their mind, and show grace in the face of pressure, adversity, and loss.
What we valued and appreciated in students, and what could separate them from their peers, was when they were confident and persuasive, when they channeled empathy, and when they acted as team players by supporting each other and by anticipating and understanding others. These behaviors became the benchmark for defining students as stronger members of society.
And so we wondered what could help students become critical thinkers, empathetic and team players, graceful and assertive, and informed or intelligent young adults? In retrospect, we didn’t think it an ambitious question and didn’t consider the magnitude of what we expected, we just thought about the different tools we were using as teachers. So while helping students to learn about history, science, math, and other elements of our various subjects, we evaluated different ways of teaching students and concluded the strongest ways of deeply engaging students was asking them to participate in real-world based learning, including science fairs but especially activities such as debate.
We observed that teaching students by asking them to find the answers to their own questions developed their critical thinking skills. Asking them to present their findings to judges or peers improved their communication skills. Lastly, if their findings were challenged by their peers, as they often are in a debate, students were forced to defend their own findings. They not only began to critically evaluate their own but also others’ evidence and thought processes.
The center of this real-world based learning of science fair and debate is teaching students to constructing and present arguments. Their arguments must support their position using evidence, requiring research and understanding of a subject, which is often very complex. Students must not only understand their arguments but be able to explain them and present them in a persuasive manner. We concluded that debate fosters both confidence and persuasiveness in participants.
But debate not only helps students’ critical thinking skills by forcing them to look for evidence and evaluate sources, but it helps them anticipate and empathize with others. Students on teams must listen to their opponents and understand them in order to refute their arguments, and when students are required to debate both sides of a topic, those skills become even stronger.
Much like a team sport, the skills of debate aren’t winning or losing, and repeated exposure to debate helps students practice sportsmanship, winning with grace and losing with dignity. It’s important to give students the opportunity to win and lose, not simply remove competition from the learning environment in order to protect children’s self-esteem. Debate is a great way to help students recognize that both victory and defeat are opportunities to grow and learn.
Considering the debates are often about real world topics, we are confident that debates not only make students into better leaders and thinkers, they do so while students are learning about relevant issues that affect society and are worthy of discussing.
And studies support our conclusions. A quick google search of how debate participation affects college acceptance and success reveals that being involved in debate is more important than being involved in sports.
If we want our students to raise the level of national discourse, to improve the critical consumption and evaluation of new information, and to become strong members of a global society, then we need to give them the tools to do so, and we had better start teaching them the means to do so early. We need to give them regular and routine opportunities to debate. The skills they develop become stronger with each opportunity.