"Agora Speakers International is a worldwide nonprofit association of passionate volunteers devoted to helping people develop their public speaking, communication, critical thinking, debating and leadership skills."
Debating was present in the Agora Speakers declaration of purpose since its very inception, but until now it has been neglected in the educational materials, and with the second iteration of the Educational Program and the Agora Guide, it's time to address this.
There's a growing body of research showing the huge benefits of debating as an educational tool:
- Debating enhances critical thinking, much more than public speaking alone (Allen, Berkowitz, Hunt, & Louden, 1999), (Howell, 1943), (Hill, 1993), (Greenstreet, 1993)
- Debating is the most effective activity on college campuses for teaching research skills.
- Debating provides significant benefits for people entering careers in all sectors (Center, 1982) (Hobbs & Chandler, 1991)
- There's a clear relationship between debate participation and improved writing and listening skills.(Mezuk, Bondarenko, Smith, & Tucker, 2011), (Peters, 2009), (Huseman, Ware, & Gruner, 1972)
- There's a very high correlation between debate participation and attainment of leadership positions in society (Keele & Matlon, 1984), (Union, 1960)
- Experienced debaters have much lower verbal aggressiveness scores in general life (Colbert, 1993)
- Debating drastically reduces (as much as three times) the dropout probability in schools (Anderson & Mezuk, 2012)
- Debating is one of the most endorsed activities from former participants. In fact, it enjoys almost unanimous (99.26%) endorsement from students, higher than any other educational activity. (Parcher, 1998)
There are many debate contests and debating rule systems in existence, most of them based on parliamentary systems and parliamentary procedure (especially the British Parliamentary Procedure). Usually, they proceed in turns with a strict order of what and when can be said, as well as when new arguments and evidence can be introduced. However, in the fast-paced world of today, we must also take into consideration other forms of debate, especially those happening on TV, radio or similar media, where the action is much less ordered and fast-paced, or those debate-like situations that also are much more flexible, such as court proceedings or business negotiations.
Debating has also its problems. A notable paper by professor Nancy Tumposky (Tumposky, 2004) argued that debates tend toward dualism, persuading participants to view issues as having only two positions, as well as focusing them toward the question of winning or losing. Additionally, several studies suggest that the adversarial natural of debates is not natural to the way females and certain minority groups think and communicate.
The proposed debate rules try to strike a delicate balance between:
- Not making the meetings excessively long
- Serving an educational purpose
- Being as realistic as possible
- Developing skills that can be used in a broad range of real word debate or debate-like situations.
- Not creating a bad atmosphere in the club
- Allowing debates to be more than zero-sum sections in which one team wins and the other loses, encouraging consensus building.
Although clubs retain, as always, flexibility to define their debate formats and use other rules, it's useful to have a set of standard, Agora-wide rules that act as guidance for new clubs that have never used that section, as well as to act as the seed for a possible debating contest in the future.
Point (1) is the easiest to achieve, by altering the requirements that all meetings must have a minimum set of roles, so that clubs can choose to have a completely classical meeting, or a debate-only meeting, or a mixture of both if time allows. There will be a requirement, though, to have at least four debates per year, with the VPE being in charge of organizing them. A debate is expected to last between 30 and 90 minutes, depending on the number of teams and the time the VPE allocates to each of the sections.
We should be weary, though, of turning Agora clubs into debate clubs, as this is not the goal. This is a danger because debates tend to be funnier and more exciting than prepared speeches, so they can generate certain "addiction". Debates should complement and extend the existing educational program, not replace it. Also, we should remember that the goal of Agora debates is mainly educational for the members that participate in them.