Its debatable…Speak Up!

May 22, 2010

Inspired to seek clarity

Filed under: Debate,Instructional Ideas — bk2nocal @ 2:26 pm

So, I was reading a blog on tech education (NCS-Tech) today, and read this quotation:

“Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.” —37signals quoting Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

and I thought, wow – that so describes what I go through with debate each year when working with new novii.  I always catch myself thinking, “why aren’t they getting this…oh wait, they’ve never even SEEN a debate round”.  Its one of those things where it is nice to know you aren’t alone in struggling, but how to change it?  So, what are some strategies you use for teaching novii?  I am going to list my top offerings, but would love to hear what others have to say/do in these circumstances as well.

  1. Show them a debate. If you can have live people do it, great, but even a video is helpful.  Even if they don’t understand everything that is going on, you can refer to the debate often while instructing them.  Be sure its simple, slow and planned out to prevent it becoming a BAD example that they then model in their own debating.
  2. Use planned activities related to what you are teaching. The more you can get them DOing, the less they have to understand the abstraction.  Figure out a short method of demonstrating the skill or idea, then let them have at it.  Then talk about it afterward to see what they “got” and what they didn’t “get”.    The NDCA website, Planet Debate and some other online resources offer a lot of ideas for this kind of thing.
  3. Do mini-debates. One argument, one issue, one area – short speeches with focus on understanding the arguments, articulating the arguments and then answering the arguments is a great way of garnering more understanding of abstract concepts.  The mini-debate offers a level of focus that even a brand new novice can appreciate – they only have to think about/understand one thing for a short time.  Its also good for experienced debaters who have problems staying focused.
  4. Have an FAQ page. I love this idea.  Part of the reason we are often struggling to teach novii concepts is we don’t remember being novii ourselves – we don’t remember what our questions/struggles were.  So, now we have a bunch of novii – figure out what their questions/struggles are and then have a wiki page or webpage where you post the answers, some ideas about these questions/struggles.  It would be a great resource for all future novii as they (1) won’t feel they are the only ones who “don’t get it” and (2) can revisit the page again and again if something just isn’t sinking in.  I don’t have one of these now, but I definitely plan on starting one and adding to it with each new group of novii.
  5. Make it fun. This was something we did a great job of when I worked with the Southern California Urban Debate League.  We had a great group of debaters working with the high schools and their enthusiasm and pure joy at working with the high school students really made it fun for the high school students to do debate.  I often feel like I am just going through the motions or I’m so frazzled from the hundreds of things on my to-do list that I forget to just have fun with my debaters.  Often, its just a matter of remembering why we do this – because we love it and think its pretty fun – and being able to communicate that to the novii.  We try much harder to understand what we love than something we dislike.

The blog post I was reading included a link to a post on another blog titled, “Making the implicit explicit,” which if you translate the suggestions from computer-speak into debate-speak, makes some great sense for coaching the novice.  Being able to identify things that are common from debate to debate is a key factor in coaching novii.  And although we often want to fall back to “every debate is different,” we really need to figure out how to create commonalities between debates in order to help novii learn.

The post ends with a few questions that are designed to spur reflection and response.  I have taken the liberty of changing the wording to relate to debate and here is what I came up with:

  • What do we assume people know when we are teaching/coaching a novice debater (in class or at a tournament), answering a question, or teaching a lesson? (Formative assessment? Hello?)
  • Do master teachers possess innate skills that allow them to instantly & effortlessly change their delivery for different learners struggling with different aspects of a particular topic?
  • How do you approach a complex, broad, multifaceted topic in a meaningful but casual conversation? Sort of like me asking a veteran web designer how to use “html code”  and someone asking me how to do “debate”.



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