Basic Debating Skill Helps Develop Critical-Thinking Skills

Photo of children in classroom.

Image by CDC.

Stretched to the max by hostile critics these days, many public school teachers—K-12—may not realize they are expected by other critics to be successors of those who risked lives or careers teaching critical thinking in their subject fields:

Socrates was forced to drink hemlock in 399 BCE when Athens’ ruling class found him guilty of imparting impiety to students. John Snopes , the high school biology teacher was found guilty and was “let go” in 1925 by his superiors for teaching evolution, banned by Tennessee law. And Beatrice Levin , the Oklahoma high school English teacher who in the 1960s was the first among dozens around the country fired for assigning The Catcher in the Rye (she sued and won reinstatement before resigning).

If only the rest of us could have been as brave.

I confess that as a young high school English teacher in a small Maine town, that before assigning books, I consulted the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum and researched current news about books that got teachers fired. Coward or not, I knew I was not alone. Consider the plight of teachers today when even The Tale of Peter Rabbit was banned in London’s grade schools because it depicted “middle-class rabbits with too much privilege.”

As one observer explained why critical thinking is not encouraged in schools:

“Throughout history, more and different kinds of people and groups of all persuasions than you might first suppose, who, for all sorts of reasons, have attempted—and continue to attempt—to suppress anything that conflicts with or anyone who disagrees with their own beliefs.”

In short, don’t mess with a closed-community’s rules designed to protect young minds lest its leaders use shunning or exile on “disrupters,” as was done in our earliest settlements. Michael Zuckerman’s 2019 history of New England’s town meetings indicate their famed “pure democracy” in thoughts and deeds is pure myth:

The Myth of Critical Thinking, Speaking at New England Town Meetings

“Town meetings were occasions to consolidate a popular will that could coerce the recalcitrant. They governed by common consent, but they were not democratic in any modern sense. They disallowed legitimate difference and dissent, disdained majority rule, and dreaded conflict. They were predicated on a homogeneity and a conformity that we today would find suffocating.”

Having attended them in that Maine town, I found little had changed. The powerful still ruled, believing that critical thinking would divide and destroy the community—along with curtailing their privileges and power. They knew how to outmaneuver or squelch gadflies and us common folk questioning water bills and why they vetoed spending $19 for the town square’s Christmas lighting. With the school budget controlled by the Committeemen, what teacher was likely to complain?

Small wonder then why I was drawn to a recent CounterPunch article by scholar and educator Henry Giroux advocating America’s public K-12 teachers—despite today’s threatening political climate—gird up their loins and somehow pry open closed minds to speak up. He sees it as vital because the “promise and ideals of democracy are receding” under right-wing bans and blows:

Ignorance now rules America. Not the simple, if innocent ignorance that comes from an absence of knowledge, but a malicious manufactured ignorance forged in the arrogance of refusing to think hard and critically about an issue…. Such pedagogical practices should enable students to interrogate common-sense understandings of the world, take risks in their thinking, however difficult, and be willing to take a stand for free inquiry in the pursuit of truth, multiple ways of knowing, mutual respect, and civic values in the pursuit of social justice.”

But Giroux’s lengthy and fervent entreaty didn’t include the how’s of ordinary teachers could impart critical thinking in public schools despite today’s perils. He left the how-to-do-it to teachers.

Now, as both a public school teacher and professor—and winner of Oregon State University’s annual Most Innovative Teaching prize—I could imagine the groans and fears of those teaching at-risk classes in the core subjects : English, the sciences, social studies, and history. These are the courses also almost always monitored by parents and the latest descendants of the ignorant and bigoted members of the 1850s-1860s Know-Nothing movement . Teachers who always seem to escape most of these witch-hunts handle math, languages, business, home economics, speech, music, and physical education. Interestingly, so do driver’s education instructors and most debate coaches.

Debate Somehow Escapes Most Witch-Hunts

Somehow the art of debating has escaped most witch-hunts, probably because it seems to be a harmless section of a speech class or an extracurricular activity. Its abstruse or boring topics are unlikely to arouse fury at the dinner table because only debaters and their coaches seem to find them exciting and interesting. Moreover, in high school, debate is usually an exclusive domain of a minuscule group of “the brainy kids.” They are at ease with the rapid back and forth of arguing both affirmative and rebuttal sides of topics which begin with “Resolved: That….”. Most love it, many considering it oral fencing.

Too, perhaps few know that in Europe’s 12th century private schools , education was by “disputation” and deeply embedded in classes to prepare students for the rigorous oral examination of the Baccalaureate degree. In learning to argue both sides of an issue from childhood meant applying the necessary research to lessons in other classes. Voila! critical thinking.

So in mulling Giroux’s challenge to teachers about cultivating critical thinking in students, it struck me that debating is the perhaps the perfect avenue to meet that goal. But why confine it to a handful of high school performers? Why not apply it universally like those medieval schools, kindergarten to grade 12? Every subject has some aspect that can be informally argued perhaps twice a month—preferably in the morning when everyone is fresh.

As a parent, I learned critical thinking is inborn in everyone and revealed once they begin to talk.

For instance, what infant fails to notice the power of first words (“ma-ma” or “dah-dah”) have in drawing instant and appreciative audiences? Why else is it endlessly repeated? A toddler’s screams of “no!” are usually met by frowns and rejections either by amused inattention or spanking/isolation. That confrontation apparently sets the lifetime critical-thinking process in motion to respond to personal or controversial questions: “Should I speak up or shut up?”

The next phase of teaching critical thinking is the “debate” from, say, a four-year-old’s question of “Why do I have to brush my teeth every day?” quickly rebutted by authoritive statements such as “so they won’t fall out” or “you’ll have bad breath”—or sighs. As teenagers, kids by then know how to mount several arguments to counter expected parental rebuttals to demands, say, of: “Why can’t I drive our car?” or “What’s the big deal about my dating Larry?” If the only rebuttal over these years has been an exasperated “Because I say so! “or “I’m too tired to get into this!” most kids believe they’ve really won the debate. They’ll do better next time.

Formative Years Are Key to Critical Thinking

So never conclude people are not critical thinkers. It’s just how much of it has been developed in formative years—particularly if corporal punishment has been liberally applied at home or in painful rebuffs at school, in society, and the workplace.

To inject critical thinking from K-12 requires teachers to start in a child’s first classroom experience, as those medieval teachers knew so well. Don’t tell me kindergartners, first and second graders can’t vigorously argue a resolution such as “Dogs are better pets than cats” with half the class split into affirmatives and rebuttals. Those dynamics breed fellowship with classmates and team support to the fearful about speaking at all.

Follow it up by spending 20 minutes polling teams for argumentive points and selecting three presenters for each team. Then comes the magic moment for emphasizing the crucial factor of careful listening because “rebutters” must answer each affirmative argument. “Affirmativers” get 10 minutes for presentations, so do “rebutters.” For a second round, switch the sides and rotate presenters.

By then, most will have discovered that other points of view exist, but instead of shouting and sneers at “worthy opponents,” courtesy is mandated. After all, in the next “debate,” they may be teamed with them. After all

From grades 3 to 5, debating should become increasingly formal with rules governing behavior and topic content, along with debate’s terminology (Resolved: that…). Because grades are now involved, courtesy should earn a team extra points; putdowns losing points. Topics are more advanced, including those for teachers concerned about outside backlash of parents. Hundreds of topics—K-12—are available online.

Judging Debates Improves Presenting and Listening

The newest wrinkle would be turning the rest of the class into judges for the performance of each team’s three-person presenters. Issue score sheets and index cards. The sheets rank teams by debate’s traditional criteria: clarity, facts-instead of-opinions, and presentation style (loud showmanship vs. calmness and valid points). Cards list presenters’ points so that “judges” can track the arguments. The final score would be the judges’ vote with their names concealed by the teacher to avoid hard feelings or retaliations. Result: both presenters and judges will have begun mastering both acute listening habits and the art of presenting. Grading should be easy.

By grades 6-8, students are ready to do basic research with sources given for each case point. Topics and rotating team selections by the teacher would be announced on a Friday for a Monday morning debate. That’s a weekend to research and consult teammates and outsiders—it’s permitted in regular debates—on both affirmative/rebuttal case points for their card files. Advisable topics can be drawn from required courses of previous years.

High schoolers are ready for weightier topics, deeper research, and using national debate formats, The term’s final debates might reflect topics of the latest national high school debate tournaments. In 2022, it was “Resolved: Radicalism is preferable to incrementalism to achieve social justice” . But for 2023, another is “Resolved: The United States Federal Government Should Substantially Increase Its Security Cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in One or More of the Following Areas: Artificial Intelligence, Biotechnology, Cybersecurity .”

Teams should still be divided into two presenters, one researcher and still rotated throughout the term so everyone gets presenting experience. Judging adds factors such as strong or weak case points, creditable research, and presentation (tone of voice, precision, behavior, etc.).

As a side-note, the fun and advantages of debate were certainly apparent in K-12 days of the famous , some of humble beginnings such as Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, and Malcolm X, but also John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Antonin Scalia, and Oprah Winfrey.

Debate’s Lifetime Benefits and Skills

But the aim here is not to create celebrities or presidents or stars in debate tournaments or public events. The intent is to help all teachers to pry open minds slammed shut by outside forces at an early age. It’s not just critical thinking that’s released, but development of a host of other lifetime benefits and skills such as:

+ Acute listening

+ Teamwork

+ Reading

+ Research

+ Organization

+ Clarity

+ Creativity

+ Problem solving

+ Confidence and courage

+ Fairness

+ Charity

+ Sportsmanship

+ Fellowship

+ Social Maturity

+ Fun

Not to mention renewed interest in classwork, leading to improved grades, and success in life, according to the American Debate League . It quoted former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who added that debating was:

“…one of the “great equalizers” for minority achievement and educational opportunity [and] also a best practice to produce dynamic Americans proficient in the four “Cs” of 21st century skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and also a fifth, civic awareness.”

All of the techniques above are but suggestions for teachers wanting to answer Giroux’s call to arms about encouraging students’ critical-thinking skills. If some follow up by taking action on that thinking, they will have participated in the open-mindedness of democracy instead of the closed minds demanded by dictators.