Do you want to Prepare your Students for the AI World? Support your Speech and Debate Team Now
Adding funding to the debate budget is a simple and immediate step administrators can take as part of developing a school's “AI Strategy.”
Stefan Bauschard is the Co-Developer of Designing Schools AI Bootcamp; Co-Founder of Educating4ai.com; Co-Editor Navigating the Impact of Generative AI Technologies on Educational Theory and Practice. He brings nearly 40 years of involvement with speech and debate programs to his work.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak to school superintendents, instructional superintendents, principals, CTOs, and other school leaders about generative AI and education.
When introducing myself, I discussed my life-long commitment to speech and debate and pointed out that while some are arguing that education is facing some sort of “apocalypse,” in many instances, we simply need to place more emphasis on the things we’ve been doing well in schools for over 100 years, such as supporting speech and debate programs.
Why? Because as AI continues to develop, it’s going to diminish (not replace) the value of learning content relative to developing skills. And as it begins to replace some jobs and job functions while also creating new jobs (Goldman Sachs), humans need to focus on those essential skills that will help them adapt to a world where many tasks that require advanced knowledge can be delegated to AI, and where constantly changing job needs will require life-long learning and adaptability.
These essential skills include curiosity, motivation, continuous learning, interpersonal communication, teamwork, persuasion, resilience, time management, media literacy, analytic thinking, complex information processing and interpretation, and critical thinking and decision-making. These essential skills are called “soft” or durable" skills and many (McKinsey & Company, 2023; Hutson & Ceballos, 2023; KPMG Big Innovation Center, 2023; World Economic Forum, 2023; Roslansky, 2023) argue they are essential in what Bill Gates has called “AI World.”
Some argue that these skills are essential because they protect and enrich the “human advantage,” allowing us to excel in areas that machines cannot.
But even if machines are eventually able to match and exceed the intelligence of humans in all domains in which humans are considered intelligent (LeCunn), something that is highly debatable (no pun intended), successful humans will still need all these skills, whether they are interacting with intelligent machines or humans. These are the skills that enable us to “shape our destiny” in the AI World (Brynjolffson) and in any world.
And regardless of the reasons we need them, the reality is that these skills are the ones most in demand from employers. They are even in greater demand than AI skills.
Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of LinkedIn, shared these facts in post on August 15th.
I have been working with friends on a larger academic paper on the value of speech and debate in an AI World, but after reading the newly released study by Dr. Beth E. Schueler (UVA) and Dr. Katherine E. Larned (Harvard) on the benefits of debate participation, I felt compelled to write this short blog post that highlights some of the key gains the study found in relation to the skills discussed. In our larger paper, we will be examining the relationship between skills and debate in more detail.
And as you read through the list of skills debate develops, think not only of how they relate to the essential 21st Century skills discussed above, but also how debate, as a performance-based assessment, could be used as an instructional method both in and out of the classroom in a way that supports student learning without having to worry about the never-ending “cheating” concerns. The italicized parts of the quotes from the article highlight what debate requires students to do that is impossible for machines to do for them.
These are all direct quotes from the report:
*The central skill that ensures success in policy debate is the ability to construct and deliver a compelling argument that is well-supported by both reasoning and evidence
*(I)n a debate, students are at the front of the room, taking ownership of their learning
*Second, the research that debate students conduct in advance of tournaments requires them to develop skills in reading and interpreting advanced non-fiction texts, often including social science research, to find evidence that supports their positions. During debate rounds themselves, debaters are often confronted with new advanced non-fiction texts that their opponents submit as evidence. They must then read and refute those texts within a limited amount of time and under pressure. Debaters can distinguish themselves by explicitly contrasting the strengths of various pieces of text-based evidence. They are trained to consider not only the content of the texts but also the relative credibility and objectivity of the sources.
*Given the regimented structure of a debate round, with timed speeches and a limited number of minutes of “prep time” students can use throughout the debate, debaters are incentivized to learn time management and the critical thinking skills needed to prioritize the arguments that will result in maximum impact within the limited time they are allotted
*Students must develop the ability to effectively listen to their opponents’ arguments, to respectfully cross-examine (question) their opponents, and to work as a team toward a shared goal, making the theory of change consistent with a substantial research literature demonstrating the benefits of learning activities that incorporate cooperation with competition
*Students have opportunities to be more actively engaged in the learning experience than in a typical classroom
*Debate has been identified by scholars of “deeper learning” as a promising avenue for *developing student engagement with rigorous academic content.*
In short, we find evidence that debate improves ELA achievement through the development of analytic and argumentation skills (AI can’t do these) more so than rote memorization or the mastery of basic language conventions. (AI can do these.)
*Finally, debate may encourage academic success through exposure to a college-going culture…This exposure may encourage college- going, consistent with experimental research showing that even college visits can positively impact engagement, self-management, and college-going self-efficacy.*
Of course, school administrators also need to worry about test scores. Debate has that covered as well.
We find debate had positive effects on English Language Arts (ELA) test scores and the magnitude of these impacts is meaningful for an intervention targeting secondary school students. Gains were largest among the students who were lowest performing at baseline and impacts were concentrated on the reading standards that represent higher order subskills.
We also explore whether ELA gains vary between the two major categories of ELA standards—language and reading—that we are able to track over time for a subset of our analytic window: 2012 to 2017. We confirm that the main effects on ELA achievement replicate within this subsample.
* Studying high school debate in Chicago Public Schools, Mezuk (2009) as well as Anderson and Mezuk (2012) compare debate participants to non-participants attending the same schools and find debaters were three times less likely to drop out of high school and 70% more likely to score at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks in reading, even after accounting for 8th grade test scores and GPA. When analyzing a similar sample of students utilizing propensity score matching to account for observed differences between students who do and do not opt to participate, Mezuk, Bondarenko, Smith & Tucker (2011) find debaters were 19% more likely to graduate and 15% more likely to score at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks in English and reading.
Interestingly, despite the fact that debaters are generally higher performing than the rest of the students at their schools at baseline, we find debate had the largest impacts among students who were lowest performing in ELA prior to joining the debate team.
We find evidence of positive impacts on graduation and postsecondary enrollment, driven by increased enrollment in 4-year and private schools.
We examine a unique educational activity designed to train secondary school students in literacy, argumentation, critical thinking, and public policy analysis skills in a context serving large concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students of color. We find notable positive impacts of participation in policy debate on students’ English Language Arts achievement, as measured by standardized exams. We find no evidence of harm to math achievement nor to non-test outcomes such as attendance or discipline. We also find evidence of substantial positive effects on the likelihood of high school graduation (by 12 percentage points) and postsecondary enrollment (by 12 percentage points), driven by enrollment in 4-year and public institutions.
The size of the average impact of debate on ELA achievement is large, particularly for middle and high school students, when considered alongside other policy-relevant benchmarks. The impact is comparable to the typical amount of annual growth the average 9th grader in the U.S. makes on nationally normed reading tests (0.19 SD) and represents roughly 20% of the national 8th grade reading achievement gap between students who do and do not qualify for subsidized lunch (-0.66 SD) (Hill, Bloom, Black & Lipsey, 2007). Researchers have uncovered very few interventions that generate impacts of this magnitude for secondary school students, especially on literacy outcomes. In a review of effect size magnitudes from randomized control trials in education, Kraft (2020) finds that the average effect size on reading exams from high school interventions is 0.05 and middle school 0.06 SD (Kraft, 2020), less than half the size of the ELA effects generated by debate in Boston. Therefore, policy debate appears to be a rare strategy for improving literacy skills among middle and high school students and helps to demonstrate that secondary school is not “too late” to support student progress in reading.
Over the last 20 years, a lot of digital ink has been spilled over the importance of developing and demonstrating the skills that are needed in the 21st Century workforce. That debate is settled. The question is, What are we going to do next?
One thing we don’t need to do next is worry about where to start. If you are an administrator, start by adding funding to your school’s debate budget, using some discretionary funds to do it immediately. That is one place in your school where students are learning the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in an AI World and in a way that cannot be replicated by AI. Supporting your debate team should be one part of the “AI Strategy” every school needs.
Step two? Work with your debate coaches to train teachers about how to use it as an instructional method in the traditional classroom. Engaging, performance-based approaches to instruction and assessment are more likely to facilitate student learning than paper-only assignments that force teachers into losing battles with AI writing detectors and create adversarial relationships in the classroom that undermine learning (Mehta & Fine, 2019). Debate, which motivates student engagement and requires students to think on their feet and demonstrate learned knowledge “on the fly,” clearly fits the bill.
Does your school not have a debate team? Start one. It’s even easier than learning about AI :).
For more than a century, schools have been doing many wonderful things to help students develop the skills they need to succeed in any world they live in, including the AI World. Speech and debate is one of those things, and, unsurprisingly, many successful individuals who have participated say it was the most valuable part of their K–16 educational experience. Given the importance of these skills in the workplace, we understand why they make that claim.
There has never been a better time than now for administrators to support both competitive and classroom debate as an essential academic discipline and not merely as an after school club.
Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning: The quest to remake the American High School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.