But what will the rest of the class do during the debate?

A guest post by Steven Johnson *

I was a convert to oracy skill development long before I had any idea what oracy was.  I recall my first debate in my sophomore-level debating class at university: though I was terrified and undoubtedly made a complete fool of myself, I also distinctly remember deciding that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. 31 years later, I’m still involved with academic debating.

I often say that debating provided me the intellectual foundation of my entire life.  Any facility I have for expressing myself, making rational decisions or persuading others to do the same may be attributed directly to my experience with academic debating.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, to admit that I was a terrible debater.  Perhaps even more surprising is that I was introduced to debating late in my academic career and spent only three semesters debating for my university.  How could something at which I did not develop anything resembling proficiency have such a huge impact on my life?  The simple answer is that I didn’t really come to understand what makes for an effective argument until I was finished with my own competitive career.

Debating is only one of the many methods by which oracy skills may be developed, and – as a pedagogical tool – cultivates certain skills well and others poorly.  I’m not contending that debating is the be-all-and-end-all of oracy practice.  I am arguing, however, that much of the pedagogical attention that debating receives as an exercise in oral advocacy may be misplaced or at least unnecessarily, and unfortunately, limited in scope.  There’s as much to learn from watching a debate as there is from debating.

I only began to appreciate the ability of debating to improve oracy once I moved from the front of the debating room to the back.  You see, one of the responsibilities I had as a teaching assistant for my university’s graduate program was to serve as an adjudicator at the debating competitions our university’s team attended.  It was as an adjudicator that I gained access to a laboratory in which my communication and reasoning skills – the same skills on offer by oracy generally and so in demand in schools and workplaces – were tested, honed and improved through repeated practice.

Initially, the skills I developed were largely related to reasoning.  The format of competitive debating in which I learned to judge featured a single judge per debate.  That judge listened carefully to the debate, taking notes of the development and exchange of arguments.  Paraphrasing and recording each sides’ arguments, accurately identifying the interactions between arguments, evaluating the competing arguments to determine which were more compelling, and establishing which of the arguments should be given the most weight in the debate is an intensive exercise in decision-making.  Follow that with a written ballot to articulate your rationale for your decision – the only form of feedback allowed in those days – and you have a powerful exercise through which to improve your abstract reasoning.  Repeat this 6-12 times over the course of a weekend’s tournament and 12-15 weekends over an academic year and you have the iterative practice that is so closely associated with improvement of oracy.

But it wasn’t until our university moved to a format of debating that features consensus-based adjudication among multi-judge panels that the power of adjudication to develop a robust suite of oracy skills really became clear.  A British Parliamentary (BP)-style debate typically is judged by a panel of 3-7 judges.  As they do while judging BP’s American cousin, BP judges must carefully listen to and take notes of the arguments made in the debate.  Unlike American debating, however, at the conclusion of the debate, the panel of judges sequesters themselves to discuss the round, attempting to come to consensus about the winners and losers.  This process typically takes 20-40 minutes, during which time each judge compares their perspective on the round, offers evidence of arguments made in the round to bolster their claims and seeks to convince (or be convinced by) other members of the panel.  This process of deliberation typically ends in consensus and, even when it doesn’t, usually fails to do so within the time allotted rather than because such consensus isn’t possible.

Add to this the requirement of BP debating that the chair of the panel reconvene the debaters and disclose the panel’s decision, complete with a rationale for that decision.  Chairs proficient at this task are able to deliver a succinct explanation of the panel’s rationale in 5-15 minutes; the best leave all debaters satisfied (if not happy with) the reasons offered for the decision.

The power of this practice – and the skills it develops – were so clear to me that as a coach I replicate my experience for the debaters I coach.  Our practice debates are incomplete without a crew of other debaters watching, evaluating and providing feedback to their peers.  Members of our debating team regularly (at my insistence) judge competitive tournaments for high school and middle school debaters.  In so doing, they become better advocates.

A large part of why adjudicating debates is so powerful lies in the nature of the deliberation exercise the panel undertakes when attempting to reach consensus.  Put simply, the deliberation over which side of a debate wins is a textbook example of exploratory talk.  In defining exploratory talk, Littleton and Mercer (2013) identify instances as those in which

  • everyone engages critically but constructively with each other’s ideas;
  • everyone offers the relevant information they have;
  • everyone’s ideas are treated as worthy of consideration;
  • partners ask each other questions and answer them, ask for reasons and give them;
  • members of the group try to reach agreement at each stage before progressing;
  • to an observer of the group, reasoning is ‘visible’ in the talk. (16)

This is a near-perfect description of the ideal form of an adjudication deliberation.  The panel of adjudicators is charged with evaluating thoroughly the arguments made by the advocates in the debate in order to make the best decision.  Their explicit role as decision-makers both insulates them from their biases (“this isn’t about your preference, but your assessment of other’s efforts”) and imbues them with the responsibility of choosing well (after all, you’ll have to explain to those who lost why they did so).  All information needed to evaluate the arguments is equally accessible to all panelists and they’re motivated to reference arguments from the debate as justification for their opinions.  All panelists are expected to contribute; their position on the panel entitles and requires them to actively participate in the discussion.  The deliberation is exactly that: an opportunity to ask questions, reconcile perceptions of arguments heard and to encounter, evaluate and influence (or be influenced by) the opinions of other panelists.  Reasoning is ‘visible’ not only in the conversation between panelists, but in the report and justification of the panel’s decision.

Can this powerful exercise be recreated in the classroom?  I believe it can, with appropriate scaffolding.  Debates are extraordinarily complex communication acts.  To the novice observer they can be dense, confusing and intimidating.  I’m the first to admit that I struggled mightily to learn the craft and hone the skills of effective argument evaluation.  But that struggle produced some insight into what could make the journey easier for others.  In subsequent writings I’ll explore some of the structures that can make the exercise of adjudication – and the embedded practice of argument evaluation – more productive.  The claim that evaluating the argumentative efforts of others improves your own is not without skeptics.  Considering the most productive means by which to teach students to argue effectively, Kuhn et. al. (2017) write:

In constructing an argument to support a claim of our own, we already accept the claim as true.  We believe in it or we wouldn’t be bothering to argue for it.  In evaluating another’s argument in support of a claim, this is not necessarily the case.  We may believe the claim is entirely wrong.  Asked to evaluate an argument in this circumstance, students, and indeed all of us, find it hard to set aside our own position in order to evaluate how well the other person supports hers. (10)

Kuhn offers examples of how young arguers, encountering arguments in the wild, are likely to react exactly as she predicts: rather than evaluating the argument, they focus on whether or not they agree with the conclusion the argument supports.  From this observation, Kuhn proceeds to advocate for providing students opportunities to argue rather than presenting them with arguments to evaluate.

I don’t disagree with her about the peril of evaluating arguments with which you disagree.  However, I think that this risk can be managed to maximise the benefits of evaluating arguments.  The key to managing this risk are the situational constraints placed on the students charged with evaluating arguments within argumentation exercises.

More to the point, I have only my own anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of this exercise.  If there exists cumulative empirical evidence of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of adjudicating debates in developing reasoning skills, I would welcome the opportunity to review such material.

Most importantly, I hope that I’ve provided reasons to think both about the utility and administration of classroom debates.  Avoiding them because they limit opportunities for growth only to those actually debating is a mistake, as a significant amount of argumentative grist for the evaluation mill is being generated.  To let these resources go to waste while the non-debating students sit passively in the back of the classroom would be a tragedy.


Kuhn, D., Hemberger, L., & Khait, V. (2017). Argue with Me: Argument as a Path to Developing Students’ Thinking and Writing. Routledge.

Littleton, K., & Mercer, N. (2013). Interthinking: Putting Talk to Work. Routledge.

* Steven Johnson is the Director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Seawolf Debate Program.  He has been President of the US National Parliamentary Debate Association and Chair of the World Universities Debating Council.  His book Winning Debates: A Guide to Debating in the Style of the World Universities Debating Championships is a comprehensive guide to successful British Parliamentary debating.

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