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Making the Case for Teaching Students to Debate

Making the Case for Teaching Students to Debate

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Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas … John F. Kennedy vs. Richard M. Nixon … even Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan Quayle—American history is filled with great debates that have made an indelible impact on our country’s collective memory. In fact, debating could be seen as a national pastime, as American as apple pie and baseball.

Today, as we in the education world consider how best to modify our curriculum to help students navigate a rapidly changing world, I strongly recommend that any changes incorporate the study of debate. While debate is typically a college- or high-school-level pursuit, some middle schools (including mine) are introducing formal debate study, and I would urge more middle schools and even elementary schools to do so.

Research supports this development. It has been demonstrated already that debaters in high school show improved academic performance and fewer disciplinary and behavioral problems than non-debaters. Student debaters also have a much higher likelihood of attending and graduating from college than their non-debater peer groups. But research also tells us that middle school is a period of considerable brain growth with the shift from concrete to abstract processing and growing capabilities in problem solving, planning, and critical thinking. Debate can support and enhance brain development as an activity requiring and honing these skills.

There are various debate formats, but all share the following: structure, rules and procedure, teams of participants, reliance on evidence, and the need to rebut arguments presented. In the fledgling arena of middle school debate competition, students are given a topic to prepare for, usually in teams of three. The topics can be edgy: “Do common-core standards work?” “Is Edward Snowden a traitor?”

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