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”.



April 30, 2010

“Great Debate” = Great Success

I am writing about an exciting new speaking opportunity CSU Chico and the Chico City Council has introduced to our community this semester and which it looks like we will be continuing into future semesters.  Designated as the “Great Debate”, this was a one-day event that took place at our City Council Chambers (and two additional meeting rooms in that facility) and involved students from our Small Group, Public Speaking, Argumentation and Debate, Forensics, and some select English classes.  The process actually began before this semester, when we met with the Assistant City Manager for Chico, who was looking for a way to foster more healthy and civil discussions at City Council meetings and other political events in the area.  We discussed controversial issues that would be of interest to the citizens of Chico as well as the students and landed on the Tax, Regulate and Control Act of 2010 – a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the California ballot in November.

We had stakeholders from the community come to campus and do presentations and answer interview questions from the English students, who then posted the interviews on a website for review.  We assigned students in select sections of Small Group communication a group presentation representing a specific stakeholder group in the debate – law enforcement, recreational users, medicinal marijuana users, addiction counselors/health care workers, local/county officials, and state legislators.  The presentation was designed to be an informative presentation on the stakeholders position.  Public Speaking students from select sections of the Public Speaking course were assigned a persuasive speech on marijuana legalization – taking either the pro or con stance.  Argumentation and Debate students researched and wrote affirmative and negative cases on adopting the initiative in the State of California.  Finally, two debaters from the Forensics team were assigned to do a demo debate on the issue for the “main event”.  Top performers in each of the classes were invited to present at the City Council offices throughout the day, with webcasting being done for those presenting in the City Council Chambers.

The “main event” consisted of the team debaters from the Forensics team doing a debate on the initiative, followed by a debate between community members who are active in the marijuana legalization debate.  The debate between the two debate team members was amazing – it was a proud moment for me and I think the audience and the community members who had to follow them were extremely impressed.  Footage of them made up the bulk of the local TV coverage at 11 p.m. last night!  The debate between the community members was also impressive – respectful, insightful, educational, and truly representational of what can be done when you get rid of the hostility and partisanship that often is involved in these debates.  The speeches were not designed to be filled with sound bytes, but actually included research, studies, and valuable information for the audience-members.

I’m not sure that anyone’s mind was changed or made-up because of the events that took place in yesterday’s Great Debate, but I can tell you that students were made to feel like what they had to say mattered for something other than a grade.  Community members were made to feel like their opinions were important, but were not the ONLY opinions that mattered.  Faculty were shown that students can do amazing things when empowered and given a forum.  Finally, the community was shown that contentious issues need not be discussed in a contentious way, but instead can be presented in an open forum, with both sides well-represented and articulately explaining their position without ad homs or anger.  I think we all learned a lot from the experience and I look forward to learning more each semester from this program.

Here are some additional links to coverage of the event:

TV coverage of daytime student presentations

Newspaper coverage of evening events

I encourage all of you to explore ways to reach out to your community if you are not already doing so.  I was shocked to hear from one of the initiative’s spokespersons that this was the FIRST forum of its kind on this initiative!  This initiative has received nationwide attention and has been in the media for months.  I can’t imagine this being the first forum that involved both sides in a format that allowed both sides to present their concerns and their hopes and their fears.  What better way to foster good decision-making in a democracy?  If you are in California and would like to put a similar program together in your area, I know the initiative representatives are interested and I bet you can find some community members who are also interested.  Its a great way to have your students see the value of debate and public speaking in the public arena and I really can’t say enough good things about our experience!

March 25, 2009

Debate as Curriculum

Filed under: Academics,Debate,Instructional Ideas,Pedagogy — bk2nocal @ 11:02 pm

I remember joking around with people I went to college with that I wanted to start my own charter high school where all of the curriculum matter revolved around the high school debate topic for the year.  It would be the perfect way to solve the competition between homework and debate research – they would both be one and the same.  Considering the breadth of arguments on any debate topic, there is no reason you could not tie the topic into just about any class subject matter.  Of course, this was just a joke…but, then I read this post on a tech and learning blog that referred to this article about a district in Colorado that is switching over to student-designed curriculum, joint grades, etc.

So, if debaters could design their own curriculum, would they learn more than they learn in traditional classes?  Would they work harder at it?  Interesting thought…

June 27, 2008

Series: Web 2.0 for Forensics – Part I

I’ve been trying to incorporate a little more of the web 2.0 programs in my academic life, and this has led me to consider the way these same programs can be used for forensics.  So, I am going to start brainstorming ideas for using different tech to make our forensics lives easier and turn them into a series of blogs.  I’m sure that many of these are already being used by those who are more advanced in the web 2.0 experience than I am, but hopefully it may spark some ideas for you to expand your technological helpers for forensics.  Please feel free to post any additional items in the comments section and the series will continue on a weekly-or-so basis and as other items strike my fancy!

This first blog in the series will include wikis, facebook and


I began using a wiki in my Argumentation and Debate class last semester to collect the evidence that students turned in.  I had them turn in the evidence on the wiki on a page with their name on it.  This allowed me to collect evidence without having to carry around a bunch of papers, make corrections to the materials electronically, and be sure that they were doing the evidence assignments electronically.  In addition, the students could search through all of the evidence from the class using the “search” function on the wiki.  So, when they were constructing affirmatives and negatives, they could easily do word searches on the topic they were working on and get all the different evidence found by their classmates.

I am also starting a wiki for our team.  This will be a clearinghouse of information, where I can post tournament invitations, articles for debate or speech topic ideas, results from tournaments, pictures from tournaments, etc.  Individuals on the team can have access to add things themselves.  It makes it so much easier than having a file cabinet in my office or an in-basket as everyone has immediate access from wherever they are. I think this will make things much easier on me and the students.


I was late coming to Facebook.  In all honesty, I avoided it like the plague for the past few years.  But, I am a convert.  I am convinced that this is the new email.  The listservs of the 90s changed the face of forensics, with national participants able to communicate with everyone else in the nation in one message and with quick response.  Facebook allows that same level of communication, but adds so much more of a personalized exchange and a way to access those who don’t even know you exist.  I am going to focus on using facebook as a recruiting and PR tool, because that has been my experience with it so far.

Facebook is one of the most popular social networking programs in the world.  If someone isn’t on Facebook at this point, they probably will be in the next five years.  One of the first things I did when I got on Facebook was form a group for “Past and Present Members of CSU Chico Forensics” and invite everyone I knew who was on or had been on the team in the past.  From there, they informed their friends and others requested membership.  Now, I have a single location to post information and requests for alumni whenever I have something.  In addition, I have been contacted by incoming freshman who found the group and are interested in joining the team when they get here in September.  Its an easy way to get the information out that used to require a ton of posters and flyers and visits to classrooms, etc.  I look forward to using Facebook as a PR tool next year as well.


If you have not used, you probably have seen it on the bottom of an article or blog you have read.  It is a tool that appears across the web and allows you and your students easy access to collecting information.  It is a “social bookmarking” program, that allows one person to bookmark articles and then make those bookmarked articles available to a group of people.  The program uses “tags” to identify the important information in the article (answers the “why did you bookmark this article?”) so you can search by tags an find all the pertinent articles on that subject.  Using you and your students can create a “webliography” of speech topics or debate topic articles that can then be easily accessible by everyone on the team.

I have to admit I have not used much, but I just read a blog on using it as a learning tool and it inspired me to consider using it for the team this semester.

There are a TON of different tools out there for incorporating web 2.0 into education and therefore forensics.  I think the key is to consider a few things before starting to use any of these tools:

(1)  What is this going to SAVE me having to do in the future?  If the answer is nothing, than it may not be worth it.  After all, we all have way too much to do to be adding things on to that list.  But, if its going to save you some time and effort in the future (e.g. using the wiki to post invitations saves printing, copying, etc. of schedules for the students – they can just log on and get it themselves whenever they want – all I have to do is post a link) than its worthwhile to learn a new skill or introduce a new routine.

(2)  How difficult is this going to be to use?  Is this something you or your students are already using for other purposes.  So, Facebook makes sense to me versus finding another social networking program because most of my students are already there, most of my recruits will be on there and many of my colleagues are/will be on there.  So, why use a different program that requires an additional logon, an additional post, and learning new methods of posting, groups, etc.?

(3)  Is this really adding value?  Sometimes I tend to use tech for tech’s sake.  I’m just fascinated by new things and since I can remember a time when most people didn’t own a computer, I am amazed at the access to information and different gadgets/programs we now have.  But, I often have to ask myself whether what I’m doing is really adding value to my life/academic experience or whether it is just something that is catching my eye.  I guess this is kind of the same as #1, but I think of it more as asking if it adds something of value to my life.  So, even if it doesn’t save me having to do something, if its something I find enjoyable or attractive or fun, I am more likely to continue doing it in the future.  If it doesn’t do any of that for me, than I’m probably going to spend a bunch of time learning how to use it, etc. and then not come back to it often enough to make it worth my while.

Look for Part II, where I’ll go googly over Google – docs, reader and calendar!

March 27, 2008

The importance of paying attention to the “big picture”

Filed under: Debate,Instructional Ideas,Just for fun — bk2nocal @ 10:39 am

Thought this was a great visual example of how easy it is to miss things, even when you’re paying close attention.

January 25, 2008

Competition or Education – A response to

Filed under: Debate,Forensics - General,Instructional Ideas,NFA LD,Pedagogy — bk2nocal @ 12:24 pm

An interesting and challenging question was posed over at on the Teleology of Debate.  I have struggled with this in my own coaching, not only in debate but also in IEs.  After all, everything we do in forensics is highly formulaic and not necessarily what works best in the “real world”.  But, I think we need to ask ourselves not whether EVERY skill that students learn in forensics transfers well to the post-forensics world, but whether those skills help or hinder their ability to function effectively in the post-forensics world.  Speaking fast or speaking “robotically” (as I’ve heard outsiders use to describe some IE presenters) is something we need to explain to our students as a tool for THIS activity.  A tool, that like any other tool, is inappropriate for other jobs.  To use a bad analogy, if I were teaching students construction, I would not tell my students to NEVER use a hammer, but I certainly would tell them that using a hammer to try to screw in a screw would not be effective. 
I think what we often lose sight of in forensics is that what we do is contextual – a lot like what students do in other areas of their lives.  But, if we try to make this an activity where EVERYTHING transfers EXACTLY in to the post-forensics world, than I think we lose sight of some of the UNIQUE learning that takes place in this activity.  We become another speech or debate “class” instead of a place where students can truly test their ability to adapt to different expectations and audiences as well as perform to the highest standards for professionals  who have a unique ability to listen, understand and evaluate arguments.  The lay-audience is limiting in ways that the forensics audience is not.  I think that is a GREAT benefit to students in that it allows them to step outside traditional expectations and explore new methods of delivery or new types of arguments.
The biggest problem I have with forensics competition is when judges/coaches are unwilling or unable to look past their own biases when educating students.  Although we all coach students to perform in a way that we think is best, we sometimes get so caught up in it that we deny students the ability to test their own ideas about performing.  Whether it is letting students talk fast (or slow) in debate or letting students do speeches on topics that are not considered “competitive” according to unwritten rules of platform speaking or letting students use non-traditional sources in extemporaneous speaking or running critiques in debate, strictly denying a student these opportunities (to fail maybe) seems overlimiting to me.  I don’t think we need to vote for these students or give them positive reinforcement, but we do need to use these as opportunities to educate them.  I will obviously tell my students when I think a speech topic will not be received well by judges or when a disad lacks the traditional impacts most judges are looking for or when a form of presentation is going to be competitively disadvantageous.  But, I also think its important that I allow them to learn for themselves and take risks in this activity.  After all, I think that is one of the most important things forensics provides to students – a “safe” place to test out ideas and presentational styles and arguments.  Its rare in this world of “you’re either with us or against us” that students can feel safe doing that.  It is important that they realize these “risks” will often result in “failure” competitively, but it may also result in learning a new lesson about argument or presentation.  I think this is where education can take the front seat and competition the backseat. 

On the flipside, I think that if a student is really competitive, then giving them the best TOOLS possible to win is something for which a coach is responsible.  I think that the lines are not so easily blurred between evidentiary or contextual fabrication and strategic use of evidence.  In the same way that when taking a class a student can strive for an A and put a very high value on achieving that, but still realize that cheating on a test is not a legitimate way of reaching that goal, we can teach our students that although winning is important, it can not be sought after in illegitimate ways.  But, I think we can also delineate speaking fast as being different from fabricating evidence, or running arguments that are strategically valuable but morally questionable (e.g. malthus) is different from taking arguments out of the context of the author’s usage.  I believe that is part of what we do as coaches.  We teach our students how to win without sacrificing standards of academic integrity. 
Through all this, I think its important that we as coaches are constantly stepping back and doing exactly what the post at challenges us to do.  THINK ABOUT IT!  Consider where we are coming from philosophically and teleologically and pedagogically and whether what we are doing as coaches is really demonstrating those beliefs and values.  And if not, what can we do to change our coaching to be more in line with who we are as people and educators. 

Thanks for a great, inspirational, thought-provoking blog entry over at!

January 10, 2008

Debatepedia – Take a look!

Filed under: Debate,Information literacy,Instructional Ideas,Research — bk2nocal @ 11:41 pm

This message appeared on edebate this week and I thought I would pass it on to those of you who may not be on that listserv.  I took a look at it and I think it would be helpful for your classes, parliamentary debaters, as well as novice policy debaters!  Thanks Brooks!

I would like to introduce to you, “the Wikipedia of debate”. Debatepedia offers citizens the opportunity to volunteer their intellect as editors on the site, for the purpose of building an encyclopedia of debates, arguments, and evidence that helps thousands of other citizens deliberate on complicated public debates. Have a look, and please consider volunteering your time to this important social cause.

Brooks Lindsay, Founder and Editor of Debatepedia.

December 11, 2007

Economist online debates

Filed under: Academics,Debate,Instructional Ideas — bk2nocal @ 11:44 am

Looking for a way to get your debaters and/or argumentation students involved in a debate outside the walls of the classroom or tournament setting?  The Economist is hosting a series of online debates between experts and inviting online readers to participate in the debates as well as the evaluations of those debates.  The current debate is whether governments and universities should compete to attract qualified students, regardless of nationality or residence.  The reason I really like these debates is they offer a “real-time” results report, with comments from contributors and online readers.

I think this type of online debate offers students some insight into the way that experts put their arguments together and present them.  It also offers them a way of applying some of the evaluation skills that they have been learning through the participation in debate, without having to actually “judge” at a debate tournament. 

Another thing this is great for is seeing how more “lay” audiences evaluate the debates.  One of the complaints I often hear about our activity is its lack of availability to the lay audience.  This is a way of getting students used to some of the responses that more lay audiences may have and can function as an inspiration for a follow-up on-campus debate.  The information resources are all there, as well as some of the issues that professionals think are important, which provides a relatively easy way of constructing an on-campus debate.  Something I often struggle with when designing on-campus debates is taking the time to find the information about the arguments on both sides and getting the students to think about what issues may arise.  All of that is done for them through these Economist debates.

Finally, I think it is a good thing to see that a publication with the respect that the Economist garners thinks that public debate and deliberation on key issues is not only important, but also can be interesting and entertaining.  It provides our activity with some real-world applications, albeit online instead of in-person.  Because of this, I would like to encourage you to support the Economist’s efforts and get your students involved in the online debates!

The next debate will be on the topic of social network sites and education and will begin in early 2008.  This is the final debate scheduled in this series, but hopefully with interest, they will continue to have sponsor these types of activities.

If you know of other online debate resources, please post a comment with the url information!

November 26, 2007

Get your students judging!

I am a staunch believer in the power of judging as an educational tool!  This weekend CSU Chico will be holding its Rookie Tournament and everyone on the team is required to judge.  In addition, I strongly encourage my students to judge high school speech and debate competitions whenever possible.  The p0wer of perspective can truly take a comeptitor from an “okay” speaker/debater to an “outstanding” speaker/debater.  They begin to see what its like to sit in the back of the room and have to try to decipher what is being argued and against which arguments.  They begin to see what type of argument sounds more persuasive than others.  They begin to see what works in cross examination, and what fails miserably.  And they finally begin to see the WHOLE debate, instead of just their side of it.   In individual events, competitors begin to see what a difference a well-placed gesture makes, how a speech with organization and transitions can truly stand out, and how much the judge sees from the time you walk in a room to the time you leave.  In my experience, it has been a truly eye-opening experience for all competitors. 

I remember when I was debating, the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo tournament had “peer-judging” in elimination rounds.  Each outround panel was comprised of two regular judges and a student who had been eliminated in the previous round.  I remember having to judge that first elim round and how much I learned from those two teams.  I wish that more tournaments would consider doing this.  I think its a great experience for debaters to be able to use some of their knowledge and to see debate from a whole different perspective.  I’m not sure how useful it would be for IEs, but with debate, so much of what you need to do to be successful is encapsulated in those outrounds that it can really make a difference.  And somehow, judging is much different than just watching and flowing. 

In addition to the benefit that your students can gain from these experiences, there are numerous high school students out there who work hard to produce well-written speeches and well-researched debate arguments, only to find a distracted, if not totally disinterested, person in the back of the room on competition day.  These students would love to have college competitors who have experience and insight in the back of the room.  And it provides a great opportunity for mentoring and recruiting. 

I strongly encourage you to check online for your local league activities (and larger invitational tournaments).  You can find contact information for National Forensic League local districts here.  Although some local districts are friendlier to college competitors than others, it is worth checking out!

November 20, 2007

BBC Middle East Debates

Filed under: Debate,Instructional Ideas — bk2nocal @ 9:32 pm

Although this series of Middle East Debates from the BBC is a little old, it has some great material for background on the Israel/Palestine issue as well as other areas of Middle East foreign policy.  I always like to have multi-media information in my argumentation and debate class, but I also realize that students may be able to download these on to their mp3s and listen to them on their way to school, while exercising, etc.  And just having some additional background information can make the difference between a win and a loss in some rounds. 

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