On Visiting the Local High School League

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Before the debate round starts, the student asks, "Are you going to judge on the flow, or are you more into persuasion?" What in the world could the difference be? What does it mean to be persuasive, and what does it mean to not be into it? What are we doing if not teaching persuasion?

This was my welcome back to the high school debate scene.

Another room, another debate - they stare at each other not knowing what to say. One of them finally picks up some crumpled paper and begins to read what's on it out loud.

In a third room, a discussion of how best to address gender bias - via policies that call attention to the division around biological difference, or completely deconstruct the relationship through discussion?

It's been a while since I've been to a high school tournament and judged high school policy debate. It was really great, and really took me back to the days when I coached it. A lot hasn't changed.

Students are still engaging literature and information that is on a level that most people would consider too difficult for them. But gone are the rubber filing bins. I didn't see one. All of this information is accessed by laptops, flash drives, and small folders of paper here and there. This was the most notable change, the paperless revolution - which seems pretty much over at this tournament.

The students are speaking about and evaluating claims based on paragraphs from scholarly material that is on a reading level they should not be able to access, according to most high school or middle school teachers.

They are speaking clearly and quickly on their feet, and they are attempting to apply this complicated literature to their own lives, and to their own experiences they have during the round, the tournament, the school day, what have you.

All of this is great, but present also were many issues of concern that are not unique to this area, but nearly timeless in high school debating. I dealt with these issues when I was a high school coach as well.

When students are beginning it's almost as if they are thrown in and reading someone else's words. They depressingly and confusingly read a bunch of papers and sit down. They don't understand what they are supposed to do and don't understand how to participate properly in the debate. One of my friends who attended with me articulated this as the loss of imagination in the debate - students are not asked to rely on their own imagination when they first start out in policy debate, they are given blocks and arguments written at far away places by people who have nearly forgotten what it was like to be a beginner. Wouldn't it be better to rely on the student imagination?

I think there's some good criticism here, but the way that policy debate works - and it's a way that I definitely admire - is to encourage the development of imagination within the boundaries of a rule system that could be a simulated courtroom or simulated academic environment. I like to think about these debates as a hyper-charged creation of a thesis or other academic argument, with the procedural being most closely related to arbitrary scholarly or publication rules. When I say arbitrary I don't mean useless, but that they could be nearly anything. I think the format calls upon students to use imagination, but they need to be more familiar with a lot of the technical matters first - as well as catch up in reading level as their daily classroom experience is not going to help them read the material they will need for these debates.

A second criticism is how much the students might run the show. The teachers might provide the basics of the rules and the basic moves in the game, but what one does with that stuff is really up to the students in rounds. A lot of the literature being used is beyond the scope of the teachers' ability to understand. This can be a bit dangerous at worst, or at best sounds sort of ridiculous. As my friend put it, It's like they are teaching knives without teaching cutting, teaching guns without teaching weaponry, teaching kicking without teaching karate (or as I just thought, teaching words without teaching rhetoric).

I think the solution to a lot of the problems in the schools would be to turn more over to the students to be responsible for. Under the rubric of competition, students strive to perform high quality work and choose not to just "skirt by" because a teacher isn't around to use disciplinary power to correct them. What's correcting the quality of their work is the fact that there's another team out there working hard to beat them, to win that next round. And this means the students will work quite hard to ensure that they don't lose.

The other thing it does is help the students learn to trust their own ability to assess the quality of their own work. They have to read it, think about it, speak it and practice it and realize themselves what the quality may be. One student said to me during some after-round conversation, "I knew I should have swapped out those cards, you are right." The function of the judge is really to be a critic - not a teacher, not a disciplinarian, but a critic of the academic-oriented text that the debaters co-create through their speeches.

Teachers and judges serve as a nice balance to the students who are developing these self-assessment skills. That's the best thing that those participants can provide during the tournament. I don't think the hands-off matters that much, as long as teachers and other members of the community are turning student attention back to these issues often.

As far as the opening question goes - I'm not sure what I'm in to or what it is I teach. Sometimes I teach persuasion, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I tell people to avoid it, sometimes I avoid it myself. Somtimes, most of the time, I'm teaching situation based thinking. Some call it advocacy, others call it trickery. What I call it depends on who I'm talking to. And I think that student's question reveals the beginning of the development of an understanding that being persuasive is not enough. Sometimes one's persuasion must not be known as such.
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