Debate: A Lost Art or Necessary Skill

By Monica Van Aken, Ed. D, Head of School

The movie, The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington, highlighted the rigorous preparation undertaken by students in collegiate debate clubs during the 1930s. Throughout history, democratic societies have relied on debate and forensic activities to develop an educated and aware citizenry. Because debate is so fundamental to the democratic practice, some forget that these skills are taught, not inherent.

Academic and business communities universally bemoan the lack of strong oral communication skills that high schools, colleges, and universities require of their graduates. In fact, researchers from the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools maintain that the overall tendency for schools to provide less and less curricular time for oral communication has devastating effects on students in the wider context. While other schools provide few opportunities to learn formal debate skills, MMS Junior High students will begin spending two full years learning and using forensic skills as they work through their history and literature curriculum.

“Debate begins with an assertion,” says English teacher, Ron Grennier. “For example, „The death of the American Indians was the fault of the European settlers, ‟ or „The American Revolution was mostly about the enlightenment, freedom, and the colonial way of life. ‟ From there, students must formulate their arguments around the assertion being most likely true or most likely false.” Students research primary and secondary sources, evaluate and organize the information, analyze both sides of the debate, have rebuttals for every aspect of the debate and practice the delivery and practice delivering the cross examination.

In traditional classrooms, the teacher does most of the talking, questioning, and thinking. As a result, the teacher, not the students, gets the most practice in using communication skills. Debate-intensive instruction transforms teachers into coaches, taking instruction from mere assertion (lectures) to questions that need to be critically addressed from all perspectives. Ron Grennier says, “I review how they are coming along as a team, and I work to help them become more capable of eliciting important information from their peers, while sharpening their analytical skills.” The teamwork skills required for debate preparation are also far more relevant to the real world than solitary passive assignments such as presentations, tests, or written papers. On debate teams, students must take responsibility for their roles and are accountable to one another for the good of the team. They share a common aim, and they expect their teammates to persevere, remain focused, and work toward their challenging goal.

Research supporting debate-rich instruction is persuasive. Students who have studied debate show stronger analytical, interpersonal communication, and critical thinking skills. They have higher GPAs, face disappointment and defeat with greater resilience, are more effective and confident public speakers, are better able to evaluate information, and are less likely to engage in physical fights. By debating classroom concepts, MMS students not only gain deeper understanding of course content, but also have practice facing stressful situations while growing in confidence.

Despite the well documented benefits of the debate format in instruction, most schools have phased it out. Here at MMS, the use of the debate format offers students advantages that will help them well into adulthood. Ron Grennier says, “Daily I remind them to face the three fears of the world that debate will let them practice. I tell them to never fear looking stupid, because although pejorative, not-knowing is the greatest part of education, even if that means something as simple as the clarification of the meaning of a word. I tell them never to fear criticism, because it can be used as the backbone of intimidation; and I tell them never to be afraid to ask questions, because questions force precision. And I tell them all of this because of what Aristotle said thousands of years ago: „I teach you rhetoric [debate] not to fool others, but so that you will not be fooled yourself. ‟ And that is education.

Milwaukee Montessori School
345 North 95th St, Milwaukee, WI 53226
T: 414.259.0370 F: 414.259.0427
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