The Advantage of Learning Debate Skills in Childhood

Teaching kids to argue sounds like a parent’s worst nightmare, but a new study finds that these debate skills dramatically help students’ reasoning ability.

| May/June 2012

It’s easy enough to complain about the bombast and personal attacks that pass for public discourse in this country. But what can we do to change the tenor of our times? A little classroom training in rational debate wouldn’t hurt.

That’s the conclusion of Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who recently wrapped up a multiyear study investigating the role of classroom debate skills in learning. Her research shows that middle-school students trained in the art of verbal debate are more rational thinkers than untrained peers. Specifically, they’re better able to understand the nuances of a variety of perspectives on controversial issues.

Kuhn and doctoral candidate Amanda Crowell set up two groups of middle-school students for comparison, reports Miller-McCune (January 19, 2012; now renamed Pacific Standard). Both groups studied the same philosophy subjects. One group was taught with traditional methods: classroom lectures, textbook studies, and lots of written assignments.

The other group learned through a curriculum based in debating skills. Students worked in pairs using computer chats to debate issues like home schooling and animal rights. During the sessions, other students and instructors could pitch in to help the debaters hone their logic. Once a quarter, Kuhn and Crowell raised the stakes with a face-to-face “showdown”—teams of students rotated every three minutes into an ongoing live debate. Coaches handed out points for sound reasoning and demerits for lapses in logical debate skills.

To test the effectiveness of the teaching strategies, both groups were asked to write year-end essays on brand-new topics. After three years, 80 percent of the debate group wrote essays that considered views opposite to their argument, a key reasoning ability. Less than 30 percent of the control group did so.

Kuhn (who outlines her educational theory in the book Education for Thinking) sees debate skills—how to evaluate and weigh evidence, to understand opposing viewpoints, to recognize faulty logic—frequently shuffled to the side in an educational system increasingly focused on standardized test scores.