Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Debate is Good . . . No it's not

The easiest thing about education research is finding things that don't work (or, at least, things that have only a very small effect). When I was teaching I saw a lot of things that didn't work. Part of this is due to the fact that a lot of bad ideas get implemented, part is due to the fact that a lot of good ideas get implemented badly, and part is due to the fact that there is no simple way to "fix" education. I'm not sure that one can analyze education policy without turning cynical.

An article in EdWeek yesterday, however, reminded me of one thing that does work. Debate. About the only good experience I had at my school was coaching the debate team. Now, granted, the team was made up of kids who volunteered to spend their time after-school and on Saturdays hanging out with me, and I had the power to remove anybody who didn't fully engage during that time period, but, nonetheless, it was clear that the kids I worked with gained something from it.

I saw very few examples of kids being excited to learn in my school, but these kids were. I saw very few examples of kids understanding complex issues in my school, but these kids did. Not because of anything that I did, but because debates are fun and because the only way to win a debate is to deeply understand all the issues surrounding a topic.

I have no idea if these kids made huge gains on their test results and, quite frankly, I don't care. I don't care what the regression analysis or t-tests show. I saw it in their eyes. I watched their arguments develop. I felt their excitement. I ceded when they begged me to make practices longer and more frequent. They gained knowledge about important topics. They gained confidence in themselves. They gained the ability to construct and defend an argument (and poke holes in those that others make). Whether or not they bubbled in more correct answers on the state test, they were better off as a result of participating in debate.

I don't know if every student would benefit from debating. I don't know that debate would be particularly easy to integrate in the classroom. I'm not going to argue that debate will magically transform our schools. But I know that some students can benefit from it. And that's enough for me.

Sorry for getting all sappy and advocate-y, but occasionally it's nice to take a break from reading about what doesn't work.

If you happen to teach in NYC, or know someone who does, you can check out the NY Urban Debate League run by the IMPACT Coalition.

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