If you’ve been watching the Presidential debates over the years you should know one thing: these are not real debates, but crafted sound bites that too often whistle past each other and the moderator, aimed at ratifying what each candidate’s voter base already believes. What the nation saw Tuesday night didn’t come even close even to meeting that standard.
In real debates, the participants offer reasoned positions, backed by evidence, in civil discussion, without name-calling and interruptions, in speeches longer than 60 or 90 seconds. Competitive debaters in high school and college not only learn how to do this well, but to argue both sides of a topic in different “rounds” of tournaments, which forces debaters to appreciate that most issues are far more complicated than they appear on social media or cable TV.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect all students to become competitive debaters, nor would I want them to even try to mimic the “speed debating” that has become all too common in some competitive debate formats. But the basic paradigm of debating – supporting claims with real facts and reasoning, learning how to rebut critiques, orally and not just in writing – would transform the education of youth in America, improve the skills and flexibility of workers and thus their incomes, and create a more civil, informed citizenry.
In fact, two education pioneers and former debaters – Les Lynn and Mike Wasserman – have been instructing teachers in debate-centered instructional techniques in middle and high schools in Chicago and Boston, respectively, for over five years. With impressive results: improved test scores and perhaps most importantly, classes that are fun, for the students and teachers alike, all of which I have witnessed first-hand.
The idea that learning can be enjoyable and relevant to students’ daily lives is important not only for all students, but especially those in low income, heavily minority communities where too many students start out school well behind their suburban school peers and motivating them to be interested in school can be a challenge. Several statistical studies have shown that competitive debate in urban schools with high numbers of minority students improves the debaters’ educational performance, even controlling for the students who “self-select” into debate. One plausible reason why is that debate strongly motivates students to want to learn, which is true whether debating is done outside or inside in the classroom.
Debate centered learning can even thrive through remote learning. Anyone who has children knows that they can be far less intimidated talking to others through their laptops or tablet computers than in person in a classroom setting. As for students who may struggle expressing themselves orally in person – public speaking ranks at or near the top of many peoples’ fears – debate techniques can be introduced gradually, as the teachers counseled by Lynn and Wasserman can testify.
Teachers can be instructed in debate centered learning techniques in a week of training, ideally with one mentor inside each school – such as the debate coach – to answer questions or give suggestions throughout the school year. Thereafter, teachers experienced in delivering debate centered instruction can lead training sessions for teachers in their schools and other schools. All this can be easily financed by redirecting part of the money now being on professional development toward debate centered instruction.
Educational improvements brought about through debate-centered instruction should have lasting effects, improving students’ career earnings not only because they know more when the leave school, but because learning through debate should make them willing to learn as they age. Debate also enables students to express themselves orally, clearly and logically – a skill that employers widely report that too many high school and college graduates lack.
Debate skills should also gradually improve our politics, by ensuring that over time more and more adults have the ability, experience or willingness to appreciate arguments and evidence counter to their own beliefs, precisely what debate instills in students. Admittedly, that is not where we are now. Many voters, in both parties, are anxious about the future of the country, even our democracy, after the upcoming election.
I wish that all citizens would have some debate experience right now. The nation would be far less politically polarized, our politics would not be so mean-spirited, and our elected officials would compromise, like spouses do in good marriages.
But all good ideas must start sometime, somewhere. There is no time to waste to improve our schools, our workforce, and our politics – and real debating offers one powerful tool for doing all three.
Robert Litan is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the new book, “Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save our Democracy.”