Learning Through Debate

Learning Through Debate

Students participating in a debate

Debating is an essential part of the democratic system. To debate is to directly participate in a process that is fundamental to the operation of a free and open society. This process includes the honest and forthright exchange and discussion of ideas, the willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and perspectives, and the impartial weighing of arguments and evidence. Recognizing the importance of these principles is vital to understanding—and improving—the world we live in. The deeper learning skills required to master an issue thoroughly enough to debate it is built into learning standards at middle school, high school, and college, precisely because such skills are critical to success in higher education and to career advancement.

Debating enables students to both collaborate and compete. It also enables them to build skills in independent research, data analysis, and interpersonal communication. The goal of debating is to persuade listeners that your position is the correct one, or better than the position of your opponents. 

Here are a few areas in which learning occurs as a student takes part in a team debate:

  • formulating questions—what do I need to understand about the issue?
  • performing background research—how do I pose the necessary questions and gather the material I need to answer them?
  • distinguishing among facts (information), theories (hypotheses), and opinions—how do I gauge one from the others?
  • establishing a position—what evidence, facts, and data reinforce my stance?
  • crafting convincing arguments—how do I marshal and present solid evidence to support them?
  • writing persuasively—how do I maximize the impact of both arguments and data?
  • listening and responding appropriately to information, arguments, and questions from all sources;
  • developing polished and effective delivery of both prepared and extemporaneous speech;
  • anticipating and rebutting opposing claims and viewpoints;
  • working together with teammates;
  • observing rules and procedures for debate and discussion; and
  • maintaining civil and respectful demeanor toward the moderator, audience, and opponents.

A debate can involve an entire class if listeners are asked to determine the winning side and explain their choice. Evaluating a fellow student’s arguments and delivery can help students clarify their own understanding and opinions about an issue, as well as develop their own communication and presentation skills.

Modeling Debate Skills: Open to Debate Foundation Debates

An excellent model for student debates is the series of debate videos from Open to Debate. The Open to Debate Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that sponsors public debates on a wide range of topics. As the organization states on its website, its “mission is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse.” Issues & Controversies includes hundreds of full-length Open to Debate videos and audios, which feature scholars, journalists, and experts debating major political and social issues of the day.

Open to Debate videos, available through Issues & Controversies

Often conducted before a live audience, Open to Debate debates usually consist of two teams of two participants each, guided by a moderator who introduces the motion, or question, being debated. Before the debate gets underway, members of the audience vote for which side of the motion they support. The debate begins with each team giving its opening arguments in five-to-ten-minute presentations. The moderator then challenges each side with questions, and each team gets to question its opponents. Audience members also have an opportunity to pose questions to either team, often sparking further debate and discussion among the participants. At the debate’s conclusion, both sides give their closing arguments, and members of the audience vote again for which side of the motion they support. The team whose side of the motion gained the most support from the first vote to the second is declared the winner.

Your chosen debate format may be shorter and less complex than these full-length debates, but Open to Debate videos offer a unique opportunity for students to witness internationally recognized experts debating key issues and controversies. Students can gauge the effectiveness of the arguments and responses, which will assist them in forming their own educated opinions. By reviewing the votes cast by members of the audience, students can compare their own impressions with those who attended the live event. Included with each video in Issues & Controversies is a complete, segmented transcript of the debate, enabling students to follow and carefully review the arguments or zero in on key exchanges among the participants.

In preparation for a class debate, you can assign viewing of a specific Open to Debate video, or ask students to pick one to view. You can have students write a brief commentary stating which side they agree with and why. Which arguments in the debate are most persuasive? How do the speakers succeed or fail in making their case? Did watching the debate change the student’s previous opinion on the issue or reinforce it? Is the student’s view representative of the majority of the debate’s audience, or does the student dissent from the choice of winner? This level of critical thinking will help students focus on key points and prepare them to participate in any debate. You can steer them to the helpful segment summaries and transcripts of the arguments, which provide an efficient way for students to refresh their understanding of the specific points and positions presented.

Debate Resources in Issues & Controversies

In addition to the Open to Debate videos, Issues & Controversies features full coverage of National High School Policy Debate Topics going back more than 25 years. You can find a comprehensive pro/con article on practically every one of these topics. To locate them, select the Resources tab on the top of any page in the database. This tab will show a dropdown menu featuring “National High School Policy Debate Topics,” which provides a full listing of topics and articles.

"Water Resources" National High School Policy Debate Topic, available on Issues & Controversies

Have the entire class take part in a debate. You may select only a few speakers, but the other students will judge the outcome and should be prepared to explain their decisions and reactions. It is useful to have more than one speaker per side to involve more students in presenting the arguments and to build collaboration skills in the teams. Also, select one student to serve as the moderator, whose job is to oversee the debate, maintain order and civility, and ensure that each side gets an equal amount of time to speak and respond to questions.

Topic Selection

Have students review the broad array of articles in Issues & Controversies. They can do this by scanning the homepage or issue pages. Based on this review, gauge students’ interest in different topics. This could include anything from capital punishment, gun control and criminal justice reform to hate crimes, immigration, and voting rights. 

The issues covered on Issues & Controversies

Once the topic is chosen, it is important to formulate a specific motion to be debated. The wording of the motion should not be neutral. Rather, it should make clear the contrasting positions of the proposing (pro) and opposing (con) sides. You may choose the identical motion of an article in Issues & Controversies, but consider variations based on student preferences or other factors.

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Preparation Time

You can set a long preparation time or compress the time for students to research the topic. You might name students in advance to be speakers, or wait until they have begun—or completed—their research. You can let speakers decide which side they will take, assign them to the pro or con side randomly, or assign them to the side opposite the one they favor. Arguing a side speakers disagree with can sharpen students’ understanding of an issue and create greater respect for opposing viewpoints.

Debate Formats

You will notice that Open to Debate debates focus on precise motions. While all debates share some common features—such as allowing both sides equal time and resourcesthe specific rules and styles can vary widely. 

Excerpted from “Learning Through Debate,” Issues & Controversies, Infobase, Accessed March 2024. https://icof.infobase.com/articles/QXJ0aWNsZVRleHQ6MjE2MTQ=?aid=10835 

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