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Educator Tools: Types of Debate

Debate is a form of public speaking on an assigned topic that is especially suited to educational use. Related group activities and events include public forums, town hall meetings, and mock trials. Debates are held widely in educational settings around the United States and internationally. Among the organizations that foster debating, through tournaments and other activities, are the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) and the National Speech & Debate Association.

Debates all have a structure designed to give each side equal opportunity to present its case. Within that, the structure and rules of debates vary widely. Some allow a large amount of audience participation, others not as much. One type might focus on principles and underlying values; another, on policies. Most debates oppose two individuals or teams—however, there is a type in which the same person must argue both for and against the same topic! Some debates allow the teams to question one another directly; others have direct all questions to the moderator or judge(s) and audience only.


Moderating a Debate

The moderator plays an important role in most debates. The moderator introduces the debate, being sure to:

  1. State the proposition being debated
  2. Introduce the speaker(s) for the proposition
  3. Introduce the speaker(s) against the proposition
  4. Explain the rules of the debate, including the amount of time allocated to each side and for any audience participation
  5. Outline any expected audience participation: Will opinions be polled before and/or after the debate? Are questions allowed, and if so, when? To whom will any audience questions be addressed: The moderator? A team? Individual speakers?
  6. Explain the criteria for judging the outcome

The moderator is also responsible for timekeeping and ensures that the debate is civil and sticks to the motion. The moderator cannot argue for or against the motion.

Three leading types of debate used in educational settings are the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Oxford-style debate, and British Parliamentary style debate. Their basic formats and the roles of participants are outlined below.

Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Lincoln-Douglas debates match individual speakers for and against a resolution. The resolution is often about a matter of values rather than practical policies. Each speaker presents both constructive arguments, in support of a position, and negative arguments, against the opposing position. The speakers also question one another directly. Here is the general format for this type of debate:

  1. The affirmative speaker argues in support of the resolution, defining its key terms and concepts and outlining the scope of the argument.
  2. The negative speaker questions (cross-examines) the affirmative speaker.
  3. The negative speaker then makes the case against the resolution and refutes the opposing side's case.
  4. The affirmative speaker cross-examines the negative speaker.
  5. The affirmative speaker restates and strengthens the case for the resolution.
  6. The negative speaker disputes the opposing arguments and states the basis on which the outcome (vote) should be against the resolution.
  7. The affirmative speaker disputes the opposing arguments and voting basis, and summarizes the basis on which the resolution should pass.

Each debate section has a strict time limit, giving both sides equal opportunity to state their cases. The winning side is determined on the strength of the arguments as presented by the speakers.

Oxford Debate

This style is named for the Oxford Union, a debating society founded in 1823 and associated with Oxford University in Oxford, England. The original Oxford style has been modified in various ways. A good example of modified Oxford-style debate format is the widely respected Intelligence Squared series of debates found in Issues & Controversies.

Oxford-style debates are team events, often with two or three speakers on each side, or panel. At issue is a motion, or proposition. Often a pre-debate poll of the audience is taken, to find out how many votes each side has before the arguments are heard and how many audience members are undecided. The moderator, or chair, reads the motion. Beginning with the proposing panel, and alternating teams, each speaker in turn makes opening arguments. Audience and speakers can then ask to challenge what they have heard; but cannot actually do so until the moderator permits them to speak. The moderator directs questions to panel members and invites them to answer questions and rebut challenges. Throughout the debate, all participants address the moderator and audience; panel members do not address one another directly.

After the discussion, each speaker in turn makes brief closing arguments. The moderator restates the motion and asks for a vote, based only on the arguments and evidence that have been presented during the debate. In a tie, the moderator casts the deciding vote. If a pre-debate poll was taken, the winning panel is the one that has increased its vote share the most.

Oxford-style debates are very well suited to class situations because they can involve everyone. Students who are not on either panel must follow the arguments carefully and communicate any challenges clearly and convincingly. They can also be asked to justify their votes based on what they have heard from the panels and, if the debate has changed their opinions, give reasons for the change.

British Parliamentary Debate

British Parliamentary debate is somewhat similar to the Oxford debating style, but each side—proposition, or Government, and opposition—has two teams rather than one. Each team has two speakers, and all speakers have distinct roles. All speakers are allowed equal time; typically, seven minutes. (Some variants on this style have one three-person team on each side.)

British parliamentary debate sets out to emulate a debate in the British government, and some conventions and roles within the debate reflect actual parliamentary procedure. The winner is the team that is judged the top, not the outcome of the motion being debated. Each team competes both against opponents and against the other team arguing for the same side.

The first and final minutes of each speech are "protected": No one may interrupt the speaker. In between, however, audience and/or speakers for the opposite side may direct very brief "points of information" (POIs) to the speaker, who has the option to answer them or not. Ability to offer, and respond to, pertinent POIs is one of the criteria used to judge the teams.

The first proposition speaker ("Prime Minister") defines the motion and then presents arguments and information to support it. The first opposing speaker ("Leader of the Opposition") presents arguments against the motion and also rebuts the previous speech. The two following speakers offer a combination of new arguments/information and rebuttal of opposing speeches.

The first speakers of the closing teams ("Members") need to deepen the debate, within the motion's existing definition, and/or present an alternative perspective on it, while also rebutting opponents' arguments. They cannot merely restate material already presented by the opening teams. The final speaker for the proposition ("Government Whip") rebuts previous arguments and summarizes the proposition's case, emphasizing the closing team's contribution as much as possible. The closing speaker against the motion ("Opposition Whip") summarizes the entire debate, also emphasizing the team's arguments and rebuttals.

Any type of debate can serve to deepen students' understanding of an issue, spur students to do their own research, and strengthen their communication, concentration, and listening skills. More information on the educational benefits of debating can be found in Learning Through Debate.







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