We’ve all had that boring, two hour long lecture class where you sit and stare at the clock, only half-comprehending the words coming out of the professor’s mouth. Don’t get me wrong, lectures have a role in getting information out in the open, but they certainly leave something to be desired when it comes to student engagement in the classroom.
So how do we change this? The answer is integrating debate into class curriculums on campus. According to the American Debate League, debate is “an organized argument or contest of ideas in which the participants discuss a topic from two opposing sides.” Debate offers huge benefits for students as it develops critical thinking skills, public speaking abilities and social awareness. This is a skill Gustavus students should have exposure to.
First off, debate enhances critical thinking skills. Rather than being spoon-fed information from a powerpoint, a debate will challenge students to interact with the material in order to form coherent arguments. As a result, they gain a greater understanding of the topic, and they remember it for longer periods of time. This is far more effective than sending a student home with a pile of notes to memorize, just to have them forget everything the day after the test. Critical thinking is not only required in preparing for a debate, but also in participating in the classroom as well. Participants learn how to listen actively to their opponent’s arguments in order to understand their point, identify the holes and plan their own response.
Debate also improves public speaking skills. Prepared knowledge on a topic gives students the confidence to speak out in the first place, and with time and practice, their ability to communicate their thoughts will improve. On top of that, much of the debate includes presenting a response on the spot; mastery of that skill leads to improved communication abilities in a public setting and better confidence overall.
My final argument in favor of debate is that it increases social awareness. Debaters are exposed to a wide variety of topics and opinions that they must listen to and analyze, resulting in a higher level of respect for oppossing perspectives, especially if they are backed by a solid argument. In this sense, debaters learn to reevaluate and adjust their own opinions in order to solidify their own argument.
Now, some might say that simple discussion is equally effective in yielding the benefits I’ve listed, but I’d disagree. Although many Gustavus courses incorporate discussion-based activities, this doesn’t challenge students to respond to others’ arguments and reevaluate their own opinions in the way that debate does.
In my experience, a classroom discussion primarily involves students simply stating their own opinions about the material with no reference to what others before them have said. In essence, a discussion allows students to put their thoughts out in the open, but after that, the thoughts just float in the air without being put to any further use. As a result, students can lean back, satisfied with earning their participation points for the day and zone out the opinions that are voiced after them.
On the other hand, a debate challenges students to listen to and analyze those opinions. Rather than being set adrift, student arguments are snatched out of the air and reprocessed by the
other students in the classroom, carefully examined and reexamined, the holes identified and reproduced in the form of a response. In this way, debate pushes students to actively listen to others’ opinions, think critically about them, reevaluate their own arguments accordingly and finally, voice their conclusions in a public setting in a way that discussion just does not.
Of course, integrating debate into the curriculum of every single class on campus is not a simple endeavor, so in the meantime, I’d encourage students to take any opportunity they can to garner experience in debate. Taking classes that are already centered on debate, joining Speech and Debate and even just arguing with your friends for fun are a few ways in which one can sharpen their debate skills on-campus.