Debate: Balancing Competition and Education

As we help our students prepare for the Urban Debate National Championship, I am more acutely aware that the highest echelons of competitive debate and the more educational aspects of the activity aren't necessarily working together.

The vast majority of the students we work with at the Washington Urban Debate League are in the Novice or JV Divisions, in their first or second year of debate. Most are 7th-9th grade, and looking to develop their reading, critical thinking, and speaking skills, not chase trophies on the regional or national level (at least not yet). Most of them never will, but they will have a robust educational experience competing at the local level. Students will dramatically expand their vocabulary and their knowledge of what is going on in the world around them, develop critical thinking and research skills they will use for the rest of their lives, and perhaps most important of all, gain confidence in their intellectual abilities.

The research behind urban debate is clear--debate moves the needle for students across the board with grades, test scores, attendance, etc. In my own experience, self motivated students get a lot out of their participation, but debate can make the most difference for incredibly talented but currently disengaged students. Runner up Urban Debater of the Year 2016-17, Keoni Scott-Reid of Largo is an extreme example of this kind of student, who found motivation and a reason to engage in academics through debate. I was another such student, answering every question asked in class and reading months ahead in class, but getting middling grades because I couldn't see the point in a lot of schoolwork.

College debate has largely pivoted even further away from debate's educational roots. Teams are exceedingly competitive, expecting multiple years of Varsity debate in high school to walk onto most college teams. Students are supposed to travel a majority of weekends a semester, do a part time job's worth of research, and focus on exceedingly esoteric arguments divorced from practical policy engagement in search of a competitive edge. While still educational, the accessibility of the activity has greatly diminished.

Middle and High School debate, however, hasn't lost sight (and doesn't have to) of what is truly important about the activity. Urban Debate Leagues are especially important to help keep the educational objective of the activity in perspective. To my colleagues around the country, keep up the good work!

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