Everything I Know About Critical Thinking, I Learned in High School Debate Club

An individual recently contacted me asking my opinion on an effort to create critical thinking clubs in high schools. It sounds like a great idea, and I was excited about the concept as I began reading through the Club Manual. But then one particular section labeled “Common Misconceptions about Critical Thinking” stopped me dead in my tracks. It said:

“People often think of debaters as master critical thinkers and think of debate clubs as cultivating critical thinking. Debate clubs force the participants to argue for a position whether they agree with it or not. Thus, the participants learn verbal trickery and manipulation and further strengthen the natural human desire to win any and all arguments regardless of the actual objective merits of one’s position. Debate clubs cultivate sophistry, something deeply antithetical to critical thinking. In this way, debate clubs actually encourage the intellectual traits characteristic of the uncritical thinker, such as intellectual arrogance, intellectual callousness, and intellectual hypocrisy. Debate clubs help people believe what they want to believe through providing participants with the tools to persuade, which the participants will then go on to use to persuade others as well as themselves. “How could you possibly persuade yourself?” you may ask. Well, we may be faced with an inconvenient truth and use our persuasion skills to justify to ourselves taking the convenient option. Sophistry is a very dangerous monster.”

As someone who participated in Cross Examination Debate (now called Policy Debate), Extemporaneous Speaking, and went to Nationals in Student Congress (now called Congressional Debate), I was shocked by this negative characterization of debate teams. Certainly every debate team is different, and relies mostly on the guidance of the debate coach, but my experience on the debate team was fundamental in developing me as a critical thinker.

I don’t know what debate club this individual was exposed to, but I can definitively say that his characterization of the skills taught in debate is completely false based on my personal experience.

That made me think about all of the critical thinking skills I learned and practiced in high school debate. Here are a few of the most important ones:

1) Research- Each year when the National Forensic League released the resolution for Policy Debate, the debate team would camp out at the library and begin feverishly researching every detail of the topic. Certainly, the method of researching debate topics has changed since I was in high school, but the fundamentals are the same. My team always went to local colleges to do research because they had access to more resources and databases like Lexis Nexis. Today, I’m sure all of the research is done from home very easily. Regardless, we started by researching everything we could about the main topic and then drifted into all of the sub-topics that would inevitably make up the opposition’s affirmative case. We looked for evidence that would prove the affirmative and evidence that would support the negative. We had to ask questions about what we read like “What does this mean?” “What do the experts say?” “What is missing from this argument?” We printed thousand and thousands of articles in order to “cut cards” and identify key evidence to support our arguments. Learning what and how to research is a critical thinking skill that continues to help me be an informed citizen today.

2) Source and credibility- In addition to the research questions I mentioned above, another big question we always asked was “Says who?” Who wrote this? What is his/her experience? What is his/her motivation? We were taught not only to listen to what was being said, but to dig into the credibility of the source as well. For example, my assumption is that the individual who wrote the excerpt above clearly has very strong negative opinions on high school debate clubs. He writes about high school debaters in a very general way, and seems to speak with authority. So I would be inclined to ask “Were you a member of a high school debate team?” “How many high school debaters have you known?” “How many high school debate classes have you attended?” “What experience with high school debaters, debate coaching lessons, and debate tournaments has brought you to this conclusion?”

3) Logical Fallacies- Evidence is only half of the equation in debate. Developing and delivering an argument is where the real skill of a debater can be found. In debate, I learned not only to avoid making logical fallacies when I structured my argument so that I would have a strong case, but I also learned how to identify the logical fallacies and persuasive techniques used by others. I think of debate as inoculating me against these kinds of rhetorical devices or sophistry. I can easily identify a Red Herring, Slippery Slope argument, False Dilemma, and am a much more critical listener when I hear things such as an Appeal to Emotion. When I hear a logical fallacy or persuasion technique, I stop and dig deeper into the actual content of the argument so that I can find out why such a technique is being used. This, again, is a very important critical thinking skill.

4) Argument Structure- Much like how English classes in high school teach you how to structure an essay, high school debate taught me how to structure an argument. To this day, I go back to these basics. You start by stating the topic. Define the premise, present and interpret evidence, and draw a conclusion. Does this sound familiar? It mirrors Pearson’s RED Model of Critical Thinking.

5) Understanding multiple points of view- While the author of the Club Manual I mentioned above feels that arguing both sides of an argument creates sophistry and intellectual hypocrisy, I believe this is both false and illogical. One of the greatest life skills I learned in high school debate was that any topic can be argued from both sides. This helped me build the mental flexibility necessary to not only seek to understand, but also respect multiple points of view. I learned that the world is not black and white, but many shades of gray. I learned that people who oppose my personal values, beliefs, and opinions were not necessarily wrong, but used a different set of life experiences, evidence, and values to draw their own conclusions. I believe that learning how to argue both sides of the same topic, regardless of my actual beliefs, was one of the greatest critical thinking lessons high school debate taught me.

6) The value of asking questions- One of my favorite parts of Policy Debate was the cross examination. I loved asking questions. I loved being forced to think on my feet. I loved

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working to determine which questions were the most important questions to ask. When you only have 3 minutes to ask key questions so you can fully understand the opposition’s case and also find holes in their arguments, you must choose your questions carefully. So many critical thinking techniques boil down to asking the right questions.

7) Distinguishing Fact from Opinion- Distinguishing Fact from Opinion may not seem like a difficult exercise, but when opinions are stated as facts it becomes more difficult. High school debate taught me to be a critical listener. It is easy to hear a statistic and believe the statement is fact, when often the statistic is wrapped in an opinion. You have to be able to parse out the fact from the opinion in a sentence. For example, “XYZ Company’s Q4 earnings rose by 7%, so they are having a good year.” There is a mixture of both fact and opinion in that sentence. Breaking down the structure of sentences and arguments in order to separate fact from opinion has become a key critical thinking and business skill I still use today.

8) Separating debate from personal feelings- High school debate helped me learn how to converse and debate a topic without taking the opposition’s arguments personally. It is so easy for passion to turn into finger-pointing, accusations, and personal attacks. How many times have you seen someone unfriend a Facebook friend because they can’t handle the friend having an opposing point of view? It takes critical thinking skills to be able to separate emotions from a rational argument.

There are so many other important things I learned on the debate team such as the importance of dressing professionally, note-taking, teamwork, communication skills, healthy competition, and being a good winner and loser. But the greatest skill I learned, practiced, and refined every weekend was critical thinking. Additionally, because these skills were practiced in a competitive setting with a judge present, I received constant feedback about what was and was not effective so that I could continue to improve my critical thinking skills.

Again, not every debate team, debate coach, or high school debater is the same. My experience on the debate team helped me become the critical thinker I am today. Certainly some debaters use verbal trickery over creating a well-reasoned case. There are great debate coaches and assistant coaches like mine who didn’t allow us to entertain lazy thinking. There are also poor debate coaches who only teach the strategy to win and not critical thinking. There will always be people who take shortcuts in this world. However, arguing that the skills taught in debate clubs are antithetical to critical thinking is an unsubstantiated claim.

Were you a member of a high school debate team? How did that experience impact your critical thinking skills?

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Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.

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