Essay - Debate as a Pedagogical Tool (Steven Johnson)


Like rhetoric, the debate tradition focuses on functional exchanges and frames questions in specific ways that encourage productive civil discourse. Classroom debates can be effective for covering content in courses throughout the curriculum. Students are typically asked to research arguments for both sides of a question, and in doing so they may come to a greater understanding of the complexity of the underlying issues. The highly structured format and the goal of illuminating a controversy for an audience encourage strategic thinking and thorough research. Because participants do not necessarily represent their own personal views, the issue itself is emphasized. These features tend to depersonalize the exchange and make the debate space a safer place for exploring a difficult dialogue than an exchange of personal opinion might be. There is less room for distracting ad hominem arguments and more room for considering the substance of an argument.

Debate as a Pedagogical Tool

Steven L. Johnson
Associate Professor of Communication and Discourse Studies
Director of Debate
University of Alaska Anchorage

The ancient art of public debate offers many advantages to university professors outside the traditional communication department. Debate promotes critical thinking, develops communication skills, and provides a safe space for encountering controversial issues. The requirements of collaboration and competition provide incentives to thoroughly research evidence and arguments on both sides of the question, and the conventions of the format allow students to argue for positions that may or may not be their own, preserving the privacy of their personal views.

Of course, there are disadvantages as well. The technique requires public speaking, something many students wish to avoid for personal and cultural reasons. And certain formats, especially of competitive debate, employ a distributive model of conflict resolution in which one side is declared the victor, leaving little space for compromise.

When these shortcomings are accounted for, however, debate can be a powerful medium in which to unpack controversial issues. Successful classroom debates result from paying attention to the format, carefully phrasing the proposition, and teaching students to identify and structure their arguments around explicit issues. By offering a safe, structured venue for exploring varying perspectives and by allowing students to represent positions that they may not otherwise advocate, debate is a powerful tool for encountering and engaging in controversy.

Identifying Clash: Stasis Theory

The arguments exchanged in a debate don’t have physical form, but when students work with them—that is, when they construct their own arguments, deconstruct those of their opponents, or attempt to compare positions of the two sides—they will benefit by first fixing those arguments to some set point. This point—this imagined place of clash in the imagined space of a debate—allows the debaters to identify, understand, and evaluate competing arguments most effectively.

These fixed points are known as points of stasis. Stasis, first discussed by the ancient Greek and
Roman rhetoricians, refers to an imagined place where competing arguments meet. In a debate, points of stasis are those places where one side’s arguments clash with the other side’s. For example, I might argue that Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) for Alaskans under the age of 18 should be placed in a trust for them to access once they reach adulthood. You argue that they should not. The point of stasis for this argument is whether to place the PFD proceeds for minors in a trust.

Two general points of stasis are relevant to debating: those that function as propositions and those that are issues.


The proposition is the major point of contention of the topic under debate. It is phrased as a declarative statement, and it serves to focus the topic and narrow the range of potential argu- ments. Successful propositions generally have four features:

Controversiality: The issue should actually be in dispute and should engage the audience.

Clarity: The proposition should be focused appropriately and should express a single concept as a declarative claim to be proved or disproved.

Balance: The proposition should be phrased in a way that presents opportunities for both positive and negative arguments.

Challenge: The proposition should be framed in a way that confronts the prevailing presumption. For example, one of the many contentious topics in Alaska involves oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A simple proposition for debate might be phrased as follows: “The U.S. federal government should open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to commercial oil companies for the purposes of exploration and development.”

Other more specific points of stasis—known as issues—are the meeting points of the particular arguments that must be explored to illuminate the proposition. Issues are similar to propositions in that they represent the place where the arguments of two opposing sides collide. They are different, however, in scale and focus.

In debates over the ANWR proposition stated above, the pro and con sides will likely disagree over a series of related issues. They may disagree over an economic issue, with the pro arguing that opening ANWR will lead to the creation of jobs and increased state revenues and the con denying these presumed economic benefits. They may clash over an environmental issue, with the con arguing that oil extraction may threaten a sensitive ecosystem and the pro arguing that technological advances have reduced environmental threats to negligible levels. Finally, the two sides may exchange arguments about a security issue, with the pro arguing that development of domestic oil supplies will ultimately make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of energy and, therefore, more secure.

The con may counter that the horizon for ANWR oil production is so far off that present threats will have long since played themselves out by the time any ANWR oil becomes available.

Designing a Debate

Debates can be mounted in a variety of formats, so long as participants have the opportunity to engage in four distinct activities:

Development: Complete arguments (claim and support) offered in support of or in opposition to an agreed-upon point of dispute (the proposition).

Clash: Engagement of the opposing side’s constructive material (refutation) on issues relevant to the proposition (stases).

Extension: Defense of arguments against refutation (rebuttal).

Perspective: Individual arguments of both/either side related to the support of or opposition to the proposition.

If these elements are present, the interaction may accurately be termed a “debate.” The likelihood of these interactions occurring is increased if the debate attends to a few principles of effective formatting.

Designing a Format

The format should provide equal time for students to exchange ideas and arguments while staggering those opportunities to promote exchange between the opposing sides. In general, debates feature three types of speaking times:

Constructive speeches: At least one speaker per side will give a constructive speech that introduces their side’s case, establishes the arguments for their position, and establishes the evidence for those arguments. The strongest constructive speeches satisfy both the burden of proof (to introduce positive matter on behalf of your position) and the burden of rejoinder (to engage the arguments of the opposing side). These are typically the longest speeches and may be a combination of prepared material and spontaneous argument developed during the round.

Rebuttal speeches: Rebuttals are shorter than constructive speeches and serve to focus, rather than expand, the information under consideration. They can provide perspective and place arguments in context, but they should not introduce new lines of argument.

Exchange: Each format should feature an opportunity for the debaters to interact directly. The most familiar type of exchange is cross examination, where a speaker who has just articulated his or her argument submits to questions from the opposing side. During these designated times, one side is responsible for asking questions and the other for answering. An alternative, most often found in competitive parliamentary debating, is the use of “points of information.” During the constructive speeches, the opposing side may request the opportunity to make a point of infor- mation, ask a question, or make a brief observation. It is up to the speaker holding the floor to permit this exchange or not.

Typically, each speaker in a debate is permitted a constructive speech, beginning with the pro side, the team responsible for supporting the proposition. These are the longest speeches in the round, typically lasting around six to ten minutes. Between (or during) the constructive speeches, debaters have an opportunity for exchange. Points of information may be raised after the first and before the last minute of the constructive speeches; cross-examination time typically follows them. Finally, each team is accorded a rebuttal speech during which one of the team’s speakers is responsible for summarizing major arguments and comparing the teams’ positions.

These building blocks may be assembled in a variety of ways to meet the needs of a particular class or assignment. But all formats, regardless of their specific progression, should give equal time to both teams, alternate between the opposing sides, and provide opportunities for each debater to discharge his or her responsibilities.

Responsibilities: Preparing Students to Debate

Debaters’ responsibilities should be limited in explicit ways. Especially with inexperienced students, it is best to present the exercise with expository goals rather than competitive goals. Participants should be charged with using the format to unpack arguments that illuminate the controversy and provide the audience with insight into the issues. Students on opposing sides may work together to agree on the issues to be explored.
Each debater has three duties to perform: construction, deconstruction, and framing. While the time spent on these duties varies from speech to speech, debaters should keep these three priorities in mind when preparing their remarks.

Construction refers to the debater’s obligation to bring new substantive matter to the round, i.e. each debater should develop arguments to support his or her team’s position. This responsibility is also known as developing and advancing a case. Debaters are evaluated in part on their ability to introduce and build arguments that prove their position.
Deconstruction is the obligation to address the other side’s constructive matter; debaters should discuss the weakness and shortcomings in their opponents’ arguments. Also known as refutation, deconstruction is what most people think of when they imagine a debate. Here is where debaters test and critique the constructive arguments made by the other side.

Framing refers to the duty to place the debater’s constructive and deconstructive arguments into context. While framing, debaters should tell the audience about the relevance of the arguments made, how each team’s position should be considered relative to others, and why, ultimately, their team’s arguments prove the motion. The purpose of framing is to explain how listeners should perceive the arguments and how those arguments are relevant to the question.
Classroom Example: Public Policy Debate

Public policy debating is a way to link course contents to issues in the world around us. Virtually every discipline has available issues that lend themselves to this exercise.

Public policy controversies erupt over what our society should or should not do and what policies we should or should not implement. They concern what laws we’ll make, what direction our government will take, what freedoms we’ll protect, what actions we’ll prohibit. The ANWR proposition lends itself to a public policy debate: we’ll make decisions about this question through our representative, democratic process after debating the merits and shortcom- ings of the proposal. On the other hand, arguments over who gets custody of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby do not constitute a public policy controversy; ultimately the outcome of that decision does not dictate a course of action for the entire nation.

A public policy proposition is phrased as a proposed change to the way things are now; the debate is engaged by two sides referred to as the “pro” and “con.” The pro side argues in favor of enacting the proposed policy or course of action; the con argues against it. In the ANWR example, the pro side is composed of those people and groups who argue in favor of exploration and oil extraction in ANWR; the con side includes those people and groups who argue against that development.

By convention, those who propose the policy bear the burden of proof and those who oppose the policy have presumption against change. This means that the pro side (those proposing a policy change) must prove two things: 1) that a problem exists; and 2) that the proposed policy will solve that problem. Failing in either one of those burdens means that the policy should not be adopted. The con side (those opposing the policy) need only demonstrate a single proof: either that a problem does not exist or that the proposed policy willnot solve it.