Should citizens be entitled to a tuition-free college education? This hot-button topic, straight from the presidential campaign trail, was the question posed to Colorado Academy Seventh Graders during their annual debate unit.
A highlight of the Critical Thinking class—which integrates a curriculum around CA’s 6Cs: character, collaboration, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and cultural competence—is the unit in which students are tasked with learning the formal debate process. Students work on their assertions, develop reasoning, uncover evidence, learn both sides of the argument, formulate cross examinations, and craft rebuttals.
By starting with less sophisticated subject matter—like cats are better than dogs—the class begins to understand the format and flow of a debate. From there, students tackle the official debate question: “All United States citizens should have access to a tuition-free university education.” Working in teams of two, they prepare for the debate: research positions, organize evidence, write arguments, and practice speaking persuasively.
“This is a high interest endeavor for Middle Schoolers,” says Middle School Principal Bill Wolf-Tinsman, “and an excellent way for young people to develop critical thinking skills. Middle Schoolers have an opinion on most things, and this is a developmentally appropriate way to learn more about the world and explore what they believe.”
Debate teams compete in class, and ultimately, four teams—one per social studies section—make it to the final championship round. Former winning teams judge and score the debate, awarding points for the the team’s presentation, cross examination, rebuttal, and closing argument.
To throw in extra uncertainty, the position to be argued—for or against—is determined by a coin toss seconds before the teams present their case.
The 2020 debate champs, Jack Ege and Margie Timmers, used the coin toss to their advantage. “We decided to choose opposite sides for each debate, to show the judges that we could argue both.” Margie says. “I not only learned how to research and establish arguments on a certain topic, but I also learned how to open my mind much more on each side, giving me a broader sense of the topic itself.”
Adds Jack, “The biggest lessons I have taken away from the debate have been how to see a problem from both sides, make an argument from one and poke holes in it.”
Both Jack and Margie also took away skills that should serve them well academically and in the real world.
“I did not anticipate how much improvising is required in debate, as well as public speaking skills,” Jack says. “The cross-examination really pushes you to think on the fly, and to be creative without letting your ideas run away with you.”