K-12 Education

Translating Competitive Debate Norms to Classroom Political Conversations

August 18, 2020  • Kaitlyn Maher, Senior at The Potomac School & Education and Society Program

For the sixteen students in my AP history class at The Potomac School, in McLean, VA, Thursdays are highly anticipated. Every Thursday is “Current Events Day,” an opportunity for my classmates to apply our history analysis skills to the world’s most significant and contentious issues.

Debate isn’t merely an academic activity for me– it’s a passion. As a competitive debater and USA Debate Team member, my idea of political discourse is synonymous with polished argumentation, astute rebuttals, and the obligatory chic suit ensembles. Through the style of Congressional debate, I analyze policies through the lens of what is in the best interest of a US constituency. Through the international format of World Schools debate, I’ve become apt at evaluating the global consequences of issues.

Competitive debates are structured, poignant, and riveting. In the classroom, though, they’re hit or miss: when done wrong, well-intentioned discourse can quickly devolve. Passion and opinion clash with civility and objectivity. Unfortunately, the fear of discourse becoming divisive and hostile can dissuade teachers from planning classroom debates, depriving students of meaningful political discourse. Instead of shying away from debates, educators should implement strategies to make these debates more effective. Drawing from experiences both at the podium and in the classroom, I’ve found three strategies that facilitate more productive and engaging discourse.

  1. Confront students’ biases through active questioning.
    Students’ political opinions are invariably a product of their influences. Many students will form opinions based on their family’s support of a politician or party, often lacking fair exposure to the other side. In fact, an AP-NORC poll found that only 3% of teenagers tend to disagree with their parents’ political views. Whether due to their upbringings or identities, students often feel strongly about their stances before debate ever begins. 

    While students should be encouraged to voice and defend their opinions, discourse is only productive if the parties involved are willing to consider other perspectives. Nearly every format of competitive debate emphasizes cross-examination to both clarify and poke holes in opposing arguments. Questioning is equally indispensable in the classroom. Instead of being used to fiercely dismantle arguments, it can be used to respectfully inquire about other perspectives. When questioned, students are encouraged to defend their reasoning and think independently, not just regurgitate ideas. Consequently, questioning often leads to students’ predispositions being challenged, encouraging them to further think through their existing beliefs or adopt an alternate opinion.

  2. Combat misinformation with reliable evidence.
    According to a recent survey by Common Sense Media, 54% of teenagers get their news from social media. While social media can be an accessible outlet for engagement and advocacy, it is also pervaded by misinformation. Unfortunately, students largely lack the training necessary to weed out the real news from the fake, as Common Sense Media also found that over half of American adolescents are unable to accurately identify fake news. When students stop researching after watching a Tik Tok video or scrolling through an Instagram presentation, their ability to learn objectively is critically impaired.

    I recall walking into my first ever debate practice expecting to learn how to argue and refute. Instead, my coach spent two hours stressing the importance of distinguishing between opinion and news, checking the expertise of authors, and reading “About Us” sections on unfamiliar news sites. I remember learning about confirmation bias. Was I searching for articles to confirm my initial assumptions? Or, was I objectively analyzing evidence that opposed my preconceptions?

    In the classroom, teaching students to identify credible sources of information is equally paramount. If students are using fabricated information or biased sources, debate is futile. By ensuring research standards and source integrity, classroom dialogue can center around impacts and values rather than unsubstantiated warrants.

  3. Emphasize respect.
    Political discourse should be an inclusive and uplifting experience in which every student feels valued. Establishing norms such as assuming positive intent and disagreeing with ideas– not people– can help to encourage respect, relieve tension, and maintain civility. Setting the tone is vital, especially given that 85% of Americans perceive political debate in the US as having become more negative and less respectful in recent years.

    Ultimately, we all have a stake in classroom debates because they are the breeding grounds of future global citizens. Who knows if a classroom debate may be the only time some students are exposed to the other side? Who is to say how the questions and evidence in a class discussion might impact the ballots students will later cast? If we don’t offer students the proper tools now, we risk perpetuating the cycle of flawed argumentation in the next generation of Facebook debaters. After all, debate is meaningless if it fails to create more engaged and informed citizens.

    At the conclusion of every debate round, both teams cross the floor, shake hands, and congratulate each other on our performance. Good graces are restored and politics set aside. We’re reminded that our humanity comes first. 

After each of our spirited Thursday discussions, the bell rings, and my AP History class is back to smiling and laughing, as usual. While our perspectives have been challenged, we view the debates as opportunities for learning, not opportunities for further political division. Across America, every classroom holds a microcosm of the future political landscape. By facilitating productive debates, teachers and administrators can empower students to adroitly advocate for the world they will one day lead.