Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Beyond Debate Club

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: argument, education, debate, reason, mind and body, Miller-McCune, Will Wlizlo,


While no parent wants a petulant, argumentative teenager, cultivating a skill set for feisty debate in secondary school may be the most effective way to ensure a reasoned adulthood.

Columbia University’s Deanna Kuhn, a psychology professor whose work in cognitive science and education was recently profiled by Miller-McCune, worries argument “based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence” is dying out—yet, in our ever more complex world, is ever more crucial. How, she set out to uncover, could we foster a generation of rational, well-informed citizens to meet the challenges of tomorrow?

Though a geeky staple of secondary education, debate club was not the solution Kuhn investigated. Instead, she went meta. As in, metaphysical.

Kuhn’s subjects were mostly black and Latino students from a public middle school in Harlem, and all 48 were enrolled in a twice-weekly philosophy course for three years. Alongside the class’s curriculum, they researched and debated on controversial issues like animal rights and black market organ sales. “They often debated in pairs,” explains Burns, “not face to face, but online, in a sort of Socratic inquiry via Google Chat.”

Like all new material, the students didn’t initially “get” how to argue with nuance. Their topical stances, according to the article, lacked complexity. Many showed no interest in feedback from their instructors. But, “[b]y the end of year two,” the magazine reports, “they had developed a thirst for evidence.” The young philosophers competed in a year-end showdown structured more like a debate club match, where half-cocked arguments and one-sided perspectives didn’t fly.

For a control group, Kuhn tracked 23 other students who learned philosophy like classic scribes: with their noses in books and pens scribbling essays. At the end of the third year of instruction, both groups took a written exam on yet another unfamiliar topic—a type of assessment for which the traditionally educated kids should be more prepared. But the results were surprising: “[N]early 80 percent of the students in the experimental group were writing essays that identified and weighed opposing views in an argument,” reports Miller-McCune. “Less than 30 percent of the students in the comparison group were doing so.”

In a media landscape hijacked by cable news personalities, internet trolls, and radio blowhards and an education system hijacked by standardized testing companies, these statistics are more than reassuring. They’re—dare I say it—enlightening.

Source: Miller-McCune 

Image by Jon Collier, licensed under Creative Commons.