In my last posting, I briefly sketched out some of the thinking skills justifications for topic switching. In this post, I talk about some other justifications for topic switching.
The MSPDP is designed to develop students' extemporaneous and impromptu reasoning and speaking abilities. Various aspects of the program amplify this goal, such as the inclusion of "preparation time" before debates to stop students from simply reading from scripts during debate (it's debate, after all, not declamation). But topic switching also amplifies this goal. As students are asked to debate on a variety of topics, they engage in thinking, reasoning, and research that mirrors the goals of liberal arts education. Each debate deals with a different topic, ensuring that students are always speaking extemporaneously, with little formal preparation time despite substantial scaffolding and support before the tournament actually occurs.
These extemporaneous and impromptu speaking situations are actually the kind of speaking situations that are required of students in professional and classroom situations. It is exceedingly rare that professionals and college students are asked to deliver a presentation for which they have had many weeks of preparation, and for which they can use extensive notes. Most public speaking and communication situations are impromptu. In a discussion, a professor might ask a student for their opinion on a section of text. The student must respond thoughtfully, with limited preparation. In a business, an employee may be stopped in the hallway and asked to speculate about a professional decision. The employee is unlikely to be able to whip out their pre-prepared note cards or script to deal with this issue.
And most people are not great in these kinds of speaking situations. Which is too bad, because employers and highly selective colleges strongly value students and employees who have exceptional communication skills. But students need training to be able to excel in these kinds of speaking situations. Which is where the support for extemporaneous and impromptu speaking comes into the equation.
Another way to think about topic switching is that it mirrors and amplifies the demands put on citizens in a democratic society. As voters, we are constantly being asked to render our opinions on a wide variety of issues, many of which are extremely complex and difficult (if you’ve got any lingering doubts about these issues, consider the 2006 Voter Information Guide for the General Election, available here.) But most of us don’t really know how to form opinions about these issues. We need practice. The National Council for the Social Studies recognizes this need, and has used it as a justification for social studies education. The NCSS defines social studies as "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence." This is essentially what the MSPDP does. I sometimes describe what we do as "Building a better democracy, one 11-year-old at a time." There's something to that.
When we designed the MSPDP, we were very conscious of trying to maximize both rigor and accessibility. It's hard to do -- you want to have a program that is as rigorous as possible, which serving the maximum number of students possible. The MSPDP's topic switching feature is part of what makes our program so much more rigorous than any other comparable program for students in the middle grades. The results of our family survey from last year bear this out. Last year, family members reported that students work very hard to prepare to debate. On average, students devote 10-12 hours a week during the debate season preparing to debate. This is the equivalent of attending an extra day of school every week for an entire year. It's hard to get more rigorous than that, especially when you consider that students are using that time researching and practicing with teammates to debate issues that many adults are completely unfamiliar with. Students are pushed to do all of this work through the combination of many factors, but one of those is topic switching. There is always more research to be done, and always more practice to be had. Students can't just prepare on one topic and be done.
Next week, I'll talk about the current events classroom and integrating current events discussions into the middle school classroom. This is one way that teachers who aren't debate coaches can create a "debating classroom" while still adhering to standards and other kinds of pacing and content mandates.