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The Benefits of Debate

By Larry Bailey
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #52, 2003.

Your children already know how to argue. Teach them to argue constructively
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Larry Bailey

If you've ever participated in competitive educational debate, I don't have to convince you of its benefits for your life. But most homeschoolers still have never attended or participated in this kind of debate. Busy homeschooled teens ask me, "How can I benefit from participating in debate? It seems like a lot of work and it doesn't follow a standard lecture or workbook format."

Ready for Debate 101? Here are some of the answers to your questions, gleaned from a major book about debate1 plus my own experience:

Debate teaches how to dress respectably
  1. Debate provides preparation for effective participation in a society with representative government. Our form of civil governance has relied upon debate to empower citizens with greater knowledge and to help spread that knowledge. This allows fellow citizens to more effectively participate in the democratic process.

  2. Debate offers preparation for leadership. The fundamental requirement of all leaders in any position is to provide direction and be able to explain why that direction is needed.

  3. Debate offers training in argumentation. From its earliest beginnings to today, debate has been the best practice for argumentation. As an educational method, it offers short-term and long-term motivations and rewards.

  4. Debate provides for investigation and intensive analysis of significant contemporary problems. While education in general might only touch upon various recent issues, debate topics cover ground students may never discuss and in much greater depth than most curriculums will allow. Some debaters comment that after researching and debating a public policy topic for a year they are now more interested in that topic in general. Consider the seven-year history of the homeschool league and the seven topics debated by homeschoolers:

    • 2002-2003 - Resolved: That the United States should significantly change its trade policy within one or both of the following areas: the Middle East and Africa.

    • 2001-2002 - Resolved: that the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

    • 2000-2001 - Resolved: that the United States should significantly change its immigration policy.

      A two-brother team getting ready for a round
    • 1999-2000 - Resolved: that the 16th amendment to the United States Constitution and all federal, personal, and corporate income taxes should be repealed and replaced with an alternate plan.

    • 1998-1999 - Resolved: that the United States should substantially change the rules governing federal campaign finances.

    • 1997-1998 - Resolved: that Congress should enact laws which discourage the relocation of U.S. businesses to foreign countries.

    • 1996-1997 - Resolved: that the United States should adopt a more narrow policy for foreign military intervention.

  5. Debate helps integrate knowledge. Debate topics are multi-faceted and cut across several disciplines. This allows debaters to gain knowledge from unique disciplines outside the student's normal academic subjects.

  6. Debate develops proficiency in purposeful inquiry. Often debate topics are on the cutting edge, dealing with new technology and different ideas from the norm of the day. By learning to research and inquire into new sources, debaters find ways of collecting data new to them.

  7. Debate emphasizes quality instruction. Since classical rhetoric was taught in ancient times, argumentation and debate instruction has relied more upon interactive coaching and a closer relationship between coach and student than most other educational settings.

  8. Debate encourages student scholarship. While some parents and students worry that debate might interfere with other education, most report that it enhances their work in general education with better note taking skills, research skills, organization, and presentations. The competition encourages students to pursue their regular course work with vigor and use their full capabilities. David Zarefesky, former associate dean of the School of Speech at Northwestern University, remarked that "debaters gain research skills at a pretty sophisticated level, certainly compared to undergraduates in general... in intensity it is equivalent to working on a masters thesis." 2

  9. Debate develops the ability to make prompt, analytical responses. Cross-examination demands quick and decisive responses to questions about argumentation made before.

  10. Debate develops critical listening skills. Debaters develop excellent listening skills from their first debate when they learn that they must know their opponent's arguments as well as their own. Through making accurate and practiced note taking of the "flow" of a debate round, debaters learn to glean and analyze information as they hear it.

  11. Debate develops proficiency in writing. While the greater part of debate is perceived to be speaking in front of people, a good portion is research and preparation of argumentation before ever standing in front of another team or judge. This researching, writing, and arguing ability will carry over to many other fields such as preparing research and background papers and answering essay questions on exams.

  12. Debate encourages mature judgment. Debaters learn the value of suspending judgment until both sides are scrutinized. After debating both sides of an issue for an entire year, debaters know that the complex issues of today have many sides that need to be examined.

  13. Debate develops courage. Most people would rather be in the casket at a funeral than giving the eulogy. It takes discipline, preparation, and a bit of bravery to stand up and defend a position in front of a judge and another team arguing the exact opposite.

  14. Debate encourages effective speech composition and delivery. Debate not only requires work in knowing speech material, but in the presentation of the material. Debaters will present before hostile teams and in front of class.

  15. Debate helps develops social maturity. The business-like atmosphere of a debate tournament coupled with the diversity within the debate community forces debaters to react to various situations. Along with the competitive prospect of losing or winning, debaters learn appropriate manners and proper behavior.

  16. Debate develops computer competencies. Most research by debaters is now done on various types of computer systems. Whether Internet, college library catalogs, or databases, debaters learn how to find, organize, and use the information they collect.

  17. Debate uses students' skills to their utmost. To argue requires students to: research issues, organize and analyze data, synthesize different kinds of data, evaluate the conclusion drawn from the data, understand how to reason the conclusions, recognize and critique different methods of reason, and comprehend the logic of decision making.

The time-honored maxim usually attributed to Descartes states "he who asserts must prove."3 Assertions made from anecdotal evidence that "participating in competitive debate improves critical thinking" does not make it true. We must define what constitutes critical thinking before we can measure how competitive debate or other activities might improve it. From a survey of peer-reviewed communication literature, Garside suggests four defining aspects of thinking that make it critical:

  • Thinking that is clear, precise, accurate, relevant, logical, and consistent;

  • Thinking that reflects a controlled sense of skepticism or disbelief of any assertion, claim, or conclusion until sufficient evidence and reasoning is provided to conclusively support it;

  • Thinking that takes stock of existing information and identifies holes and weaknesses, thereby certifying what we know or don't know; and

  • Thinking that is free from bias, prejudice, and one-sidedness of thought.4

One measure of critical thinking before and after a behavioral intervention has been the Watson-Glaser test.5 This paper-and-pencil objective test uses a multiple-choice format. The questions test five different critical thinking skills: inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. The test format uses an example and then some test of an implication that follows. The question is whether the person can, using the accepted rules of inference, understand allowable conclusions that one can make from the example or available data.

The Watson-Glaser test scores each answer as correct or incorrect. The methodological issue is whether one can measure critical thinking using an objective test and whether an objective test completely captures the domain of critical thinking. The test has a history of adequate reliability; the question is one of validity.6 The Watson-Glaser test measures the ability of persons to follow the "rules" involved in various forms of reasoning. To the extent that one accepts the underlying rules, the test has been accepted by researchers as valid for measuring critical thinking.

A 1999 study by Dr. Mike Allen and others7 analyzed more than 19 studies that quantitatively evaluated improvement in critical thinking for teen-aged students, using the Watson-Glaser or equivalent test, before and after participation for at least a year in public speaking/individual events, competitive debate, or argumentation/logic/rhetoric classes. Comparable control groups who had no behavioral intervention were also used for the studies. Eight studies assessed the effects of competitive debate on critical thinking. Six studies assessed the effects of public speaking/individual events participation on critical thinking, and five studies assessed the effects of argumentation/logic/rhetoric classes on critical thinking.

Socializing over dinner
Results from Dr. Allen's meta-analysis indicate regardless of the measure used to assess critical thinking, the type of design employed, or the specific type of communication skill training taught, critical thinking improved as a result of training in communication skills. The findings illustrate that participation in public communication skill-building exercises consistently improved critical thinking. Participation in public speaking/individual events and particularly competitive debate demonstrated the largest improvement in critical thinking test scores (See Table A).8

Dr. Allen states "The central issue regarding communication, as a field, involves the fact that the process is an action necessary to living. Our field is a lived experience that every person enacts each day. Regardless of the area (organizational, interpersonal, rhetorical, mass, technological, small group, etc.), there exists an aspect of performance and/or competence within that area which is a part of the ongoing theoretical and research tradition. One result, in the cross-sectional comparison, demonstrates that public speaking instruction may be improved by incorporating more aspects of argumentation into the curriculum. The central issue is to what degree the need to develop critical thinking skills plays an important part of the expectations for this or any course.

The results [of Dr. Allen's meta-analysis] demonstrate the value of forensics' [competitive speech and debate] participation in improving critical thinking. The effects point to a possible additional advantage that forensics' participation can provide to training solely in public speaking for those interested in the development of critical thinking. The companion activities of engaging in both argument and counterargument, whether required in public speaking, discussion, argumentation, and/or forensics competition better prepare students to become full participants in society. Debate, may require the development of critical listening skills, an often underdeveloped part of the practice that is important."9

Relaxing after the competition—bare feet and ties
Skeptical parents and potential community volunteers might ask: how does debate compare with other teaching methods and are the skills learned transferable to the "real" world?

"Debate is one of the most successful methods of teaching because of its inherently interactive format. The format of competitive debate relies on 'coaching' as a method of instruction. Research demonstrates that interactive formats are the preferred method for achieving critical thinking, problem solving ability, higher level cognitive learning, attitude change, and moral and communication skill development. Of the six recommended methods for active learning, debate uses five. They include writing, oral presentation, small group strategies, instructional games or role playing, and field study methods."10

In 1978 Huseman and Goodman discovered that 55% of all members of Congress had participated in high school debate and that 51% debated in college. Of those, 87% rated debate to be "helpful" or "very helpful" in performing their legislative duties, and not one rated it as "not helpful."11 So while a background in debate isn't absolutely necessary in order to end up in Congress, it certainly can help!

When others ask, "What are some of the benefits of participating in debate?" or "What can a student gain from all that hard work?" I hope this article will help the reader prepare their own well-reasoned response that is backed by evidence.

For information on the national homeschool speech and debate league go to www.ncfca.org. Click on "local contacts," then e-mail your regional director who will give you information on homeschool speech and debate clubs and events in your area.


  1. Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making, Austin J. Freeley and David L. Steinberg, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Chapter 2, 1999.

  2. Ingalls, Z. The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Resolved: that competition in college debate is as fierce as in a basketball playoff game," p. 13, May 8, 1985.

  3. Descartes, Rene, Meditations of First Philosophy, 1641.

  4. Garside, C. "Look who's talking: A comparison of lecture and group discussion teaching strategies in developing critical thinking skills," Communication Education, Vol. 45, p. 215. 1996.

  5. Watson, G., & Glaser, E. Critical thinking appraisal, Form YM. New York: Harcourt, Brace, &World, Inc. 1951.

  6. Hill, B. "The value of competitive debate as a vehicle for promoting development of critical thinking ability." In A. Gill (Ed.), Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Yearbook, Dubuque, Iowa, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, No. 14, pp 1-22, 1993.

  7. Allen, Mike; Berkowitz, Sandra; Hunt, Steve; Louden, Allan. "A meta-analysis of the impact of forensics and communication education on critical thinking," Communication Education; Annandale; Vol. 48, pp: 18-30, Jan 1999.

  8. Each group was tested before and after the activity, and then compared to the control group, which had no behavioral intervention. Study group sizes were statistically corrected to account for differences in sample sizes.

  9. Allen, et. al. ibid.

  10. "Selected Active Learning Strategies," in Teaching Communication: Theory, Research and Methods. Nyquist, J.D. and Wulff, D.H. Eds. John A. Daly, Gustav F. Frederich, and Anita L. Vangelisti. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

  11. Huseman, R.C. and Goodman, Davis, M. "BYD congressional questionaire," Journal of the American Forensic Association, Vol. 12, p. 225- 228, 1976.
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