The recent presidential “debate” gave debating a bad name. In real debates, the participants offer reasoned positions, backed by evidence, in civil discussion, without name-calling and constant interruptions, in speeches that last longer than one or two minutes, the typical time slots allotted to candidates in past debates.
Competitive debaters in high school and college learn not only these true debating skills, but also how to argue multiple sides of a topic in different “rounds.” This is a format that forces debaters to appreciate that most issues are far more complex and nuanced than they appear on social media or cable TV.
My own experience, having debated competitively in high school and college, confirms this. Debate changed my life. It was the only thing that ended my childhood stuttering. Debate also taught me the research and reasoning skills that I have used throughout my career.
But the importance of my debate experience and its relevance to others lay dormant until two and a half years ago. I was reading an article in the Christian Science Monitor that popped up on my Twitter feed, featuring high school students from my home state of Kansas who won the national high school debate championship. I immediately realized that I had to write a book showing how the lessons that I learned in debate could be used to improve education more broadly, and possibly deliver other side benefits–like better preparing students for the workforce, and possibly, reducing the extreme polarization that has plagued our politics.
So, I began interviewing every former competitive debater I could find, and to a person (there were about 50), they each confirmed how life-changing debate was for them. That was satisfying, but I wanted more. I wanted to learn if there were any academic studies of debate. I eventually covered the waterfront: a total of about 20 articles over the past several decades, all in specialized journals, mostly by and addressed to speech and communications professors.
But there were also a couple of statistical studies documenting that competitive debate had improved the academic performance of minority debaters in Chicago and Baltimore. This was an important finding, given persistent gaps in educational performance between middle- and upper-income, largely white students in suburban schools, and Black and Latino children from lower-income families. Importantly, the studies of students in both cities controlled for “selection bias,” or the tendency of smart kids to be attracted to debate in the first place. These were encouraging findings, but still not enough to fill the pages of an entire book.
I did find one author, Joe Bellon, a speech professor at Georgia State, who had thought of suggesting, almost two decades ago, that debate principles be incorporated in classroom settings. This idea had been germinating in my head since reading the Christian Science Monitor article. But from what I could tell, no one had tried Bellon’s idea.
I pressed on, however, eventually coming across a remarkable sociological study of high-school debaters, Gifted Tongues, by Northwestern professor Gary Fine (who I later learned was in my 1972 University of Pennsylvania graduating class). Fine’s son, Todd, not only won the national high school debate championship, but he turned out to be my lucky charm. He led me to one of the two individuals who had been doing what Bellon had recommended. And it was that discovery that turned my inchoate thoughts into a book.
So, who are these educational pioneers? One is the individual to whom Fine referred me, Les Lynn, who for the past decade has been instructing teachers, primarily in Chicago but many elsewhere, in how to apply debate principles to the classroom in multiple subjects in middle and high school. After more interviews, I eventually stumbled across the Boston Debate League, headed by Mike Wasserman, which independently has been doing essentially the same thing in multiple Boston schools as Lynn has in Chicago. Not coincidentally, both Lynn and Wasserman are former high school and college debaters.
Lynn calls what he does “debatifying the curriculum.” Wasserman calls what the BDL does “evidence-based argumentation.” I call it “debate-centered instruction,” or DCI. But it’s all the same thing. It boils down to teaching students by having them learn to orally demonstrate why various “claims” are (or aren’t) supported by evidence and reasoning, based on the material in their textbooks and other supplemental readings they have been assigned–and, in some cases, through additional, teacher-guided internet research (so that students can learn to separate fact from fiction).
I was so impressed to learn what Lynn and Wasserman were doing that I asked both if I could see for myself how the teachers in the schools they were assisting were actually implementing DCI in their classrooms. They didn’t hesitate to say yes, and so in the spring of 2019, I witnessed DCI in action, first in Chicago and then in Boston.
Here’s what I saw. Typically, the classes were broken up into small circles of six or eight people, asked by the teacher to consider a “claim” from literature, history, or science, and then charged with marshaling evidence and reasoning–drawn from assigned reading or elsewhere–to support or refute the claim. The teacher roamed the room, listening to each group. Eventually, everyone in the class, on a rotating basis, was required to deliver oral remarks in front of the entire classroom. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks were prohibited. Instead, students were instructed to speak respectfully, clearly, with evidence and reason.
It was hard not to be impressed. The classes buzzed with excitement. With a few exceptions, the students were clearly enjoying themselves, actively participating in both their small groups and before their entire classes.
I learned that virtually any topic can be converted into a debate in which the students themselves, guided by their teachers, instruct each other about arguments pro and con. Lynn provided me with some illustrative topics (with associations to relevant courses) that the teachers he worked with had used or were using:
- Is the value of a four-year college degree worth the cost? (Civics, English)
- In A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, are the female protagonists feminist heroes? (English)
- Did the U.S. have to enter World War I? (History)
- Do the benefits of DNA testing outweigh the risks? (Biology)
- What is the best way to solve any word-based math problem? (Math)
Some subjects should be off-limits, and students are not compelled to debate them. Clearly, there is no room for debating well-established laws of physics or mathematics, or the existence of certain events that have been thoroughly documented by historians or archaeologists: wars, incidents of ethnic cleansing, and worse (such as the Holocaust), or that blacks were enslaved in this country for almost 250 years, and then during the “Jim Crow era” were not treated much differently.
Public schools also are not the place for debating the merits of one religion over another, or for subjects in which one side or another takes an absolutist position, leaving no room for good-faith argument. As Jay Heinrichs has written in his popular book on the art of persuasion, Thank You for Arguing: “Never debate the undebatable.”
Ultimately, the question of what subjects should be off-limits to classroom debate is best answered at the local level, preferably by local school boards and not by individual teachers. Still, it is possible to draw one bright line. We live in a country defined by the shared ideal that “all men [women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” (from the Declaration of Independence), and committed to a democratic form of government, constrained by the rule of law. Forms of government fundamentally inconsistent with these basic principles–totalitarianism in any form or white supremacy–should be taught as historical matters, but not debated.
As I did, one may ask whether DCI works for all students, or whether it fails to work for or even discourages those who are shy and scared of speaking in front of their peers and teachers, or who speak English as a second language. Lynn and Wasserman each use different techniques to draw out these students, but both started with simple topics drawn from the students’ personal experiences (Who should walk the dog this morning? Is soccer or something else the best sport in the world?) and then gradually increased the difficulty of the claims as students learned to master the claim-evidence-reasoning paradigm at each stage.
As for ESL students, one especially talented teacher in Boston, Melissa Graham, demonstrated how she can start a school year with students speaking as many as five different languages and, by the end, have many of them integrated with native English-speaking students. She does this with the “baby step” approach: starting with one- or two-sentence claims and having students role-play different types of speeches (opening statement, the response, closing argument). Once students master easier tasks and roles, they gain confidence to move to more difficult ones.
Both BDL and Lynn have data showing that test scores and other measures of student engagement have risen substantially since the schools in the two cities adopted DCI. Lynn and Wasserman identified enhanced student engagement and improved understanding and retention as the main reasons for the improvements.
Clearly, more rigorous evaluations of debate-centered instruction, using conventional statistical methods, would be useful. A team led by the University of Virginia education professor Beth Schueler is now conducting such a study of the hundreds of students who have passed through approximately a dozen schools assisted by the Boston Debate League over the past five years.
There are several reasons why this study, or other formal statistical studies in the future, should confirm the “before-after” improvements in student performance that the BDL and Lynn report.
First, learning by debating is a lot more fun and a lot less boring for many students than listening and taking notes from “sage on the stage” lecturers in the front of a classroom. This alone should enhance student engagement, which, in turn, should improve performance in school.
Second, people of any age are more likely to understand and retain information when they must master and communicate it orally to other people rather than simply regurgitating it on a test. As the old saying goes: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” (emphasis added).
Third, the aforementioned statistical studies that showed increased academic performance by competitive debaters in Baltimore and Chicago strongly suggest that a much wider application of debate instructional techniques could generate similar improvements.
The benefits of DCI should also extend past formal schooling. Knowing how to speak with confidence, backed up by evidence, is one of the skills that employers consistently say lacks in students coming out of high school and college. DCI directly addresses this challenge.
Finally, a citizenry trained in debate techniques would be very different from the one we have now. For that reason, as DCI techniques are used more widely, political polarization should diminish over time. Admittedly, DCI won’t narrow our current, deeply entrenched political differences. But as more students-turned-voters learn through debate, they should have several characteristics that eventually should reduce polarization. This could happen more quickly than may be apparent, since it takes only a small fraction of voters to tip elections. For example:
- Having three to five years of debate-centered instruction should sensitize future voters that most issues are nuanced and complex, and not reducible to simple slogans.
- By having to take multiple sides of questions orally, people learn what it’s like to be in another’s shoes, so that they will be less rigid and more open-minded throughout their adult lives.
- TV audiences full of former debaters are less likely to fall for one-liners in political debates, and much more likely to pay attention to facts and logic, because they had to when they were in school.
- Knowing their audience, those campaigning for office would have to change and up their games because they would have to persuade more discerning, demanding voters.
Admittedly, the preceding propositions cannot be proved or disproved with statistical rigor without longitudinal studies analogous to the famous Framingham longitudinal study of heart disease. Once such studies are underway—and I encourage philanthropies to fund them— we still won’t know the full answers for a decade or more. Most readers may say that given the severity of polarization now, we can’t or shouldn’t wait that long.
I agree with that view. The logic behind the polarization-reducing benefits of DCI is compelling, as are the likely and proven educational benefits of DCI training. As such, I hope many readers will agree with me that there is only an upside to spreading DCI techniques now, well beyond the schools in Boston and Chicago that are now using them.
Indeed, if I could wave a magic wand, all citizens would have some debate training right now. I believe our nation would be far less politically polarized, our politics less mean-spirited, and our elected officials more inclined to compromise and get things done–not unlike spouses do in good marriages.
To be sure, many teachers, school superintendents, and local school board members are suffering from “reform fatigue” and may be hesitant to adopt yet another method of learning. But DCI instruction is not hard for teachers to learn. Initially, teachers without debate experience can be taught how to use the claim-evidence-reasoning paradigm in their classes through one week of summer instruction, using funds already earmarked for professional development. Once initial cohorts of teachers are trained, they can train others in their schools. If a school has a debate coach, he or she, with modest additional compensation, can provide ongoing assistance to teachers throughout the school year, as can the teachers interacting with one other in breaks during the school day, as I witnessed in both Boston and Chicago.
Our highly polarized democracy is in trouble. Our schools must do a better job of educating students — especially disadvantaged minorities and students from low-income families. And all students need a “want-to-learn” mindset, which they would be much more likely to acquire if school were a lot more fun and engaging, so that they will want to upgrade their skills as they age to meet constantly changing employer demands continuously. Debate-centered instruction can help meet each of these challenges, and the sooner and more widely it is adopted, the better.
If you are the parent of a school-aged child, you can advocate for DCI before your local school board or state education officials. By doing so, you can give the next generation skills they can use throughout their lives, for themselves, and to help save our democracy.
Robert Litan is a non-resident Senior Fellow at and a former director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, a partner at the law firm of Korein Tillery, and the author of the new book, Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save our Democracy (Brookings Press, 2020), from which this essay is adapted.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video of the 2020 presidential debate.