Debate club: What do I need to know?

Apparently, there’s a great deal of interest in my high school for a debate club, something that we currently don’t have. And the students have already asked all of their other teachers, who have all said that they weren’t interested. But seeing how enthusiastic they are about it, I just can’t tell them no.

Problem is, I have absolutely no experience with debate clubs. That was never one of my interests when I was in school, and I’ve never even been the advisor for any other club before. I did give them fair warning of that fact, and that it’d probably be the new year before we could get anything set up, so I’ve some time to prepare. But prepare I must.

So tell me, just what am I getting myself into?

One of the most important things you will need to decide is what format of debate that you are going to pursue. Most likely, the students will want to do Lincoln-Douglas style (two single opponents taking opposing sides of an issue, giving arguments and rebutting). Of course, it would probably be wise to discuss with the students what they are looking for before setting anything into motion.

I did make sure that they knew that they wouldn’t get to be picking which side they’d take, and they said they’d be OK with that.

A couple of specific questions that occur to me:

1: What are good topics? Anything too political could be risky, but then, surely anything that makes for a good debate is going to be at least somewhat political.

2: They’ll probably want to compete against teams from other schools. Are there leagues for this? A particular season? How would I get in contact with whomever organizes such things?

Yes there are competition leagues, many of them regional. You could ask around and see if anyone knows a debate coach or team member in another school in your area to find out what leagues are active there.

My daughter was in her HS speech and debate team for 4 years and as I remember her school was in a league that did both speech and debate, with at least 5 categories for each of those. She was on the speech side doing Dramatic Interpretation (basically doing a reading from a literary work)
In that league, most of the debate events were solo rather than team. The contestants prepared a speech either ahead of time or extemporaneously depending on the event and delivered it, without actually debating another team.

Parents of team members at many schools are required to support the club by serving as judges at the contests, and several of the parents I spoke to at these events had been on speech & debate teams themselves.

Here’s the webpage for the National Speech and Debate Association with information on their member leagues and their circuits. The names seem to reflect the focus of each league, for example “Parliamentary league” and “debate league” as opposed to the league my daughter’s school was in, which was a more general “forensic league”.

Will your club be competing with other schools or anything? When I did debate in high school (mid 60’s) the end goal was the state championship, and so some state-level authority picked the topic every year, and all the debaters in all the participating schools would argue that topic for several months. I think the topic the year I was in it was something about federal labor relations laws – dry as dust and boring with it, but I guess it kept the emotional outbursts down. There were both one-on-one debates, and debates with teams of two people. Each side had, I think, two opportunities to speak, one to present their case, and one to rebut the other side and summarize. Or something like that.

Our coach didn’t do much that I recall, just suggested ways to organize our knowledge so we could get what we needed when we needed it (file cards then, I suppose they would be allowed to use computers now, but what fun if they weren’t!). Since we had a speech class, we were able to practice in class, and get class feedback.

I did a fair amount of debating at school and uni in the UK, latterly doing coaching. So I can’t tell you anything about competition and styles in the US, but in terms of teaching people to debate:

  1. Debate is a form of public speaking, so you are going to have to teach the kids to makes speeches in public. The goal should be for them to able to make a fluent, structured, engaging 5 minute speech a) with preparation then b) with 5 minutes warning of the topic. This is a big skill in itself and one well worth learning. You will have to work up to it.

Start off with asking for 1 minute, or even 30 seconds, on really easy accessible topics - I don’t know what’s cool nowadays, if I ever did, but even the hackneyed “what I did on my holidays” gives people something to talk about. “X is better than Y”, is a good format, for low stakes versions of X and Y. You can always let them pick the topics, within limits.

Bear in mind, some kids will find this impossible at first - they will freeze, stutter, panic, rush out the room. Others will be naturals. You’ll have to keep the balance. But making that first speech is the biggest step.

Progression is on to longer speeches and less notice. Challenge them on repetition, verbal tics like “Um”, “Like” etc. Just A Minute is a fun game for this. Bring in more complex topics where they have to actually structure arguments. Start thinking about body language, tone, pacing, use of humour, use of emotion… Like I say, simple public speaking is a big skill.

  1. Actual debate is about arguing with other people. As you say, the topics have to be reasonably contentious. The most important point is this: debaters are expected to be able to make good arguments on either side of an issue. People are generally reluctant to do this, for obvious reasons but it is vital that the kids get used to arguing well and apparently passionately against their own preferences. The “sell” for this - and it’s completely true - is that the ability to really understand your opponents’ case is the best basis for being able to tear it to shreds when you argue in real life. But it’s difficult and will take some coaching. Likewise, the kids will often get caught up in the moment - it’ll be your job to police the line between passionate advocacy and losing one’s temper. Don’t let arguments carry on outside the practice room.

Debate means understanding the issues. When I was competing I devoured news and comment. In a given competition I might be in four or five debates, so had to be ready to speak on pretty much anything from environmentalism to tax policy to pop culture to constitutional reform. You’ll be working up to this, but you’ll want to assess the kids current grasp of issues, start with the ones they’re most knowledgeable about, and encourage them to take a wider interest in current affairs generally. By the time they’re going in to competitions they’ll be needing to do their own research.

Back to debate as arguing - in a formally structured way, debaters have to be able engage with the other sides arguments in real time and pick them apart. Listening to and analysing someone else’s speech while you’re sweating about giving your own once they stop speaking is a difficult skill. You are basically writing c. half your speech as your opponent talks. But that’s the game, so work up to it by doing group analysis of each other’s speeches, looking for the ways you can a) refute their points and b) weave that refutation in your speech reasonably naturally.

  1. Culture. You know the kids and the school culture best, but IME there’s always been a little more latitude around pupil/teacher interactions in debate club than in class. You are after all encouraging the kids to make arguments, advocate a point of view and speak fearlessly. Being clear on where the limits are for this early on will set you up well. This also applies to peer interactions. Frankly, some debaters can be right little pricks once they’ve learned how to use rhetoric to their advantage, so don’t create any monsters.

The only thing I can say on competitions is don’t rush into them. They’re great for incentivising progress, and building confidence but you’ll want to be sure your pupils can keep their head above water before you throw them in the pool.

This seems… like a terrible idea? As a way of ensuring that participants, coaches and judges are all thoroughly bored with the topic half way through the season it is excellent, but that doesn’t feel like it should be the goal.

I remember hearing about a weird trend in U.S. debating to have “speed talking” to get in as many points as possible (which was not a thing when I was in school).

The point of speech and debate (at least from my high school experience) very much isn’t for the participants to be excited about a cool new idea. The point is, well, speech and debate. In formal debate in particular, you don’t really want to be invested in the topic, because you will typically be randomly assigned pro or con before each debate. You have to be able to argue both sides equally well. The point is the debate skills, not the actual topic.

And remember, these are high school kids, doing this as an extracurricular activity. In some highly competetive schools, the speech and debate team might actually be tied into an honors class that can use class time preparing. But mostly the kids are doing all of the research and prep work on their own time.

And they are actually engaging in formal debating maybe once a week, in a weekend tournament. Depending on your local intermural league, there isn’t even necessarily a tournament every weekend.

Constantly switching the topics up on them would be a great way of ensuring that the vast majority of them never have a proper chance to research the topic or prepare arguments or practice them, much less revise, improve, expand, tweak, and calibrate their evidence and arguments.

Anyway, theorycrafting aside, as a brute fact, from several years as a participant and then volunteer coach and judge, I don’t personally remember having a single topic for the season ever being an issue.

I was in speech and debate in the 90s. “Speed talking” was very much a thing back then. At least in my region it wasn’t a “trend” exactly, so much as a tactic, with a distinct regional variation. I can’t remember the precise region/district terminology, but in the upstate region, the emphasis was on sound argument, clear presentation, and solid evidence. In the downstate region, the emphasis was on “speed talking” - just trying to overwhelm your opponent with sheer volume. It made for some odd matches when an upstate team would debate a downstate team.

I personally hated the “speed talking” approach. It usually involved bare assertions with a tagged on cite and no real analysis. Then the other team had to speed refute every individual point by making a bare assertion with a tagged on cite and no analysis. Then the first team wound counter, and so on. There was no real argumentation, no analysis, no indication that anyone had actually done real research or engaged with the material. It was pure Gish Gallop in both directions.

My senior year, I competed mainly in Congressional debate, and did very well in my region. For the state competition, I got eliminated in the first round. My coach showed me the judges scorecards - the one upstate judge had me second, with near perfect scores. The two downstate judges didn’t even rank me, and gave me mediocre scores. I didn’t stand a chance just based on the make-up of the judges panel.

Now that I think about it, I might have seen a segment on 60 Minutes (and I haven’t watched 60 Minutes in 20+ years).

If you had read my longer post (and I can quite see why you wouldn’t) you would have seen that I agree that the point of debate is to get good at debating, and that being able to argue both sides of a topic equally well is vital. That doesn’t require sticking rigidly to one topic for a debate season. Having to engage with a range of topics isn’t about “getting excited about some cool new idea” (heaven forfend!) it’s about encouraging breadth of understanding, the ability to think on one’s feet and the capacity to construct an argument from first principles.

I understand very well the point about research time, but as @hogarth 's article says, debate isn’t about piling up mountains of evidence. What is needed is to understand the principles and arguments, coupled with a grasp of the facts available to an interested lay person. I was doing research and prep on my own time, while studying in high school and university and it was perfectly manageable. It wasn’t like you couldn’t predict the debate topics: in my time, common themes were: Britain’s role in the EU, UK devolution, the role of the monarchy, post-Cold War geopolitics, minority rights, basic left/right economics plus whatever was in the news that week. But honestly, reading the Economist, watching the news and engaging with current affairs generally were quite sufficient so this:

as a brute fact, just isn’t true. People came to competitions armed with facts and arguments on a range of topics, and then went back to achieve good grades and pursue a social life.

Of course I believe you when you say it’s not a problem, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a very limited approach. That’s probably just reflective of different cultures - it might be worth noting that due to the use of open motions that the opening speaker can interpret how they like (e.g. This House Believes That Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag) I would often find myself speaking in debates where I didn’t know what the topic was until after the first minute of the first speech - thus giving me four minutes to come up with my own five minute speech. Terrifying, but fun.

I did miss your longer post. Sorry.

Again, this is just my personal experience, in a one of 50 states, back in the 1990s, of high school speech and debate, but:

There are/were different formats and events. Some of them are/were pretty close to the format you’re describing, where you would get handed a topic, and then have a limited time for prep. Depending on the event and format, it might be something 10 or 15 minutes for research and prep - and this was long before smart phones and widespread internet access, so you’d be researching from a clippings file you brought with you. Or it might be one minute to collect your thoughts. In those cases, topics changed constantly.

But in the Lincoln-Douglas style debates, which were more emphasized, you’d get one topic per season. The skills involved are overlapping, but distinct. It emphasized depth of research and finely honed arguments. It was dynamic over the season - you’d constantly have to be doing additional research to match other teams, and you’d have to be constantly honing and refining your own arguments. Even thought it would be the same topic each time, each debate would be unto itself. If the other team came up with novel research or arguments you couldn’t match, you wouldn’t just chalk it up as a loss and move on to the next topic, You’d go back and hammer away until you could match and refute them. Or adopt their research and arguments into your own. It’s just a different event, with different goals and expectations.

In the Congressional event, you’d be given a general topic for the season, and you’d have to craft model legislation and amendments. Again, there was an emphasis on depth of research and finely honed arguments, as well as careful crafting and honing of legislation. Over the course of the season, you’d constantly be tinkering with your model legislation, taking bits and pieces from others, and honing and refining your arguments. Again, you would keep going back, iteratively improving.

I personally wasn’t aware of anyone who just got bored with the LD or Congressional events having the same topic all season. If you did, though, I suppose you could just compete in the extemporaneous events. They weren’t as emphasized or “prestigious”, but they were there.

I coached high school debate for 35 years. Ask away.

One of the big events these days is Parliamentary Debate, which utilizes a new topic every debate (not every tournament - every round!) Teaches you to think on your feet. The other newer style is Public Forum Debate, which is 2 on 2 and the topic is a current event one that changes every month. I’ve had PuFo teams in the past that have debated everything from OSHA regulations to whether or not South Korea should develop an “Iron Dome” (THAAD) system, all in a single season. For breadth of knowledge and research, PuFo can’t be beat. It is also designed to be jargon-proof and resistant to manipulation by students.

Stay away from Policy Debate (CX). That’s where you’ll encounter “spread debate,” which is the “speed talking” people are referencing. Modern CX is nothing like it was designed to be and is totally game-playing. Spread has also spread (sorry) to LD debate, at least on the circuit.

As a correction to some of the info above:

Policy Debate - Year-long topic. 2X2. Spread. 2021-22 topic: Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources in the United States .

Liccoln-Douglas Debate - Value debate. 1X1. Topic changes every 2 months. Current topic: Resolved: A just government ought to recognize an unconditional right of workers to strike. Jan/Feb topic: Resolved: The appropriation of outer space by private entities is unjust.

Public Forum debate - Dec. topic: Resolved: Increased United States federal regulation of cryptocurrency transactions and/or assets will produce more benefits than harms. Jan topic: Resolved: The United States federal government should legalize all illicit drugs.

If you decide to get involved, remember your Dante.

I did policy debate in high school, back in the 1980s. The speed debate technique seemed to be just developing then, and only certain schools did it. I personally didn’t like it then, and don’t like it now, as it doesn’t lend itself to real argumentation or analysis. It’s nothing but an attempt to overwhelm the opponent with a bunch of arguments, in the hopes that some of them will end up going unanswered. Winning by attrition, really. There’s also the purely practical problem, for those attempting to listen to the debate, that very few people can speak that fast and also maintain clarity. So you often end up with an eight minute speech that sounds like very fast gibberish. I don’t know how common it’s become these days.

The thing that keeps policy debate from getting boring, even though the same topic is used for a year, is that the topic is fairly broad. Different affirmative teams will focus their arguments on different aspects of the topic, so you (hopefully) aren’t just repeating the same arguments for the whole season.

Some people I talk to are horrified at the fact that debaters have to argue both sides of a particular issue. “How could I speak in favor of something I’m opposed to? It’s awful to make kids do that!” But the value of debate is learning how to argue. Not argue as in shouting at each other, but as in constructing a logical chain of reasoning to support a particular point and persuade others to do the same. That’s a skill that too many people lack these days. And as for making people argue both sides, even a side they may not agree with? I would suggest that the best way to defend a cause that you believe in, is to have a thorough understanding of the strongest arguments against it.

I am disappointed to see that the national organization is now calling itself the National Speech and Debate Association. When I was debating, it was still using the original name, the National Forensic League. It was a much cooler name, because as a geeky little debate kid, you could say with absolute honesty, “I’m a member of the NFL.”

To a degree, it is. You need something to back up your points, and studies or quotes from “experts” can serve that purpose. You may need a lot of those because a) you don’t know which side you’re going to be on, and b) because you don’t know what points from the other side you may need to rebut. It’s not just a matter of speaking persuasively.

The topics I was talking about were fairly limited but there was still room to maneuver. I think ours was something like “Resolved: the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was effective in protecting US jobs from foreign competition.” There’s lots to argue about there.

Our speech contests, aside from debate, had categories like this: 15 minutes notice of some random topic (they called this impromptu) and zero minutes notice of some random topic (they called this extempore). Speak for 5 minutes on the topic. It was great practice for debate.

In California the names are switched.

Impromptu - 3 topics. Pick 1. 2 minutes prep to give a 5 minute speech.

Extemporaneous - 3 topics. Pick 1. 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speech analyzing the topic and answering the question. With cites. Topics are topical (last 90 days) and divided into Domestic and International areas.

A really fun event (and great practice) is SPAR (Spontaneous Argumentation) - 1X1 debate with zero prep. “Mary, you’re Aff. Tracy, you’re Neg. The topic is ‘Dogs are better than cats.’ Go!” Then the audience gets to ask questions. :smiling_imp:

The name was changed in 2014:

Wow, a lot of activity here; I’m going to need some time to absorb all of that.

The public speaking aspect, I do have some experience with: Not the content of it, but things like clearly enunciating, avoiding “ums”, and managing stage fright. On the other hand, some of the students who are interested have already said that they’re not interested in being the one on stage, but in doing research in support of the teammate who will be on stage (and the last thing that I want is to tell students that doing independent research as a hobby is wrong). Is that a standard role in debate teams (in the formats with significant prep time, of course)?

I’m pretty sure we’re aiming at eventually competing against other schools. In fact, I suspect that this might be part of why they want a debate club in the first place: It’s a charter school, with very little in the way of sports or other intermural competition, and they want to do something where they can be proud of their school. And debate is a form of competition that needs very little infrastructure.

I have no idea how much participation I’ll be able to get from parents-- I know that some of my students have home lives that are decidedly suboptimal. So I might need to find some other sources for judges. Are there relatively clear, objective criteria for judging? It seems like it would be too easy for a judge to award the win to whichever side they agree with, regardless of the quality of the arguments (something that I’m afraid of doing even if I’m judging). And obviously, I wouldn’t want parents to be judging a debate that their own child was involved with, as that carries yet another set of biases.

What city and state? I can probably hook you up with the local league and give you some contact info for them. They will be your best source for judges, materials, schedules, expectations, etc.

Just as a side note: some of the students who are interested have already said that they’re not interested in being the one on stage, but in doing research in support of the teammate who will be on stage (and the last thing that I want is to tell students that doing independent research as a hobby is wrong). Is that a standard role in debate teams (in the formats with significant prep time, of course)?

This would never fly on my team nor should it anywhere. Everybody researches, everybody debates. If a debater is just reading somebody else’s research, they will have no idea how to respond when their opponents start asking probing questions. My kids always loved hitting teams that did that sort of thing. We’d tear them apart, because my debaters did their own research and wrote their own cases. They might not be the best cases, but at least they understood them.

The Tabroom link shows that a number of debate tournaments are happening online now. They might be fun to watch to give students a feel for what to expect.
Re. judging, the league I know was big enough (20+ schools) that I never judged an event where my daughter or any of her schoolmates were participating. There was a long page of objective judging guidelines to follow.