5 Reasons Why Arguing Makes Kids Smart – Or, Notes on the Prodigious Intelligence of Debaters

Zeit Debatte Wien - Finale-02
Zeit Debatte Wien – Finale-02 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in May this year, I was privileged to be an adjudicator at a top-ranked high school debate in Johannesburg. As the floor settled and the speakers jotted down a few final notes, I got my adjudication forms, timer and tired head ready for the day’s third and final debate. I was looking forward to going home to rest and unwind after a long day and an even longer week. Little did I know what a wonderful, uplifting experience was in store for me.

The debate itself centered around whether private schools should be done away with. The issues which emerged touched on freedom of choice, religious issues, elitism and the nature of education. What fascinated me, though, was the depth of analysis of the issues and the ability of the speakers to synthesize what emerged as a coherent, insightful argument.

As I have gotten closer to the core of what a meaningful education means, I have gotten more involved with extra-mural programmes like drama, chess and computer coding and philosophy clubs. More than anything, I think I have learnt that these after-school programmes are essential to a holistic education. As important as sports are in encouraging teamwork, confidence, and commitment, these other, more cerebral (and highly under-valued) pursuits are even more critical in distilling twenty-first century aptitudes. So much so, that I sometimes think they should be built into the curriculum.

In what follows, I would like to expound on debating in particular as the ultimate means of distilling the skills that really matter at schools.

(Please note, though, that when I talk about debating, I am not talking about the informal process that happens in many of our classrooms, I am talking about the structured, formal kind in which teams research, plan and present an argument in either proposing or opposing a motion.)

Why Debating Makes Kids Smarter

In the debates I am familiar with (the World Debating Format), students work in teams of five, with three members at a time fulfilling the various speaker roles. There are defined structural expectations for each speaker, and team members may alternate from one debate to the next. They are given a ‘motion’, which is most often impromptu and then are given an hour in which to prepare.

As part of preparing the team’s line of argument, debaters have to strip down a motion in order to identify the issue at the very core of the motion. For example, in the motion ‘This house believes that rhino poachers should receive the death penalty’, the core issue is about human versus animal rights. Or in ‘This house would implement the federal system of government in South Africa’, the core issue is about efficient government. In identifying the core issue, debating students have to sift the wheat from the chaff independently. In essence, this is critical thinking in a nutshell; sorting what I call the real issues from the distractors. It does happen that teams are unable to do this, getting lost in the tangential issues, and the resulting debate is superficial and boring. But most often, these young people are able to go beyond the obvious and to highlight the real issues at play. This is an incredibly difficult skill which experienced debaters are able to do with ease.
Imagine if an entire generation of young people were able to do this when confronted by political spin, lazy reporting and marketing jumbo-jumbo.


Lincoln at a debate with Stephen Douglas. This...
Lincoln at a debate with Stephen Douglas. This is a photo of the original work, part of a private collection temporarily on display at the Lincoln Boyhood Memorial in August of 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Debaters are expected to listen very closely to the opposing teams’ line of argument so that they can raise points of rebuttal and identify the central clashes between their teams’ line of reasoning. These become a very big part the criteria an adjudicator uses to weigh up which team has won the debate. They are expected to weave these clashing points of view into their arguments as they happen. The level of analytical thinking this requires, most of it on the fly, is phenomenal. Good teams learn to anticipate an opposing team’s line of argumentation, a little bit like a chess player will anticipate an opponent’s next sequence of moves. In so doing, they develop the ability to spot patterns, think strategically, develop the habit of seeing both sides of the argument, and hone their abilities to present solid evidence both for, and against a point of view. This makes debaters multi-faceted, critical thinkers.
I often wonder why representatives of law firms, tech companies, and big business aren’t crammed in at these events, offering bursaries left and right… If it’s confident, innovative, fast-thinking young minds you want working for you, debaters are what you need.

Once a motion is handed out, I can have no contact with my team. Nor are they able to use the Internet to harvest facts. All they are allowed is a dictionary, a resource file, and their own minds. There is no coaching allowed from the sidelines and no way I can help them. And then they have to speak for seven minutes to a vaguely hostile audience (the opposing team and adjudicator). Sometimes, they fail. But the best debaters carry on trying and growing as thinkers and speakers. As a consequence, debaters become incredibly independent, which significantly raises their confidence levels and faith in their own abilities.
Only drama rivals debating in building the independence, confidence, grit and ability to communicate clearly, so greatly valued as part of a twenty-first century education. But the drama students usually put on one or two productions a year, debaters do it week in, week out.

Debaters have to convince an ‘audience’. This audience is always the adjudicator/s, and as hard as we try to be cold, logical and dispassionate, we are often swayed by little rhetorical tricks. As important as identifying logical fallacies in their opponent’s argument is, and as critical as carefully constructing a bullet-proof, well-structured argument is, what often sways a debate is the use of manipulative rhetorical tricks. Telling a little joke, modulating your voice, using good analogies, including a personal anecdote and even playing on the audience’s emotions add weight to a speaker’s armory. Some very clever debaters actually learn to read their adjudicators, and adapt what they are saying according to the micro-expressions they perceive, others are even more devious: nodding their heads and smiling in an attempt to get the adjudicators (and even their opponents) to mirror this behaviour. I have seen it happen: an adjudicator who nodded and smiled all the way through a first speaker speech found it riveting, but could not day why. Like I said, very smart kids these debaters.

Debaters learn the rules and structures, but they also learn when to break them. And it is in breaking the rules that the single most important aspect of debating emerges: creativity. The best debaters have it: the ability to do things differently, to forge unusual connections and to make their audience see things in an entirely new light. Of course, all of this is for a clear purpose, as is any meaningful creative endeavour. Moreover, I suspect that this is a skill quickly becomes something they use in everything they do. My debaters are also artists, singers, poets, designers, computer programmers, leaders and top academics, and I have seen first hand how what they have learnt in debating has transferred into what they do in these other pursuits.

Debaters know that the best way to learn is from each other. Since I very seldom actually see my students debating, their own post-debate analysis and reflection is crucial in order to diagnose their own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, my entire training regimen is based around the concept of peer learning. Here are some examples:

  • I give my students a ‘murder mystery’ with a list of suspects. Students have to act in the role of the prosecutor to make their case. Other students have to act like the jury / judge and assign scores based on how convincing the arguments was, and then to analyse the good and weak areas of the argument.
  • Students brainstorm a contemporary issue, pulling the issues apart, adding historical context, finding the core and identifying opposing positions on the matter. They then build the strongest argument they can, present it informally, and critique one another’s speeches
  • I get students to build an argument a few points at a time, while standing in a circle, each person has to carry on where the previous speaker left off when I clap my hands. A double-clap reverses direction. They quickly learn not to talk each other into a corner, and to collaborate (some take on the role of ‘argument builders’, others quickly assume the role of ‘evidence providers’).
  • Students develop their own motions. This teaches them about the importance of having a topic that is weighted neither too heavily for proposition or opposition.
  • Some motions simply cannot be argued against (such as ‘This house believes in the sanctity of human life’). Students are tasked with trying to build more subtle arguments that could win the impossible debate. (In this case, they might build their case on a picking apart of the word ‘sanctity’ or ‘life’.)
  • Sometimes we have ‘nonsense debates’: ’round vs square’, ‘red vs blue’, ‘sharp vs soft’, etc. I start with two of the more experienced debaters, and gradually bring in the more nervous ones. In making one another laugh and feel comfortable, the skittish ones slowly start to overcome their terror of speaking, in a comfortable, fail-friendly environment.
  • At the end of the season, I ask my debaters to record a speech. This I will then play to the next batch. Armed with an adjudication form, my new fledglings will get to evaluate these speeches in order to learn what debating is about.
  • And finally, having a seasoned debater presenting a ‘masterclass’ to the younger campaigners draws them in like nothing else does.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, to restate the motion: ‘This House Believes That Debating Makes Kids Smarter’, for all the reasons I have presented, and more, please join me in affirming: THE MOTION MUST STAND!


Postscript: If there is one thing that counts against debating, it is the ubiquitous bias and incompetence of many of the adjudicators. If there is one thing that will make me abandon this enriching activity, it is having to work with the close-minded adults who get to make the call. Frankly, I think things would go so much more smoothly if we had the students not involved in the debate adjudicating one another. They are more capable than some of the idiots I have sat next to in the adjudicator’s chair. Get rid of this ugly problem, and debating truly is the most enriching thing a child can do at school.

Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SeanHCole



  1. Are all your learners required to learn to debate? These are such essential skills you are teaching but I know I never had the courage to participate as I was chronically shy and introverted. How do you overcome these issues?


  2. Hi Sean, so enjoyed reading this post. It reminded me of when the World Debating Finals were held at Bishops in Cape Town some years back and I was privileged to be an adjudicator at nearly every session. It was the most awesome experience ever to be exposed to that level of clever argument and thought.


  3. Really liked the way you discussed the various skills developed by through structured debating. You make a sompelling case for debating as a part of curriculum


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