Thursday, October 22, 2015

Finding a Working Structure for Classroom Debate

I don't think I participated in a legitimate class debate until I was in college.

For whatever reason, my high school teachers did not use debate as a teaching or assessment tool, and Lynden Christian did not have a debate team, so I simply was not exposed to debate until quite late in my career as a student.

Perhaps because of this, I was not comfortable teaching debate skills in my first few years as a teacher.  I could never get the structure right:  I probably went through 5 or 6 different debate formats in as many years of teaching and found each clunky and ineffective.  Sometimes I would have the class debate just one topic, with half the class on one side and half the class on the other side.  In this structure, students could only talk for a minute or two each, teams ended up repeating themselves a lot, there was little to no organization to the arguments, and there was not much time for good rebuttals.  Even when I started to divide the class into two debate topics, with 5 or 6 students on each side of both issues, the students still found it difficult to work in such large groups and to find unique points for each team-member to bring up.  Because these attempts at structured debate were so difficult to grade, I found myself struggling mightily to provide feedback that would be helpful in any way, and as a result, the students did not improve from debate to debate.

I also found it enormously challenging to write a good debate prompt.  I started by having the debates revolve around questions, but discovered this to be too open-ended.  I then moved toward prompts based on specific historical incidents, but found this to be too narrow and disconnected from my larger goals.  

Only last year did I find the magic structure and the magic prompt.

It all started, ironically, with another failed attempt at debate in Humanities class.  The structure was a mess and the prompts were too specific.  The students gave up partway through and I ended up not even grading it.  Refusing to let the failure of my classroom plans discourage me, we talked as a class about where the debate had fallen apart.  One girl, who had participated on the school's debate team the year before, kept saying, "Well on the debate team, we..." and that's when it hit me: why not use the structure and style of prompts that the Kanto debate league uses?

As it happened, I had already agreed to be the assistant coach for the debate team that year, and so when the season started in November, I set out to learn as much as I could from the students and my colleague who was the head-coach so that I could apply what I found out to my own classroom debates.

The Kanto Plains debate league uses structure and rules from the Australian school system.  Each team has three students: an opening speaker who introduces the team and presents the first point, a second speaker who rebuts the opposing team's first speaker, and a third speaker who both rebuts the opponents and supports the first two speakers without themselves introducing any new points.  

The opposing team is allowed to interrupt whoever is speaking with a "point of information" (or POI) once the speaker is at least a minute into their statement.  The speaker may accept or decline the POI, and if they accept, the student who brought up the POI must immediately ask a question or ask the speaker to respond to a contradictory piece of evidence.  A POI may also be used to ask the speaker to cite their sources--something that is quite necessary if the speaker rattles off a list of statistics without mentioning where the statistics come from.  This serves as a strong motivator and reminder for the speaker to provide verbal citations.

The prompts are phrased as positive statements with one team arguing the affirmative and the other team arguing the negative.  The affirmative team is tasked with setting the definition and parameters for the debate, and so long as these are reasonable, the negative team must accept and respond to the terms set by the affirmative.  

By this structure and these rules, each member of the team has a clear role, each member has ample opportunity to both present their points and support them, and each member has ample opportunity to rebut, both through formal rebuttals as well as POIs.  

My last failed attempt at organizing a class debate had been in October.  I tried out the above structure in January and it was a night-and-day difference.  Predictably, the POIs were rough the first time, and many students forgot to verbally cite their sources, but overall the debates were much smoother, and also much more engaging for the classmates who were watching each round.  Our final round of debates for the year in April were better still.

Therefore, I was excited to see how things would go this year, starting off with this structure.  Our current unit in Humanities class is entitled "Rhetoric, Revolution and Human Rights", using the history and rhetoric of the American Revolution and early days of American nation-hood as a spring-board for bigger questions about human rights and government structure.  Our debate topics were as follows:

1. The solution to gun violence is stricter gun control laws.
2. The freedom of speech should have limits.
3. The freedom of religion should protect certain kinds of discrimination.
4. The government sometimes has the right to invade citizens' privacy.

When I introduced the debate, I had several students assist me in putting on a skit about how to use POIs.  I put a lot of energy into emphasizing the importance of verbal citations and letting the students know that it would be very embarrassing to be caught without sources to support facts or data.  This clearly made an impact because a majority of the students did a stellar job of verbally citing their research as they delivered their statements--they must have been determined to avoid being POI'd on missing citations!

It was a strong round of debates, especially given that it was the first round of the year, and that most of the students had not done a debate since their freshman year.  For each debate, I had the non-participating students fill out note-sheets tracking the claims, evidence and rebuttals as they watched their classmates, and then had them decide the outcome by voting based on the evidence.  The students took this seriously, and after one debate, a desk-group debated amongst themselves about which side had been more convincing for several minutes before finally deciding which way to vote!

While not every student enjoyed the first debate, an equal or greater number discovered that they had a talent or passion for debate that they had not recognized before.  It was fun to watch several usually quiet and reserved students come to life as they powerfully defended their team's position.  

I was also able to provide more specific feedback on the rubrics as I listened and evaluated the students' performance.  I made the decision to copy and paste the rubrics into emails that I sent off to the students later in the day--I hope that the timeliness of the feedback will encourage them to think through my feedback more carefully, even though we still have several months before our next round of debates.  

All in all, it was a fun week and one that affirms to me that after so much trial and so much error, I have finally found a good way to facilitate and teach classroom debate.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad the Australians have something helpful to add to your classroom.