Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Power of Debate

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” –Atticus to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 3)

We know we should consider things from different perspectives in order to gain a more accurate picture of a situation or an issue, but it isn’t always easy to do, is it? More often than not, we nod our heads in agreement with Atticus’s wise words, but, in reality, we stubbornly cling to our own ideas without really considering other perspectives.

Studying literature helps us to see and realize perspectives we may not have ever considered, but the art of debate forces us to truly think about and argue two sides to an issue.

Some Background—Debate in the Classroom
While the members of the Speech & Debate Team prepare cases for a new debate topic every one or two months (depending on whether they compete in Public Forum or Lincoln-Douglas debate), students in my Speech Communications class only prepare for a full, Public Forum debate at the end of the year. When I introduce debate, we do a number of class debate activities, but due to the size of the class, each student only participates in one full-length debate in May. I give students a list of recent PF (Public Forum) and LD (Lincoln-Douglas) debate topics, and they can either select resolutions from that list and/or create their own resolutions. Once students form teams and I determine the debate pairings (which teams will debate each other), the pairs of teams select their debate resolution together from the compiled class list. This May, students debated on a range of topics, from the legalization of marijuana (yes, cliché, I know), to making cigarettes illegal, to stand-your-ground laws, to gay marriage. Since these students only do one debate, I allow them some choice when it comes to their topic, and, depending on the students’ skill and confidence levels, I’m okay with them debating what would be a cliché topic for a persuasive essay.

Students prepare both sides of the debate (affirmative and negative), just like they would in competition, even though they will only argue one side. At first, some of the students are frustrated with what seems like a ton of extra work, but I keep explaining that since they don’t know what side they will be arguing (until the coin toss just before their debate), they must be prepared, and the “extra” preparation helps them to consider opposing arguments for each case. The students are also frustrated with the idea that they may have to argue the side that goes against what they personally think or believe. That, I tell them, is the beauty of debate, and it is also where skill truly comes into play.

Seeing the Power of Debate
After he/she debates, each student writes a reflection on how the debate went, what they would do differently if they had another round of debate, and which side they felt won the debate and why. In these reflections, students share the struggles they had with the debate.

This year, one particular student’s reflection was very insightful and encouraging. This particular student did not have a lot of confidence in his speaking skills all year, and, although he had prepared for his debate, he didn’t seem very excited or confident before the debate began. And then the debate started, and about ten minutes in, he just came alive! I was hearing a lot of holes in the opposing team’s arguments, and, to my pleasant surprise, my not-so-confident student pointed out each hole and provided excellent rebuttal and attack throughout the debate! He was on fire! What I was most impressed with, however, was this student’s reflection. In his reflection, he shared that when the debate started, he knew it was going to be a challenge because he had to argue the affirmative and that side went against his personal beliefs. However, going through the debate, he completely changed his mind and agreed with the affirmative. (Note-The purpose of debate is not to "convert" students to another view. The purpose is to get them to think deeply and critically about two sides of an issue.)  I asked this student about his reflection.

“The debate really made you change your mind?”

“Totally!” He said. “Before the debate, I was always against it. But preparing for and then going through the debate, I realized I didn’t have a good reason as to why. The debate made me realize that I didn’t have an argument at all—just a belief without support. I had never considered the other side before.”

Wow! And the debate topic? The legalization of gay marriage. Now, the topic could have been anything. (Although I do wonder if those who say they are against gay marriage have really thought through their reasoning as this student did through the act of debating the topic.) The point is that the debate made the student consider another view and the one he had held. He truly thought about the issue, analyzed the issue, and, in the end, he knew what he believed and why. He’s not holding to a belief just “because.”  

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