Enhancing Critical Thinking Ability Through Academic Debates

As a college student my major area of study was Asian Civilization, but I went on to study rhetoric with a focus on debate in all its aspects. I am proud to be a professor of debating now at the University of Vermont. Little did I know that I would have this wonderful opportunity to come to a land I loved before I ever visited it and have the opportunity to talk about something I have loved all of my life - the way of the debater.

I recognize that Chinese civilization has a long history of using debate in public policy and public life. The historian Kuan Ch'en noted over 1500 years ago that in China competitive debates were common in a form called "Pure Talk." Here is the description from over fifteen centuries ago:

"[T]here rang out a chorus of great debate. They threaded their way through yin and yang, with literary embellishments sprouting in every direction. Rather than quote from the sages and ancient records, they concentrated on bringing to light the natural order of things. Tzu-ch'un and all the assembled scholars joined the attack, the points and retorts thrusted back and forth like spears. But Lu answered each and every assault with a reply that was more than adequate. They continued the entire day, until dusk fell, without even pausing for food and drink."

China had debate before my country ever existed. My country had debate as a part of its public life at the moment of its birth. But, for all its importance debate has not been widely used as an educational tool until recently.

Increasingly, the use of debating to deal with complex ideas and competing advocacy is emerging as a successful educational tool. While long recognized as an important part of government affairs, academic deliberations, negotiations, philosophy and citizenship, in the United States and around the world the use of open debate as an educational and training tool is increasing. On every continent students and teachers are increasingly using debate as a complex form of communication which can train students in critical thinking and creativity in ways which will be important for their success in the information age they will live in for their entire lives.

While I have worked in a number of different countries, and I am a professor of debating at my university, the information I would like to share today comes from my work with a program in American secondary schools and middle schools called the "Urban Debate Leagues." Through a partnership between the Open Society Institute, a part of the Soros Foundation, several American universities, community organizations and local schools this program has established debating programs in 12 major urban areas, always in schools which have been the most disadvantaged and which contain high levels of students from families below the poverty line. Urban Debate Leagues set up debate "teams" (much like sports teams) which engage in contests against other schools. Teachers at these schools have been trained in basic debating skills and then often are allowed to offer a class in areas such as "Debate and Speech" and "Fundamentals of Debate." The students engage in competitive tournament debates against other schools, cities, and states. I have personally worked with the programs in New York City, Providence, Rhode Island, Atlanta, and many others. I would like to share some of my experiences and findings working and teaching in these programs.


While many different designs for debates are used in these programs, the dominant model is the one utilized in tournament competition. The model is called policy debate and has these components:

    • Topic: a statement which forms the subject of the debate. One topic will be used during an entire school year. The topic is usually a broad statement about public policy. Recent examples are: (2000-2001) the United States federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy in one or more of the following areas: employment, medical records, consumer information, search and seizure; (2001-2002) the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction.
    • Teams: there are two people on each team, and the teams are designated as either affirmative (in favor of the topic) or negative (opposed to the topic). Teams are expected to debate on different sides of the topic in different debates, usually alternating between affirmative and negative.
    • Judges: there are trained people who observe the debate and are empowered to make a decision as to which team did the better job of debating. They try and evaluate quality of analysis and presentation, not deciding the debate based on which side of the topic they personally believe in. Judges will cast ballots for one team or the other as well as award scores for quality of performance.
    • Speeches: each team will give four speeches, with each team member speaking twice. Each debater will deliver a constructive speech (to present their basic argument for or against the topic) which is eight minutes long, and each debater will deliver a rebuttal speech (to defend their arguments and attack those of the other team) which is five minutes long.
    • Cross examination: each debater is asked a series of questions for three minutes by the opposing team after they give their constructive speech. A series of questions will be asked in an attempt to gain information and reveal weaknesses in the arguments of the person who has just spoken.
    • Preparation time: each team has a total of eight minutes of preparation time to use before their speeches during the entire debate.
    • Tournaments: many teams from many schools will come together to debate each other on a specific day or days. Between three and six debates will take place in three different divisions - beginner, intermediate and experienced. Awards will be given to the teams and individuals who win the most ballots and gain the highest scores from the judges in each division.


Debate is "critical advocacy." It is advocacy in that the debater must advocate, propose, and defend ideas. It is critical because the debater must not ignore the advocacy of others, but must engage them and use the tools of critical thinking to evaluate the ideas of others. This process of critical advocacy has been shown to involve the students in important behaviors and skills which we should cultivate in our citizens.

    • Students will research about the issues of the topic they are debating, learn about them, think about what they will propose, what they stand for, and they must research and learn about the arguments of their opponents,
    • Students will communicate and advocate. They will take their ideas and express them to others, in public, for all to see and hear. A good debater must be a good speaker and know how to reach an audience.
    • Students will listen to what others have to say, and listen with understanding, not just dismiss disagreement. They must understand the arguments of their opponents in order to properly answer those arguments.
    • Students will respond to the conflicting ideas of others, not in an attack mode, but in a mode of truth seeking to try and persuade the judges to give them the ballot.
    • Students will learn how others make decisions. Judges will give decisions, but the students learn that each of us must judge. We must always, in debate and in life, vote for the best argument and best idea, not just for our argument and our idea.

Debate as a critical skill is more important now because we live in an age of information, where information is power, and debate is all about how to turn information into power.

    • Debaters learn to look at information and separate out the good from the bad, the relevant from the irrelevant.
    • Debaters learn how to get information, organize it, and organize it for a purpose. What good is information if it drowns you? It is only useful when you can harness it to a purpose.


Debaters have been proven to become leaders and successful professionals. Countless American corporate executives, influential lawyers, wealthy entrepreneurs and elected officials credit their debate experience in school with making them successful. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and suggests some of the following benefits.

    • Debaters become better critical thinkers and communicators. People begin to see them in a different way.
    • Debaters improve their social interactions. Debaters are not argumentative with their family and friends, but oddly enough, more understanding.
    • Debaters improve their personal expression. There seems to be something in us as human beings which wants to express ourselves. Their voices are heard.
    • Debaters are more often seen as leaders. Studies in America show that those who communicate often and well, and give a balance of positive and negative comments, are seen as leaders. Leadership is given, not taken. Debaters are more likely to be given leadership.
    • Debaters tend to become citizens in the real sense of the word -- informed, active, participating, a force to be harnessed for the betterment of all.

Other studies have provided support for these conclusions. A study of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point revealed that cadets with debate training tended to be promoted twice as fast as their non-debating classmates after they became military officers.


The Open Society Institute funded a major evaluation study of the Urban Debate League program in New York City after it had been in operation for three years. Their findings clearly indicated that the students had benefited immensely from these new skills.

    • The academic performance of students increased after they became involved with competitive debating. This was especially true for students who did not have good academic records before they began debating. Students were much more likely to go on to a university after debating.
    • The ability to solve problems improved after they became involved with competitive debating. They used communication far more often to solve problems, and tended to use violence and coercion less.
    • The creativity of the students improved after they became involved with competitive debating. They were more able to "think on their feet" and to generate ideas and arguments spontaneously.
    • The social skills of the students improved after they became involved with competitive debating. They reported that they made friends easier and felt more comfortable with new people.
    • The self-concept of the students improved after they became involved with competitive debating. They felt proud of their abilities to debate in public, and it gave them additional confidence.

Debating activities have been shown to improve academic performance in the areas this seminar has targeted -- critical thinking and creativity.

I want to finish my discussion with a story of one student I worked with in New York City. She lives in a very poor neighborhood, where crime and drug use are common problems.

As early as age four, "CR" looked after her siblings while her mother peddled drugs, initially to support her growing family but later as a means of feeding her own addiction. The drug usage rendered her incapable of holding a job to support her six children, so she married a working man who despised "CR" and her siblings. Fed up with the hardship of her home life, especially with the stepfather's abuse, "CR" decided to use her debate skills and take matters into her own hands. She managed to navigate the legal system in New York to secure financial custody of her siblings. Now her mother can no longer spend the family's food money on drugs. "CR" is only 16, but has already had the responsibilities of adulthood thrust upon her. She says participation in the debate program has virtually saved her life.

Not every student is in as difficult a situation as this young woman, but for all of our students, debating can give them a new and different way to learn skills which are as old as human civilization, and which are more important today than ever in our history.

In September my book, entitled Many Sides: Debate as an educational tool, will be published by the International Debate Education Association. Please contact me later this year if you would like to receive a copy.

I know that four students from China will be attending the World Debate Institute which I direct this summer. I look forward to hosting them with the hospitality you have shown me. If we can be as good a host as China has been, then I know they will have a very good experience.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Debate lessons improve critical thinking skills

© 2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Kids benefit when we teach them critical thinking skills.

What’s the best way to do it?

Studies suggest that explicit lessons in logic and reasoning are effective, so much so that they may actually improve a child’s IQ.

But few kids encounter such lessons, even in high school.

Yes, students might pick up logical principles as they study mathematics or science. They are frequently asked to present arguments in the form of written essays. And, yes, these experiences can be helpful.

Experiments suggest that students are more likely to master a topic when they are forced to explain it to another person. And most of us have noticed that the act of writing can clarify our thoughts.

Writing can make us aware of gaps in our understanding. It can force is to notice gaps in our explanations. Missing information. Logical flaws. In principle, writing may encourage students to construct better arguments.

But it’s not clear how many kids improve their critical thinking skills through writing. Based on the studies I've seen, I don't think writing alone is very effective. 

Maybe that's because students lack the perspective to critique their own work.

Ask students to argue a case, and they might be pretty good at naming a few reasons in support of their argument. But they rarely consider counterarguments, disconfirming evidence, or the merits of the opposing view.

These are the points raised by researchers Deanna Khun and Amanda Powell. They think students need someone to argue against. They need an intelligent critic. A person to play Devil’s advocate.

And that’s where debate comes into it. Not the silly, sloppy, emotional exchanges that pass for debate on TV and the internet. But the real thing: Disciplined, logical, responsive, evidence-based argumentation with another person.

Should we be training kids in the art of debate? As Kuhn and Powell note, debate forces kids to consider two perspectives, not just their own. It encourages kids to anticipate objections to their arguments. To answer counterarguments. To weigh the evidence on both sides.

So the researchers designed and tested a 3-year debate curriculum on a group of lower income, American, middle school students.

Here's how.

The kids started the program when they were in the 6th grade. Forty-eight kids were assigned to a philosophy class that emphasized debate. A control group of 28 kids were assigned to attend a similar course that featured teacher-led discussion and essay writing, but lacked any training or practice in debate.

At the beginning of the study, kids were tested on their ability to reason about a controversial issue. Then the coursework begin: Two fifty-minute lessons each week.

What kids did in class

For kids in the debate-based course, lessons were organized around four controversial topics. Each topic took about 13 weeks to complete.

Teachers would begin each 13-week term by presenting a controversy—like euthanasia—and asking kids to take sides. Then the teams worked in groups to prepare for a debate.

Team members would spend several sessions building a case in support of their position. They’d think of reasons and evaluate them. They’d try to anticipate what the opposition would argue, and prepare counterarguments and rebuttals. Then they’d rehearse—pairing off with other members of their team holding mock debates on the computer, via software for instant messaging.

Why the computer? The researchers knew that adolescents were well-acquainted with instant messaging, and the typed dialogs gave researchers a written record of the students’ reasoning. Kuhn and Powell also thought that a written dialog would encourage kids to reflect.

Each term culminated in a showdown between teams. The debate was led by two spokespeople—one elected from each team—who could confer with their teammates for help. Like the practice runs, the real debate took place on the computer.

What kids learned

At the end of each school year, kids were tested on their reasoning abilities. Their scores were compared with the scores of the control group---kids who has spent the year discussing and writing about similar controversial issues, but without any practice in debate.

How did things turn out?

When asked to write essays about a new controversy, the kids with the debating experience showed more sophistication.

Debate-trained students submitted more dual-perspective arguments--i.e., arguments that mentioned the claims of opposing points of view.

At the end of the third year, students in the debate group went even further: They submitted essays that discussed the costs and benefits of each position.

Kuhn and Powell call this an integrative perspective, and it was significantly less common among kids in the control group.

The debate kids also distinguished themselves in another way. They seemed better at figuring out what new data would help resolve the controversy.

Researchers asked kids to consider their need for evidence:

"Are there any questions you would want to have answers to that would help you make your argument?"

The debate-trained kids came up with more such questions. In addition, their questions were more pertinent to forming a general judgment about the issue.

No quick fix

The debate program developed by Kuhn and Powell seems successful. But it’s no quick fix. And doing it right means getting the details right. For instance:

1. Kids didn’t begin the program with an appreciation for evidence. They had to be taught.

At the end of Year One, teachers started presenting students with questions that were pertinent to the debate. Questions like “How humanely are animals treated in laboratories?" or “Has animal research led to any cures?" In subsequent years, students were encouraged to generate and research their own questions. Gradually, kids began to see how important it was to answer these questions. But it took time and practice.

2. Kids were given explicit teacher feedback about the strength and weaknesses of their arguments.

For the final session of each term, teachers debriefed students, going over transcripts of the debate and creating a diagram that summarized what was effective or ineffective about each team’s presentation. Teams were rewarded points for good moves and demerits for bad moves—like unwarranted assumptions and unconnected responses. The points were tallied and the winning team was declared.

An investment worth making?

Did Kuhn and Powell create the optimal program? Perhaps not. This is only the first study of its kind to get published. More research should help us tease apart which aspects of the program were the most effective. But Kuhn and Powell have taken an important first step.

Meanwhile, they make a persuasive case for teaching debate.

Informal classroom discussion doesn't seem to be an especially effective way to foster critical thinking skills. And I suspect that debate lessons might help shrink the achievement gap between students of lower and higher socioeconomic status.

In many middle class families, parents attempt to mold behavior by reasoning with their kids. They encourage give and take. They explain the reasons for rules and invite kids to negotiate—as long as they can make persuasive, well-reasoned arguments. I remember one anthropologist’s quip that the American intelligentsia train their children to talk like lawyers.

Presumably, children of professional thinkers would profit from lessons in debate. But kids from backgrounds of lower socioeconomic status—where negotiation and debate are often discouraged—might profit even more.

So I’m inclined to think that adding debate to the curriculum is a good investment for society as a whole. We might be laying the foundation for a more enlightened culture, with better-informed voters, more rational jurors, and citizens more appreciative of science.

References: Debate improves critical thinking skills

Kuhn D and Powell A. 2011. Dialogic Argumentation as a Vehicle for Developing Young Adolescents’ Thinking. Psychological Science. March 21 [Epub ahead of print]

For references regarding the common practices of middle class parents, see my article about authoritative parenting.

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