Five Elements to Every Debate Round

Class starts today, and I'm scaling back to the rudimentary basics.

Today marks Day 1 of my Debate Class at High Country Home Educators in Colorado Springs. This is the first time I have taught a debate class without considering competition, sort of a new thing for me.

I have a collection of argumentation books. They're rather boring.

I have a collection of antique logic and argumentation books. They’re rather boring.

I will begin the class by defining debate as the game of argumentation. If you’ve ever studied argumentation, you know that it can be incredibly long winded and boring. I have a stack of ancient books all on the skills of argumentation — the study of logic dates back millennia — and is usually reserved for the nerdiest nerds in Nerdville.

But when you make it a game, all of a sudden you have a fun activity that get the juices of the brain flowing. I’ve had students explain it as a “rush of adrenaline” when they enter the room for the first time, ready to address an opponent for the sake of persuading a judge.

I’m scaling back all the way to rudimentary knowledge. No one in the class knows the world of competitive debate, other than my son Noah who is enrolled. The students are brand new, and I like that! We are going to pretend the world of competitive debate doesn’t exist.

So, I’m scaling all the way back and explaining the five elements of every single debate format:

  • The Judge. An academic debate is set up to persuade either a person or a group of people, not your opponent.
  • The Resolution. This is a claim or proposition that both sides of the game agree to argue. It usually starts out with the word “resolved,” meaning “be it resolved that we do or believe such-and-such.”
  • The Sides. Resolutions are typically written to show two distinct sides: an affirmative side that agrees and a negative side that doesn’t.
  • The Speeches. The format of the debate round follows very clear rules of timed speeches, allowing the debaters to be as strategic as possible with their word economy. Most debate formats allow for a cross-examination or discussion period of exchange.
  • The Decision. After the debate “round,” the judge casts a decision. There is a winner and a loser.

You know what? It helps all debaters — champions to novice — to understand these basic elements. There is often confusion to each one, leading to some bad experiences with the game. When everyone in the room understands these elements and how they fit together for a healthy round of debate, arguing can be quite enjoyable.

Here are some common confusions as well as some solutions to mastering debate:

  • The Judge. Sometimes debaters think it is their job to convince their opponent. No one expects you to do so, and this does not determine who wins. You are to convince the judge, not your opponent. This is one reason debaters face the judge during debate rounds.
  • The Resolution. This is like boundaries in a sport, and you need to stick within the boundaries. Going off topic or talking about things unrelated to the resolution is frowned upon by judges. Debaters learn to stick to the point.
  • The Sides. Debate is more than just taking sides and running; there is strategy involved. Understanding the burdens of each side helps craft specific strategies that will help debaters win rounds.
  • The Speeches. There is a most fundamental strategy called “flowing” that debaters sometimes think they can do without. However, the debater who masters the flow of arguments from speech to speech are debaters who win debates. And those who don’t, lose.
  • The Decision. Debate is a subjective game, meaning rounds will be lost when you really do feel you should have won. Judges vary greatly: sometimes they are expert logicians and sometimes they are biased to one side of the debate. No matter. Treat each round as a learning experience and you will become better and better at debate.

I’m going to take the opportunity to get a little preachy on the first day of class. There are life lessons in each of the elements of a debate round. Here are some ideas as to the discussion I will have:

  • The Judge. When arguing in real life, we sometimes forget that we are being judged by God. When I remember that my opponent is a child of God, I remember that He wants me to treat my opponent with kindness, fairness, and love.
  • The Resolution. With any project or relationship, it helps to define clear boundaries to what the expectations are.
  • The Sides. Debaters soon realize that crawling into the head of your opponent and understanding how the opposition sees things makes you a great debater. The result? Understanding of other points of view, which is very helpful in life.
  • The Speeches. Of course, standing in front of an audience and articulating your ideas is perhaps one of the most useful skills a person can master.
  • The Decision. Life isn’t fair. You’ll win some and lose some. The important thing is to keep playing the game of life with as much as you can muster.

I also have a writing project in mind to help kick off the course. I’ll share that with you after I see how this goes! Subscribe to my site to keep posted.