Debating as the pedagogy of critical thinking culture

Replacing one or two assignments in a course with a public debate can go a long way toward the goals we seek with critical thinking—confidence in questioning the premises of a claim within the situation that claim is raised. Our current pedagogical norms are not up to the challenge of teaching critical thinking. As Mitchell observes, "Many of the received approaches to pedagogy are not up to the task of energizing students to play positive roles as public deliberators" (2000, 124). A supporter of a more "dialogic" approach in the Frierian sense, Mitchell argues that role playing positions in controversial, debatable topics open up alternative classroom roles for students and teachers, thus making the students the producers and editors of a knowledge that typically would flow "downhill" from the instructor providing readings or a lecture on the subject. Mitchell is arguing for activities where students take on the perspective of a particular stakeholder in a controversy and play out what that group might say. Students imagine, through brainstorming and reading, what things each person or group might argue in a "real" case out in the world.

Although not a critique of the power of role play, Mitchell does seem to leave out that many students engaging in traditional debate are "role playing" themselves, quite convinced on an issue. For public debate purposes, taking on a role, like an actor playing a part, is not necessary. Students generate arguments for the audience to evaluate, so playing themselves as a much more convincing version of the self allows them the same ability to see how soft positions can become hard when clashing with opposing ideas. Mitchell's argument would work just as well if students were coached during the term about how they are learning the way a scientist, anthropologist, or literary critic thinks and speaks. This responsibility could convey to the student the importance of being in a position of importance—playing themselves as future experts in a field—and have them restrict their utterances accordingly. This also has the unique advantage of encouraging undergraduate or graduate students to imagine themselves in careers or societal positions that they never considered before as valid options in their lives. Teaching critical thinking through debate mentors students into fields they may have been unaware of otherwise.

Opening up debate events to the general student body may be one way of enhancing the practice of critical thinking as culture on a campus. A public debate is one that is put on for a larger community, about a controversy that contains polarizing positions. The idea is that the debate, conducted by well- prepared advocates who fairly represent their side, will loosen the audience's grip on extreme positions and allow discourse to emerge again where once silence fostered by rigorous commitment reigned. The discussion after the debate, even among audience members, is the goal of such an exercise.

I conducted one such debate with argumentation students several years ago. It attracted a number of undergraduate students, as well as top levels of the university administration (the provost was our invited respondent). (A video of the public debate can be found here: This debate represented a real challenge to students not just in synthesizing and understanding the course material, but also in developing the acumen of critical thinking—for the information must not just be presented, but re-presented to an audience of people who are not directly involved in the course. Such an exercise is not only good pedagogy, but an event that will live in the mind of the student for a long time after university is over, and if utilized well, can be a moment they understand as deeply entwined with the art of critical thinking.

Public debate centers on the audience. Students must present well-formed arguments in order to allow the audience to benefit from disagreement, or what in competitive debating slang is called "clash." Without clash, a debate becomes a public speaking contest without either side engaging the arguments of the others involved in the debate. Without engagement, audiences are left no opportunity to test their own beliefs against the strength of the presented arguments and responses.

There is no set model for how a debate should be structured. Generally, each side of the issue (however many your students determine there are) should be given equal time to speak in the course of the debate, and there should be some time given for questioning of one side by the other. The only thing that all debates should contain is a controversy with no clear solution, and each side should establish a clear thesis for their case. This will create a clash—or a clear disagreement—between the teams, which the audience can then use to evaluate their own belief systems and how they were constructed.

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