In The Trenches

Let’s Debate This

Published on April 4, 2023 Back to blog

Several months ago, my son, Josh, joined the debate team at his high school – and almost immediately became obsessed with it. Every waking moment that he was not in class or doing homework, he seemed to be working on his “flows” or doing “mocks” with his teammates.

As a “band kid” in high school, I knew nothing about debate. So, when he asked me to be a judge at an upcoming tournament, I cautiously accepted the challenge. To be honest, I was a bit scared at the prospect. I was having a hard time just keeping up with Josh at the dinner table, never mind having to watch (and judge) four students debate the topic of the month: whether India should join the Artemis Accords. (To start with, what are the Artemis Accords?)

For reference, here’s how the tournament works. Two teams, each comprised of two students, are put into a room to debate the topic of the month for about 45-minutes. Just before a “round” starts, each team is told if they are “pro” or “con” and whether they go first or second. Then, using a structured format, the teams make their cases, rebut the other side’s case, share summaries, cross-exam each others points and, eventually, make their final statements. Then it is up to the judge (me – most rounds just have one judge) to score the players and determine a winner (no pressure). At a tournament there are dozens of debates (rounds) happening at the same time in classrooms across the school. Each team plays about 4-5 rounds throughout the tournament.

As I watched the students in awe, I couldn’t help but think of the life skills that these kids were gaining through this process: 

  1. Preparation – To prepare for the tournament, students conduct intense research to understand all potential contentions (for both sides), practice with one another (“mock”) and constantly work to strengthen their positions. The battle is often won off the field.
  2.  Perspective – Whether they really agree or disagree, students must be able to make a case for either side of the argument. This requires them to dig deep and truly understand both perspectives. If only everyone took the time to do this in life.
  3.  Flexibility – With any case, there are many potential arguments for and against. Each team must listen closely (and take good notes) and be able to quickly respond to the other side to defend their position. Listen, adjust and improve.
  4.  Organization – It was impressive watching the students “flow the round,” tracking each key point that is made, following it thru the round, and taking notes/pulling relevant data to present their offense/defense accordingly. (My note-taking seemed very old school in comparison). It’s tough to beat a clear, concise and well-organized argument.
  5.  Presentation/confidence – If all of the above isn’t hard enough, each student needs to clearly and confidently present their convictions, while also treating their opponents and the judge with dignity and respect. Presentation (and confidence) is everything.

By the end of the 10-hour tournament, my head was spinning and full of information about space mining, space debris, satellites, space colonization, India’s relationship with China and Russia and much more. I was also energized (and, honestly, feeling a bit ignorant) from watching them listen to one another, take copious notes, think on their feet and make their cases with grace and confidence. I now understand the attraction, and why my son has become obsessed with it. I have too. And, living in a house with a lawyer and debate kid, I need to up my game.

 Anyone up for starting/joining a debate club? 

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners