An argumentative essay which argues for debate in schools.
The Case for Making Formal Debate an Integral Part of Education
By Matthew Erickson
Dr. Michio Kaku wrote, "The brain weighs only three pounds, yet it is the most complex object in the solar system," in his New York Times bestseller the Future of the Mind. He also explained that groundbreaking new technology has revealed more about how the mind operates in the last fifteen years than in the whole of human history. However, as Ken Robinson's Ted Talk 'Changing Education Paradigms' explains, our education systems have remained essentially static, based on outdated models of how we learn. These models were born from the socio-economic circumstances of the Second Industrial Revolution, where learning was understood as little more than the result of rewarding behaviors like studying or taking tests. That understanding has been updated, and along with it so too must we update our education systems; one proposal that deserves serious consideration is whether we should integrate formalized debate into our education systems. To make this case, we'll define a few terms that'll help prepare us to make our case, we'll make the case itself, and we'll address points which weren't addressed in the case.
When we speak of 'formalized debate,' we should consider this as a form of debate in which there are strict rules on how much time one can speak, when it's possible to question the opposing side, and what kind of evidence ought to be used. We should also understand that this means there are a number of chunking devices that both sides use to structure their arguments: we aren't simply telling students to 'make points,' but instead give them models that organize and structure their arguments. We'll discuss one such device later. 'Integral part' refers to its frequent use as a learning tool, which should be contrasted with the way it's currently used; essentially a rare, fun activity students might do once or twice an entire term. When we refer to the 'education system,' we'll assume high school; but college, middle and even elementary schools suffer from the same problems we're trying to resolve, and would likely benefit.
We'll organize our case using the "House Model,' created by the head Northwestern debate couch, Dr. Daniel Fitzmeier, to argue either for or against some social structure. The House Model is organized like this: there are foundations, which represent undesirable tendencies in the status quo (for example, Confirmation Bias, which is a psychological tendency and thus every House Model ought to account for); on top of these foundations are pillars, which represent PBP's (Predictable Behavior Patterns) within the social system being proposed (for example, in debate it's very predictable that the students will speak during their speech times and quietly listen when their opponents speak); above the pillars there is a roof, which just represents the social system one is arguing over. In our case, this will be an education system with debate integrated into itself as an educational tool. We'll use three pillars to make our case.
Additionally, as we'll be citing biopsychological phenomena, and this is contest is sponsored by the English department, I'll use an extended metaphor so the lay reader won't get lost in the technical details of how our brains cells change and cooperate in the learning process. While I'll use this metaphor throughout the essay, I'll pair it with its technical terms so readers with backgrounds in biopsychology know to which ideas I refer to. Imagine a stereotypical squid, with tentacles (dendrites) and suckers (axon terminals) that can either squeeze or not squeeze (transmissions of neurotransmitters, though for our purposes we won't over-extend the metaphor to explain the nuances of excitatory vs. inhibitory signals). Remember that squids have a head and long body (cell body and axon). Imagine that millions of these squids, tangled in a yarn-ball (the brain) communicate with each other in a Morse code of squeezing or not squeezing (action potentials and lack thereof) the heads of nearby squids. (pg. 143-147, Gray, P. 2014) We'll learn about four processes which these squids are involved in that effect how we learn.
The first PBP (Predictable Behavior Pattern), the first pillar, we'll discuss is called 'flowing,' which is a systematized form of note-taking used by debaters. The most straight-forward tendency which this pillar helps to resolve is Confirmation Bias, or the tendency to very quickly decide whether an idea agrees with or disagrees with your pre-existing beliefs. The biology of this phenomena indicates that the Amygdala (the arrangement of squid-like cells in the middle of the brain which genes shaped into a risk-assessment system) takes data through two tracts (chains of squids), one of which goes through the pre-frontal cortex (a yarn-ball of these squids where information tends to integrate into mental models--we'll discuss what a 'mental model' is in a bit) and one which bypasses it. The latter, or subcortical, tract is that which causes people to have instant, rather than rational, fight-flight responses to ideas perceived as 'threatening' (pg. 226-228, Gray, P. 2014). By flowing an opponent's arguments, one must prepare counter arguments, and in doing so constructs mental models of the arguments made by both the opponent and oneself. Creating these mental models (even as simple as their argument, your own argument, and a line forming a barrier between the two) forces the opponents' arguments to enter the Amygdala through the slower, more rational route, which makes it less likely one will automatically reject foreign ideas.
At this point one might object by saying 'because one doesn't flow arguments outside of debates, like while having conversations or watching the news, this pillar doesn't matter in the real world.' This objection is important, and in response we can learn about the first of our learning processes. LTP (Long-Term Potentiation) is the process by which Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats were conditioned (pg. 175, Gray, P. 2014). In any thought or feeling, the squids will squeeze on each other and, if there are sufficient suckers squeezing on a particular squids' head, that squid feels the squeeze and passes it along. These squeezes continue like a game of telephone, or tag, being passed amongst the squids. These squeezes occur at different rates, forming a Morse code of either squeezes or not-squeezes. This Morse code forms our thoughts, memories, and all the data which comes into and leaves ourselves.
LTP is the phenomena by which occurs when a particular squid is squeezed often: the more often that one squid successfully squeezes on the head of another, the more that both the squid which made the successful squeeze and other nearby, third-party squids will attach suckers to the squid being squeezed. This is important because increasing the number of suckers a squid has on its head increases the likelihood that the squid being squeezed will feel and pass along that squeeze. In this way chains of squids communicating with each other grow thicker and more communicative. It takes time and repetition for this to occur, which is a portion of the reason debate needs to happen often rather than as a game which occurs 'every once in a while.' LTP answers the previously stated concern because, once these long, strong chains are formed, the likelihood of thinking in that manner (for example, as though flowing a debate) increases and remains great even when having conversations or watching the news.
An additional advantage to the 'flowing' pillar is a second learning process called 'chunking,' in which portions of some concept--an argument, for example--are grouped according to their useful traits. One example we can refer to is called the 'Kritik,' which contains three parts: at least one Link, which gives evidence that certain practices or methodologies are held by the person or institution under criticism; at least one Impact, which explains why those beliefs or methodologies inevitably make adverse consequences very likely; and an Alternative, which explains why some different practice or methodology would resolve the stated Impacts. A debater who flows using this device would hear the statement "Trump's calls to secure the border, like most security rhetoric, will likely cause more fear and calls for war than are warranted, and so they should be ignored" and automatically dissect it into three parts. A debater could tell you about each part and can describe the various strategies for strengthening or weakening the argument based on these parts.
Chunking (the formation by way of LTP of these squids into a funnel-like web which organizes data into meaningful chunks) resolves a very topical tendency which exists in our digital society, Information Overload. Like the name implies, Information Overload is the phenomena of our squids being presented with too much information too quickly (Edmunds and Morris 2000). Information Overload causes stress, decreases productivity and causes even useful information to seem meaningless and difficult to remember.
While debate using chunking devices, like the Kritik, one might try to argue that most schools generally encourage note making as well, but one should remember two points. First, while notes usually dissect points in terms of which relate to or encompass each other (the 'hierarchical indent' method, for example, in which concepts within another concept are written below and to the right of where the initial points were written) school lectures don't have devices like the Kritik which can chunk many types of data, like criticism of Capitalist, Communist, or Nihilistic statements, into components that are useful and easier to remember. In fact, most chunking methods either too narrow to use in very many other circumstances ("H.O.M.E.S.," for example is only used to remember the names of the great lakes) or too universal to be very helpful (the 'hierarchical indent' method is just broad connections based on the order of the speakers speech). In fact, according to Dr. Robert Leamnson, author of 'Thinking about Teaching and Learning,' many students merely 'take' notes and copy what a teacher says or writes on the board. While he recommends that students recopy their notes multiple times to compensate for the fact that they aren't making notes because they understand the utility of the information the first time they hear it, the information is still essentially only as chunked as a teacher chose to make it. Dissecting or attacking what the teacher says isn't incentivized.
To understand what this information is chunked into, we should understand a third form learning, one which brings all the other forms together into literally one picture: a mental model. Dr. Michio Kaku synthesized many studies, including Bandura's famous social modeling experiment, into an understand of learning which says that much of our capacity to reason and make predictions of the future derives almost entirely from our ability to create, deconstruct, and follow mental models. These can be predictive models, such as of a thermodynamic heat system; social models, such as the way one observes an outstanding baseball player swings; or just mental models, such as a mathematical proof. They occur in the prefrontal cortex, a yarn-ball of squids in the front of the brain where memories, in the form of a Morse code of squeezing squids, integrate their data into a mental model. Sports coaches understand the importance of this process, which is the reason its common practice to make young baseball players practice swinging without a bat many times. This allows their mental models, and their connection to those mental models, to strengthen (by way of LTP) enough that they can hit an actual ball very well. Thus, when data is chunked in organizes itself into these mental models, making them more accurate and literally more connected to each other.
Our second PBP, our second pillar, is research and evidence editing. This pillar also aims at resolving the tendency of Information Overload. Because one uses evidence as a tool with which to win debates, the content is generally not considered 'tedious facts.' Students would be able to choose some pieces of evidence and discard others as they do their research, giving them more autonomy and control over their learning. It might seem 'risky' to let students research a subject themselves, but it's possible we could give younger students access to a limited set of evidence to pick from, all of which would pertain to the subject. As they move up in grades they could be slowly taught the various methods by which they search for, and find, evidence. Another strategy to simplify the research process could be, like most high school debate teams, compile this evidence a shared online database (the Open Evidence Project, for example). Research, especially in the many databases which they'll need to navigate, may seem intimidating, but like a baseball player's swing the students simply need a lot of practice with less stressful versions of research, growing more difficult until they can form a strong mental model of the behaviors they need to perform.
An additional reason research and the editing of evidence helps to resolve the Information Overload tendency via a process called 'latent learning.' The famous psychologist Dr. Edward Tolman proved that we're constantly remembering details and constructing them into our mental models, even when we aren't aware of it or those details aren't being rewarded. In the same way students will understand many important details about the course though they aren't focusing on those details, but rather the overall strategy involved in their debates. To help explain this process, a useful example of latent learning might be the knowledge of biopsychology and learning phenomena gained from this essay, though the subject is a policy change in our education system (an argumentative essay like this could also be perceived as a chunking device too, as it forms facts in a useful, memorable structure).
Aside from the research itself, debaters often highlight or underline the parts of their evidence which they consider essential, allowing them to read only these in their speeches and thus move on to even more evidence. This practice is another form of chunking which teaches the student to sort between information which is helpful or isn't. It's also a form of latent learning because the students remember and even rehearses, on their own, facts that'll allow them to win.
Some who criticize the current education system say it focuses on tedious facts rather than key concepts, but their criticism should be more nuanced. We build mental models with facts, let there be no mistake: these models are the result of our memories, translated into a Morse code of neurons (squids) crystallizing with each other in our prefrontal cortex (yarn-ball of squids behind your forehead). Instead, these criticisms should focus on the manner in which students transform these ideas into Morse code in the first place, which would say that the status quo system transforms ideas, equally, into bits of data. For example, even though 'tangled alliances' is a far more expansive and useful geo-political phenomena to understand the causes of World War I, this concept and the weapon 'mustard gas' often have the same number of flash cards and points on the test: one. Thus, they're both studied as equal facts, when they certainly aren't.
Our third and final PBP, our final pillar, is 'switching sides,' the idea that one often debates from a position which they might not prefer to be on. This clearly combats Confirmation Bias, because one must complicate their mental model of whichever topic they're debating in order support the opposite sides' models as well. They're either rewarded for doing so with accuracy and strategy or punished for being unable to do so. Switching sides also combats the subcortical problem we were dealing with earlier, because in creating these mental models, data about the views they oppose must use the longer, more rational route to the Amygdala (risk assessing bundle of squids). One might object that 'not all debaters are immune to the effects of Confirmation Bias,' to which we need to introduce the idea of probabilistic education: nothing in this world is certain, especially when creating an institution that tries to makes highly detailed learning likely, so we need to focus on creating a social system in which certain behaviors (and thoughts are the squeezing or not squeezing behaviors of those squids) become more or less likely. Using this idea we see that Confirmation Bias is reduced sufficiently by debate that we can consider it an advantage to using debate to teach our curriculum. This is important because, as Dr. Thomas Cooley of New York University explained in his lecture "The Moral Psychology of Political Division," our country is more polarized today than any point in the last 100 years, which is making policy and even daily conversations difficult and unproductive.
A second tendency this pillar resolves is specific to the current education system, what we can call 'linear thinking.' Remember LTP is a method of learning which creates long strings of squids, connecting ideas to each other. However, research indicates that these chains of connected relationships are insufficient in staggering ways. For example, Dr. Schoenfeld (author of the book How We Think: A Theory of Goal-Oriented Decision Making and Its Educational Applications) conducted a study of 8th graders in which he asked "How many buses does the army need to transport 1,128 soldiers, if each bus holds 36 soldiers?" and 1/3 of those 8th graders answered "31 remainder 12." He goes on to explain that this study and many others show that far too many kids dissect even slightly complex real world problems into the few data bits (in this case, numbers) which repetition and LTP have taught them to look for.
Instead, what we should teach, and what debate is particularly good at teaching, is what we can call 'Nucleus learning,' or conceptual learning. The name derives from the way that these squids normally, rather than forming many thick, occasionally intersecting chains, form yarn-balls of internally communicating squids (called a 'Nucleus') and that from these yarn-balls long chains of squids extend. Nucleus learning compiles the four methods of learning into holistic, comprehensive structures which more closely resemble how we learn in our daily lives. Debate already facilitates Nucleus learning via chunking, the result of research and flowing, because it creates hierarchies of concepts based on utility. These concepts interact with each other in a multitude of different ways, even from debate to debate. Switching sides also facilitates this process because one will likely be incentivized to question the validity of most of the ideas they learn, because most of these ideas will likely be defended by an opponent. They can question the validity of these ideas either be directly, during questioning periods called 'cross-examinations,' or indirect by arguing against what your opponent has said. Questioning these ideas incentivizes students to understand the origins of the ideas they're taught, and their utility.
The final arguments for the advantages of switching sides understand that humans are social creatures, and we think differently in different social systems. The example we'll use is Authority Bias. As Stanley Milgram's famous electro-shock experiments show, authority figures tends to exert powerful influences on our ability to reason. While one might assume this is potent weapon in the right hands, what his experiments show is that our thinking is actually far less sophisticated when given orders by an authority figure. Rather than resisting the experimenters' commands to shock another test subject, 65% of those who participated in the experiment continued to the maximum amount of charge it was possible to give. The many of the data-chains those squids follow had their shapes at our birth, and there appear to be many that begin squeezing each other when an authority figure gives an order. These chains can distract and even overpower the capacities to create accurate mental models if LTP hasn't created funnels of squids to chunk data into manageable bits.
In addition to the various pillars which affirm our proposal, there are a few more questions we should address. The first of these is grades, which are meant to incentivize students, help teachers track their students' progress, and allow either employers or college scouts to identify successful students. It a reasonable substitute for grades could be what're called 'speaker points,' a similar reward/talent tracking system which exists in most forms of debate. These are awarded by the debates' judge(s) based the debaters speaking prowess and strategic arguments. These generally range somewhere between 27 and 30 points (27.5 is average and 30 is perfect, while 26.7 or less usually indicates one argued either poorly or impolitely). Assuming that grades work as a reward system, this would be an able substitute. A small amount of extra credit could be awarded to the winner, but it's important to note that in some rare instances the debater(s) with the most points are not the winner, because they didn't defeat some key argument which collapsed their case.
However, we should also note that the grade system is not without contention, and in fact the very concept of rewarding complex thinking is under attack. The Ted Talk "The Puzzle of Motivation" by Dan Pink shows there's a great deal of research which reveal that giving greater rewards for complex tasks like creating mental models and chunking data decreases productivity, and that Mastery and Autonomy are better motivators. Our case only asks that formalized debate to be assimilated into the education, however, so we'll only establish that debate can follow Mastery or Autonomy incentive models, if teachers opt to use those systems, and move on. Because debate is a game based around the synthesis and internalization of complex ideas, Mastery is easy to encourage in students. We've already explained how Autonomy exists within the debate research, and it could be possible to give students the freedom to choose their topics outright (choose whether to have debates about Biology or about American history).
The second question we'll address is the format, or style, that debate will have in schools. While public speaking is an important skill (a network of squids in many Nuclei of data processing yarn-balls, which are capable of constructing detailed models of their subject) that every student will likely use to some degree or another throughout their life, we should concede that debate, the structured exchange of information in which a winner is announced, can take other forms. For example, digital debates could be designed that more closely resemble how the scientific and philosophical community share beliefs. This method could even be stretched out over several days, focusing on how students edit and re-edit their arguments until they're perfect. Some forms of debate are better for dissecting philosophical and moral arguments (Lincoln-Douglas) while others are better for making sense of social and technological arguments (Policy), and our school systems should have the flexibility to use any and all forms which are compatible with their subject matter.
A third concern is somewhat more technical: while it's easy to consider how debates would take place in a Literature or History class ("was Huckleberry Finn justified in stealing Jim?"; "should the colonies have used Gandhi-like tactics, rather than violence, to declare independence from England?") it's slightly more difficult to imagine a model of debate functioning the same way in a Math or Physics class. One model that could work in these classes could be Math or Physics is to give the students a real world Math or Physics problem and time to solve it grouping them into teams based on their answers. It's even possible to have groups which used different methods but reached the same conclusion to debate each other. This model would access the flowing pillar and it's possible that, like the Kritik chunks structural arguments about beliefs and behaviors, other chunking devices could be designed for Mathematical or Scientific principles. While this format of debate would likely be shorter in length and depth of argument, its capacity to incentivize social and mental models, as well as latent over repetitive learning makes it at least a useful, augmenting tool. Additionally, those who get the answers correct receive a reward and get an opportunity to essentially reteach the material in a debate format. Any class in which one attempts to create imaginary models (of buses carrying X number of students to school or of a thermodynamic heat system) would benefit from integrating debate into its curriculum, because the creation of these models is the means by which we learn.
A fourth concern could be the manner in which teachers learn to debate, so they can teach their students. In response, we should remember that debate is essentially a self-perpetuating social system which can only be as complex as its members: in other words, it's a game. Like a game, someone teaches you the rules so you get a general understanding how it works (a weak mental model), and you play it a few times (latent learning and social modeling of other players). Eventually you learn start understanding the strategies players use, and start using them yourself (chunking) and soon the rules and strategies seem like second nature, and you only need to think about the specifics of the game itself (LTP). Teachers should only need to attend some seminars over the summer where they'd learn the rules, the five or six important chunking devices their style of debate uses, and have a few practice debates. The first several years might be tricky, as teachers gain enough experience watching debates to judge them fairly, but this could be resolved by a plan that takes several years to slowly initiate teachers into the new education system.
Our fifth and final addendum is not so much a concern as an opportunity. Most debate teams, as extra-curricular activities, are divided not by grade but by skill and experience. Yet even this division is porous, as the oldest, most experienced members will often spend part of their time teaching, couching, and judging for younger students. Older and younger students co-operate, and the younger ones can see the behaviors of the older ones and follow them, using the older debaters as role-models. Ken Robinson's Ted Talk 'Changing education paradigms' explains there is little evidence that a students' age is the most important factor in determining how successful they will be outside of school. While it's not necessary to make these changes in order to integrate debate into the school curriculum, we should consider the benefits of inter-age group courses, as they may hold the previously mentioned advantages. These models aren't even terribly new, they exist in many middle and high schools now as twenty minute periods when students can play games, do homework, or have potlucks with each other. But they don't learn material in these, and we'd miss an important opportunity to innovate how we teach schools by not considering an inter-age group model.
Formalized debate uses the pillars of flowing, research and switching sides to resolve our tendency to succumb to Confirmation Bias, Information Overload, Authority Bias and Linear Thinking. These tendencies are psychologically and socially generated. Our three pillars use four forms of learning: LTP (Long-Term Potentiation), mental models, chunking and latent learning to facilitate Nucleus learning (conceptual learning). These forms of learning, if used repeatedly, will solidify and allow students to interpret data as though they were in a debate both inside and outside the classroom. The PBP (Predictable Behavior Patterns) of debate helps students to achieve their full potential. Integrating formalized debate into our classroom would help students to become citizens who are adapted to the constantly changing dynamics of the 21st century.
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