Teaching debate skills will strengthen democracy

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Increasing political and ideological polarization poses a significant threat to Canadian democracy and society. From climate change to a looming global recession, Canada faces immense challenges, which require thoughtful and nuanced discussions. Too often issues of national importance devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks.

Young Canadians need to be taught how to have healthy debates, which focus on the substantive arguments, involve active listening, and encourage both sides to acknowledge some validity to their opponents’ arguments.

Participating in debate guides us to carefully consider others’ viewpoints, to adjust our thinking when new information comes to light, and to shy away from demonizing folks who hold differing views. The world is a messy place and rarely are individuals “good” or “evil.”

Teaching young Canadians debate skills could have significant long-term benefits for our democracy. Over time, more Canadians would expect leaders to argue with evidence and arguments, and likewise, more leaders would contribute to healthy debates.

I believe one of the most effective ways to mitigate the threat of political polarization is through training young Canadians via debate-centred instruction (DCI), a methodology modelled after competitive debate that helps students develop essential skills such as critical thinking, communications and teamwork. Unfortunately, most educators do not use DCI in their classrooms and few students have access to participate in competitive debate.

DCI leverages the claim-evidence-argument framework. Students are first given a prompt, such as “Did the French Revolution have predominantly negative consequences?” They then consider the evidence for and against the motion and compose arguments for and against the claim. Lastly, students verbally present their opinions and debate back and forth with their classmates.

Students can compete against one or several other teams. In the most common form of competitive debate in Canada, students must respond to “points of information,” which are unplanned questions from an opposing team. Topics are wide-ranging, with the only restriction being subjects that force one team to argue against a widely accepted moral principle or scientific theory. Generally, students are given a topic only 15 minutes before the debate starts, which forces them to learn how to think on their feet.

DCI also equips young people with transferable skills such as public speaking, teamwork and critical thinking, which are becoming more important because of the rise of automation.

As Robert Litan, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues in his book Resolved, “DCI teaches through active student participation in learning that many, if not most, problems in life do not have simplistic solutions.”

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