I think I’ve finally reconciled myself to debate. I came by my skepticism honestly. Way back as a TA in grad school I remember reading a paper by a student in a political theory class that was chock full of arguments, good, bad, and indifferent. The sheer density of claims, with a half-hearted defense tacked on to each one, struck me as wildly counterproductive. Even the good arguments sound bad when they arrive in a swarm of weak ones. 

That student, it turns out, was a skilled debater. Apparently the volume approach was standard practice at his competitions. For me, it became a hazard to warn against. 

When I first started out as a high school teacher, I ran debates often enough. I did whatever lessons I was given or could scrounge up. I would not describe what I did as “excellent debate lessons,” but I do remember animated sessions with occasionally illuminating moments. Debate really does work to get students talking, arguing, and collaborating. Good-natured competition encourages focus and team spirit. 

The latter, the team spirit, is what worried me. When we debriefed after a debate, I noticed that students were overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on their side, whatever views they held beforehand and, frankly, whichever reasons seemed most compelling to me. I worried, and still do, that team spirit was transforming into calcified groupthink. 

I should have overcome my antipathy to debate much earlier than now. As a supervisor, I’ve observed excellent debate lessons numerous times, in a variety of styles. I’ve watched students prepare for and execute very compelling Oxford-style debates on important topics in world history. I’ve heard, in their debriefings, a thoughtfulness I often struggled to achieve in the ones I ran. 

I’ve also seen students debate in clever formats designed to thwart the problem I had with mine, premature entrenchment in a view. For example, in “Murphy pods” — called that, affectionately, by students of a teacher in my department — students have short, repeated arguments against changing opponents, switching positions as they go. I particularly like that format because it requires exploration. When you hear someone contradict your claim in a forceful way, you remember it. That argument is now available to you in the next round. A few rounds later, and the better arguments have typically gotten elaborated and the worse ones attenuated. 

Debate Is Not The Same As Judgement

What finally brought me around, though, wasn’t teaching or observing. It was drafting the chapter of our 4QM book on judgment, Question Four (What do we think about that?). What I figured out about judgment as I sat patiently and mulled slowly is that the skillful thinking we call judgment requires exactly that — patient, slow thinking. Debate is quick, hot, and noisy. Ultimately, figuring out consistent core values and general principles has to be slow, quiet, and reflective (like writing a book in semi-quarantine). 

That doesn’t mean that debate is a bad idea. On the contrary, I now see that debate is an awesome brainstorming technique for judgment thinking. Debate generates claims — lots of them. Without that activation, you can’t really think through a real-life decision or dilemma. Part of the exercise of good judgment is canvassing your options thoroughly. Failure to do that accounts for a lot of my own poor judgment to date.

But that’s just stage one. After you consider the problem broadly and creatively (and noisily), then you need to slow down and get quiet. This, too, requires a structured activity, a parallel to debate. This is what I was missing when I started out. I’d run a noisy activity and then be surprised that students were stuck wherever they stopped. We didn’t have the follow-on activity that would have compelled them to sort through their findings and say which can be fixed to values and principles that they can articulate, apply, and ultimately live with. I missed the pedagogy of the reflective generalization stage.

Interestingly, I once knew this, sort of. My first year as a high school teacher was pretty miserable, mostly because I was so bad at it. At the end of the year, my boss (now my 4QM partner, Jon) told me he’d give me a senior Ethics elective to teach the following year. He could see I needed a course a bit more in my wheelhouse so that I could rebuild my confidence. 

In any case, Ethics worked for me. It wasn’t a history class, but we did always start with a case study or a scenario. And we always worked from our reactions to that scenario to general principles, which, at the time, I taught directly: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and so on. 

Question Four is, in a way, the translation of that enterprise into the history curriculum. Our case studies and scenarios are now drawn from true stories. And our instruction in principled ethical thinking is more inductive. Still, Question Four is a lot like the course that might have saved me for high school teaching almost two decades ago. We work from cases to principles and back again. 

Interestingly, I don’t recall that we ever debated in that Ethics class. We just talked. They were seniors who’d opted in, and running a philosophical discussion was one of my very few classroom competencies. So just talking turned out to be enough. 

Now I know: debate is great. It’s the generative stage of practice for the thinking skill we call judgment. It helps us to answer Question Four by forcing us to think through a wide range of claims and possibilities. So make noise and raise the temperature. Then, slow down, get cool and quiet, and reflect. Which of these warm-to-the-touch choices of action in a real-life situation are consistent with the core values and consistent principles we will use to guide our future choices? When the din dies down and the teams dissolve, where does our judgment settle? That’s the part we take home.