Debate and Social-Emotional Learning

As the dust settles on the WUDL's experience at Georgetown Day School's Invitational Tournament, some memories are still vivid--the happiness when each team won their first round and the frustration showed by each team when they lost a tough round that felt well within reach.

For many of our students, this was their first exposure to national competition and/or a regional tournament's "Varsity Division." Big travel tournaments like this are hard, even when you've had months to prepare. They put the experience of debate in context--its a big world out there, and what makes you a consistent trophy winner in our small pond isn't enough to make your mark on the national circuit without some extra preparation and hustle.

During the tournament, and from a larger look back at travel tournaments past, I'm always impressed by our student's intellectual curiosity. They ask all the right questions, trying to contextualize their losses and improve their preparation for future rounds instead of trying to re-litigate rounds that have already happened. They also never ask for answers, instead intent on finding them for themselves once they've contextualized the cases involved. After the tournament, they kept their flows, send me cases to discuss and figure out how to answer. Most importantly, they focused on the process--how should we think about such cases, and how can we prepare better next time, instead of a "win now" mentality that won't teach them much in the long term.

I think this is a great microcosm of one of the key benefits of competitive debate for students: developing persistence, determination, and grit. Social-Emotional Learning is "hip" in education reform circles these days, and is a signature issue for new DCPS chancellor Wilson. As a former competitor and long time coach, I can say from experience that debaters develop incredible mental and emotional fortitude from their competitive experiences, especially challenging competitions like this. Tournaments provide a compelling, challenging environment where students experience winning and losing.

For the students, the stakes are very high, and a debate career with its fair share of winning AND losing will develop emotionally mature, process oriented young people who are prepared to handle life's challenges. We've known for a long time that debaters are more likely to attend college, and more importantly, more likely to finish college than their peers. I think that this is one of the biggest reasons why, and I look forward to the newest Mezuk study by the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (due out in Spring 2018) that I'm sure will confirm what we who have done the activity for a long time already know: Debate develops strong social-emotional skills that prepare young people for the realities of the future.

I read a new study recently discussing the American Dream and student achievement. It says that students, especially those of color, who are told to believe in the American Dream, "where if you just work hard, everything will turn out okay," don't succeed in college or post graduation (if they get there) nearly as much as those who are taught that sometimes life isn't fair, and that we have to cope with these challenges around us. Working to develop those social-emotional skills to deal with life's ups and downs is some of the best preparation for life we can give students as they mature.

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