New Year's Resolutions: New Debate Formats

The New Year comes with resolutions about the changes we want to see in ourselves. This New Year has me considering some resolutions about academic debating, specifically new experiments in debating formats.  As part of our examination of digital debating, we believe there is value in both looking at new forms of debating (online, text, etc.) but also new formats informed by changes in the skills needed to be literate in today’s increasing digital world.

It is perhaps only logical that worldwide growth in debating would encourage formats that resemble each other. There are certainly distinctions between prominent models, such number of competitors, the number and length of speeches, and the amount of time given to the competitors to prepare for the specific motion (or topic).

For those of us with experience as debate educators we certainly recognize the significance of these differences. It is worth examining, however, that all of these formats operate under significantly common assumptions about what constitutes a debate contest round. In just about any debate competition around the world you will find competitors entering a fixed competition setting which includes a specific motion (or topic), engagement and refutation of each other’s positions using (nearly) exclusively oral means and judges evaluate the presentations.  Each contest round is a distinct and finite event except for as part of the aggregated results.

What if we instead started with the core principles of debating and applied them to the types of engaged learning being discussed by leading researchers? Looking at the fantastic work by Erin Reilly, Henry Jenkins, Laurel J. Felt and Vanessa Vartabedian as part of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab titled “Shall We Play?” (Fall 2012) they assess the best practices for participatory learning.  Although academic debate is never formally mentioned in this work, the spirit of debate education is present in their discussion of how to foster participatory learning (or play), 

We are pushing beyond thinking of play as merely a skill. Play, we believe, is also an outlook on life and learning – it is a way of seeing oneself and the world through a new, creative lens. Play is not a solitary occupation but a collective ethos, a shared set of experiences that encourage us to think beyond our disciplines and “see with new eyes.” Play supports constant learning and innovative responses to our surroundings. Through an iterative, playful process, we support each other to try new things and en­courage a process of innovation and creativity”  (p.6)

They explore a number of new media literacies at the core of participatory learning.  There are many possible debate experiments, but in the spirit of resolutions for the New Year here are a few examples with the media literacy included in parentheses. All of these reflect the ways in wich debate can help today's youth think beyond our disciplines and experiences.

Embrace broader use of media

It is easy to trace the origins of the public speaking model of debating.  Parliaments, public spaces and campaign events all required the participants to stand and deliver their views on important issues of the day. Today many components of those skills remain unquestionably important, but not exclusively. Videos, infographics, prezis, and PowerPoint presentations are all part of the today’s landscape of public presentation. Reilly and the PLAY researchers identify visualization as a component of digital literacy and define it as the “Ability to translate information into visual models and understand the information communicated by visual models.”  Debate could easily abandon its resistance to visual forms of argument and develop new norms of excellence for uses of visual argument.  Debaters could be encouraged to locate and utilize existing clips, images and charts, but also to create their own. The growing use of Infographics through platforms like offers a new frontier for students.

Once multimedia is engaged, we may also be able to engage student creativity by encouraging the remixing of video content. Collections of free resources make these techniques widely available. Debaters who might be required to submit their opening presentation as a short, edited video clip would be trained in the skills of appropriation defined as the “Ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.” These video products can also generate a separate line of evaluation (imagine separate awards for the best video presentations) and add a level of public visibility to debate competitions.

Embrace a range of simulations

Even though many debate motions or topics are formed to include a reference to governmental agencies, little of debating takes places within the official rules and constraints of that organization. Many formats mirror BP’s insistence that when considering the motion as “This House” that is specifically not designed to represent a single, specific parliament. Even when policy debate specifies “the United States federal government” as the actor of its topics this is not license for enacting policies as that government.  

Although there are specific simulations (such as Model United Nations or Model Congress) these activities are often organized with the concern for the format. Debate, could, by embracing the interest in considering a specific subject and a specific actor create unique simulations. An example from public policy consulting is apparent in the simulations hosted by Wikistrat.

If the setting of the discussion and the format itself will both subject to experimentation the debates could follow Reilly’s discussion of simulation or the “Ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes.” Because the simulations could either represent life experiences of the debaters or experiences unfamiliar to them, the debates could also designed to stimulate the skill of performance. Reilly and colleagues define it as the “Ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.” A simulation could be a city struggling with new fiscal policy and the roles could be adjusted to offer whichever educational experience was desired.

Encourage different models of research

The scope of research used in debates is one of the most controversial aspects of debate formats. There are values both to encouraging competitors to spend extensive amounts of time researching a topic and formats that encourage entirely spontaneous presentations. Both of these perspectives consider research as solely the traditional enterprise of gathering of citations and evidence to support your claims.

What if the debate format encouraged a very different kind of research? Topics have often tended to focus on subjects that require the students to locate specialized work by policy experts, such as working papers, policy documents, etc. What if the topics encouraged less of these finished products and more interest in the raw construction of research? Today’s debaters live in an interconnected world where networking is needed to learn the “Ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information.” Instead of looking for policy advocates discussing new proposals, they debaters would instead be interested in gathering raw data and compiling it into usable forms. The proliferation of open data projects such as google maps offers a new way of research.

Besides the generation and organization of information, today’s research can also involve sharing those materials. The PLAY report discusses collective intelligence as the “Ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.” With the tremendous interest in a shared motion collection, most prominently IDEA’s Debateabase, and the rise of argument wikis, wikis are now important parts of the debate community. Right now, both of these wikis receive extensive attention but they require benevolence on the part of authors.

The experimentation here would be to require competitors to generate all of the research materials for a competition using a single wiki. The debaters would then be promoting the sharing of information (or collective intelligence) with other competitors and anyone else who locates this wiki from a search engine. The sharing of research would also dramatically change the view of allowing or preventing prior research. The wiki building debates could resemble the construction of legal doctrine, where the competitors help to build a body of precedents, important examples and community knowledge.


These examples are only brief suggestions. There is tremendous research taking place about how education can best serve today’s young people. At the same time, debate continues to build communities with robust competitor engagement.  Debate communities are a natural and potentially vibrant site of dynamic debating experiments, we just need to make a resolution to be open to these kinds of changes.



United States
Syndicate content