I'm often asked about one of the distinctive features of the Middle School Public Debate Program, which is that in competition, students debate diverse topics throughout the academic year. In fact, they do not argue the same topic more than once during a yea of competition. They may, of course, have multiple practice debates on a single topic; in addition, topics may recur from year to year. As you can see from our topic lists, there are certain topics that are perennial favorites, due to the sustained relevance of the issue, new developments in the law and politics, and the significance of the issue in the lives and behaviors of middle school students. These include such topics as the use of cell phones in schools, the death penalty, foreign policy in the Middle East, and the influences of television and video games. But topics are not repeated in competition during a year. There are a few reasons for this, and I want to lay them out briefly for anyone who might be interested in our rationale.
First, it's important to note that most of MSPDP instruction happens in the classroom rather than at tournaments. Tournaments are like labs for a science class -- an opportunity to apply what you've learned and try it out, so you can reflect on that experience in the regular class or through writing reflections like lab reports. Students don't learn about the topics at the tournament. Or, rather, they shouldn't -- if they're learning about the topics at the tournament, it's really too late. This means that effective coaches organize teaching and independent student learning before a tournament to help students work in small groups to form ideas and share them with the rest of their group. This learning should be active and assessment, ideally, is portfolio-based.
Over the course of a year, if a student debates at all tournaments in their league, they will have debated between 20 – 35 topics. The list of topics they will have debated normally spans an extraordinary variety of ideas, perspectives, policies, and philosophies. Most students will not have personally done the research on both sides of all these topics (effective coaches organize for peer sharing and group evaluation -- for more on this, see the articles on tournament preparation in our updated Teachers' Guide) but they will have at least considered the basic issues on the topics. And as students become more experienced, they inevitably conduct their own research and survey the issues with their partners. The MSPDP sets very high expectations for students -- it is the most rigorous and challenging program for middle school debating – it is designed to be that way. At the same time, it is tremendously accessible for students. Part of the reason for this is that changing topics for each debate both challenges and excites students. Students are interested in events that demand excellence and a new degree of difficulty. They are also intellectually curious. The MSPDP exposes them to a broad variety of issues and sets expectations for issue mastery in short amount of time; this is stimulating for even the most jaded student. And all kinds of students can and have succeeded in the program, from the most socio-economically disadvantaged, from special education, ELL, and speech apprehensive students, to the most privileged.
So, I want to make a few quick points about the pedagogical rationale for “topic switching,” the practice of changing the debate topic for each competitive debate. In this post I'll deal with the argument that topic switching promotes the development of interdisciplinary and critical thinking skills. In Part II, I'll analyze some other justifications for topic switching.
Most people involved in educational studies and curricular planning agree that students should become critical thinkers. Although there are considerable differences over what is to count as critical thinking, there is at least a general consensus on the skills associated with critical thinking. This operational definition offered by Chambers, et al., is typical : “First, students need to develop the cognitive skills of critical thinking. These are interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and self-regulation. Second, students are encouraged to develop a critical disposition in that they are willing to set aside personal biases and to be open to multiple views” (2000, p. 58.).
Although the obvious answer to the need for students to become critical thinkers is to teach the skills, this is not as easy as it might sound. E.D. Hirsch, for example, has argued that an emphasis on teaching so-called meta-cognitive skills may (in and of itself) be overestimated in terms of its learning outcomes; especially as such a strategy may displace subject-oriented learning in the classroom. Critical thinking skills instruction in the abstract does not necessarily lead to transfer outside of the thinking skills classroom.
The need for skills that transfer to situations outside the classroom is cited by former American Psychological Association President Diane Halpern, who argues that “critical-thinking skills should be used to recognize and resist unrealistic campaign promises, circular reasoning, faulty probability estimates, weak arguments by analogy, or language designed to mislead whenever and wherever they are encountered” (2001, p. 282). Students must be able to reach outside of their immediate and accessible context to deal with problems that arise in unfamiliar contexts. They must be able to apply information from a familiar area to an unfamiliar area. Margaret Donaldson has called this kind of thinking "disembedded thought." Even though our schools are, in many ways, designed to teach students to engage in disembedded thinking, it's not easy to apply information into unfamiliar domains – this requires practice.
Students, even reasonably well educated college students, are not good at applying information or skills learned in one domain or topic area to another domain or topic area. There is ample evidence to support this claim (see, for example, Klaczynski, Gelfand, & Reese, 1989; Reed, Ernst, & Banerji, 1974). The challenge for educators seeking to facilitate transfer across domains is to find ways to optimize challenges for students and to create opportunities for the meaningful inference of general reasoning tools that will help students as they encounter unfamiliar issues and situations in school and in life.
Thinking skills may be taught best with reference to diverse content in addition to explicit instruction. As Halpern notes, “Critical thinking skills are learned best and are most likely to transfer to novel situations when they are taught using a variety of different examples” (2003, p. 13). In other words, students are more likely to be able to achieve transfer if they can reason from a variety of examples and perspectives. If students can be exposed to content from multiple disciplines, this exposure could be coupled with a conscious focus on improving thinking skills to increase the development of thinking skills and the likelihood of transfer of those skills between, among, and even within disciplines.
All of this is a rather long way of saying that topic switching, accompanied by integrated instruction in the classroom, is designed to maximize optimal challenge while overcoming what cognitive psychologists call the "belief bias" effect (This is what happens when prior beliefs color the way phenomena are perceived - often in ways that interfere with accurate reasoning). In the MSPDP, students are challenged to debate based on preparation that happens in and after school, about a wide variety of issues, many of which are complex and unfamiliar. Over time, they develop the ability to generate arguments and ideas based on cross-referencing topic areas to draw more general conclusions about larger principles that they might apply in varied cases.
I'm happy to share a much more thorough bibliography on this issue with any interested readers. Please email me for more information.
Chambers, A., Angus, K. B., Carter-Wells, J., Bagwell, J., et al. (2000). Creative and active strategies to promote critical thinking. Yearbook (Claremont Reading Conference).
Halpern, Diane F. (2001). Assessing the effectiveness of critical thinking instruction. The Journal of General Education, 50(4).
Halpern, Diane F. (2003). Thought & Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. 4th Ed. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.
Klaczynski, P.A., Gelfand, H., & Reese, Hayne W. (1989). Transfer of conditional reasoning: Effects of explanations and initial problem types. Memory & Cognition, 17(2). 208-220.
Reed, S. K., Ernst, G. W., & Banerji, R. B. (1974). The role of analogy in transfer between similar problem states. Cognitive Psychology, 6. 436–450.