Too young to debate? That’s debatable Huff Elementary School holds uncommon tournament

From MountainView Voice

It’s been getting harder for the parents of some Huff Elementary School parents to pull the “Because I told you so” card on their children, and there is one man to blame for that.

Brier Buchalter, a teacher with the Gifted and Talented Education program at Huff, has been encouraging students of his speech and debate class to be contrary in his speech and debate class, and at the after-school debate club he runs. On Saturday, April 27, Buchalter held what he believes might have been the first elementary school-level debate tournament in the state, and perhaps even the country.

The day kicked off at 9 a.m. with about 70 debaters, a few of them as young as 7, facing off in teams of two to either defend or refute statements, such as: “Humans are more generous than greedy,” and “A sense of fulfillment is more important than financial success.” The young debaters included home-schooled students, as well as pupils from Encinal School in Menlo Park and Discovery Charter School in San Jose.

The tournament was conducted according to the “parliamentary” style, which means the children are only introduced to the propositions they’ll be arguing 20 minutes prior to beginning the debate. Over the course of the day, students from Huff, Menlo Park, San Jose and some home-schoolers faced off in debate after debate.

For generations, organized scholarly debate was practiced only at the university level, according to Buchalter — who discovered his passion for the art of argument in college.

“Debate was considered the most elite form of academia,” he said, explaining that as it became more popular among undergraduates, debate ultimately trickled into high schools, then elite middle schools began offering the activity as a way to give their students a head start. “It was assumed that middle school was the edge. A lot of people thought (elementary school students) couldn’t handle that level of analysis.”

But according to Buchalter, the grown-ups haven’t been giving elementary school students — especially the older ones — enough credit. While he said he believes very young children don’t have the ability to participate in a meaningful, reasoned debate, Buchalter said he has worked with many third, fourth, fifth and sixth-graders who perform admirably. In fact, he’s even seen a few first- and second-graders who can handle it.

“I like how we can argue in a controlled manner,” Mahi Kolla, a Huff fifth-grader said after winning a debate during the tournament’s semifinals. “I really like debate. It’s kind of a passion for me.”

Mahi’s partner and fellow Huff fifth-grader, Jeanette McKellar, said debate has helped her work out how she feels about difficult topics. It’s also helped her mature. “It’s a way for me to learn how to argue — but not just argue, argue, argue. It’s like, not just saying, ‘Oh, you’re wrong!’ But learning how to convince someone you are right.”

Being able to argue logically is a skill both girls agreed would likely come in handy in the upcoming California Standardized Tests, in which they will have to write persuasive essays. Mahi and Jeanette also agreed on another score:

“We beat the boys, so we’re happy!”

Buchalter, who introduced debate at Huff last year, said the activity has really caught on a the school. Proof of its popularity could be seen around 5 p.m. at Huff, when an obviously flustered, yet ever-polite Buchalter scrambled to get all the kids and volunteer parent judges to the right room for the start of the semifinals. “I thought it would be a success, but I had no idea how successful it would be,” Buchalter said after the tournament. “It was really wonderful to see that level of participation.”

Debate has proven to be an incredibly powerful instructional tool, according to Buchalter. “It kind of conditions you as a whole person,” he said. “I’ve been teaching for quite a while, and I’ve never seen anything be as transformative as this for the kids.”

Huff parent Darshana Mulge said that debate has helped her daughter come out of her shell., given her confidence and improved her public speaking.

Debating has made his son a better listener, Nathan Sandland said, as you have to listen carefully to your opponent in order to properly counter or refute claims made against your cause. “I think it’s good that he’s learning how to formulate arguments,” Sandland said.

None of the parents that spoke with the Voice said they were concerned with their children talking back a result of debate. However, Buchalter shared a story about how one of his debate students used her skills of persuasion to convince her parents that she would benefit from owning an iPad.

“I have heard some parents say, the biggest risk is once kids start thinking this way, they start thinking about everything,” Buchalter said. But while debate might make children more inquisitive, it also gives them the tools to ask the right questions, think critically and be independent learners.

“They get to see how the real world works,” he said. “And when they actually see the power of knowledge, it helps motivate them in all their classes.”