Swimming in the Deep End

I like to conduct topic debates with my students from time to time.  In environmental science, I have assigned topics like the pros and cons of labeling genetically modified foods, or the merits of various alternative fuels.  I assign students to teams before I assign the topic, and they sometimes protest they prefer the other team, but I assure them it doesn’t matter what their personal views are.  What’s important is their ability to locate evidence to support their case and their skill in convincing the “jury” they have a solid argument. 

In my college Freshman Composition II class, where the textbook until recently was titled, Everything’s an Argument, the topic debate is simply an extension of their written argument assignments.  I usually find a current controversial topic and allow students an hour or so to do research and prepare their cases.   While their classmates are preparing for presentation, students on the jury team prepare a rubric to score their classmates’ debate.

This is not a debate class, so the guidelines are pretty simple.  Each team has 10 minutes to present their case, then after a short break where teams discuss their opponents’ presentations, both teams are allowed a brief rebuttal period.  At that point, the jury decides who presented the best supported argument.  The students enjoy the process, and I find it a unique way for students to conduct goal-oriented research on a topic they don’t know much about.

After reading Daniel Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? and a couple of articles about the development of critical thinking skills, I’m rethinking the debate I have planned in a couple of weeks.  According to Willingham, in order for students to think deeply about a topic, they need to have a significant store of knowledge about it first, what Dillingham calls background knowledge.  Otherwise, students are simply wading in the shallow end of the pool, debating superficial facts, but believing they are thinking critically.  Students have learned to skim the surface and rarely dive deeply enough for more thorough discussions.

The good news is that there is something to be learned from the process of debate itself, and I think my students gain knowledge about the proposed topic from the research they conduct.  But I’m doing things a little differently this semester.  I’ve been assigning academic readings in my college class for several weeks about closely related topics, which we’ve discussed at length during class sessions and about which students have written several short response papers.  We’ve given a lot of thought to thinking and which college experiences expand our ability to do so.  In two weeks, when I assign the debate, students will have read and discussed aspects of the topic fairly thoroughly for several weeks.  They may not yet be experts, but they have more than superficial knowledge.

I’m eager to see how this focused reading will affect the quality of this semester’s debate, and hope I’m not being overly optimistic.  As one student, who is a former coach and teacher, wrote in his last paper about classroom “flipping” as a teaching strategy, “I recognized the psychological idea of transference and wondered if teachers believe their students are learning a lot because they themselves are learning as they teach.”  It’s a great question.  My goal is always to learn better ways to teach, and I’m hoping this new strategy will help me teach students more effectively.  If not, at least I will have learned something.

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