Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Improving Education Through Debate Instruction

By Marie CeskePublished November 17, 2018

Two individuals debating
With the rise of partisanship and an America that has become increasingly divided on many political issues, debate education in schools may be part of the solution.

Debate is an important component of education for numerous reasons: it teaches research, writing, critical and persuasive thinking, and comparative evaluation skills. Notably, debate exposes students to diverse opinions by forcing them to consider both sides of an argument and allows for open discussion of critical issues, thereby allowing for the recognition and exploration of difference. Debate also helps to foster informed and active citizens, which is important for encouraging civic engagement among today’s youth.

Among the other merits of debate education, debaters are more likely to become student activists. Two of the main student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have been pushing for gun control, David Hogg and Jaclyn Corin, are competitive debaters. Through teaching students how to express their opinion and make well-researched arguments, debate naturally develops students’ advocacy skills, which can be used to make real-world impacts. Furthermore, it is notable that many successful politicians, activists, lawyers, educators, and businessmen had once been debaters. While self-selection bias may partially account for this correlation, there is evidence to suggest that encouraging all types of students to debate could lead them to pursue similar careers. Through both researched and anecdotal evidence, Brookings explored how debate can be instrumental in helping students who are naturally shy, have stutters, and are lagging their peers to develop their research and writing skills.

While rigorous, competitive debate is not suited for every student, it is still important to incorporate debate as part of general curriculums in classrooms. Though it would be ideal to require all students to take an introductory forensics course as a graduation requirement, it is also important that debates are folded into the syllabuses of other classes. Carving time out of lecture-style classroom instruction for debate not only alleviates the prep time needed for teachers to give presentations standing in front of the chalkboard, but also helps to keep classrooms exciting and prevents students from becoming bored with the routine of lectures.

Incorporating debate in classroom also reflects a general educational and curriculum shift toward student-centered teaching approaches and active learning environments. Given that motivating students is considered a huge component of whether or not they succeed, it is important that educators give students a platform to share their voices and a fun way to make the material they are learning in their classes come to life. By having students work in groups to prepare for such discussions, students also learn important skills such as collaboration and teamwork. Oftentimes, classroom debates become enlivened discussions, evidence of the fact that civil discourse is an enjoyable way of learning and therefore worthwhile pursuing.

Some school districts have already taken steps toward incorporating debate in their classrooms, and the results have been evident. Broward County in Florida implemented debate education requirements for all elementary, middle and high school students in 2013. There are now 12,000 students actively participating in competitive debate, and the results have led to tangible improvements in students’ educational performances: a 10% increase in GPA and a 25% increase in literacy scores. Furthermore, debate increases the graduation rate of at-risk students by 70%, and Broward County now boasts a 98% graduation rate among its active debate students. Numerous other students confirm these results. One study found that students from Chicago Public Schools who participated in the Chicago Urban Debate League, a national afterschool program that mostly targets minority students, found that debate students performed better on the ACT and were more likely to attend college than their non-debater classmates. Debate can also be an important outlet for students in that it provides them with both a sense of purpose and belonging within a community. These two factors are critical for wellbeing and can help steer students toward success in their futures.

Thus, national debate organizations, states, school districts, and educators should all work together toward the incorporation of debate skills in the classroom. Through research, development, and practice, teachers can be better equipped to utilize debate-centered techniques in their classrooms.