Why can’t physics class be more like the debate team?
For the previous two years, I have served as the novice coach to my schools debate team, a nationally ranked program coached by the nation’s best debate coach, Jenny Heidt. It was an honor for me to work with this team—I got to see from the inside exactly how a powerhouse debate program operates, and I did it from the perspective of a near complete novice, since when I had last participated in debate it was as a high school student, and I remember quaking with fear when we would draw teams like my current school.
Debate at my school is amazing because it’s one of those places where you can go from being a complete novice never having debated before, and though lots of hard work and practice, become a national circuit debater in only a couple of years, and with a truly momentous amount of work, win the Tournament of Champions, the national championship of debate. And again, most due to the incredible coach we have and the culture she has established with the team.
This year, I had to step back from debate since being away for 12 weekends out of the year really isn’t great with a 1 year old. But I still am on the group’s email list, which is always very interesting to read. Yesterday, Jenny sent out the following email:
2) I hope that you are thinking about how to use what we cover at
practice in your debates. I know that I had a breakthrough my first
year of debate when I realized that everything people told me only
mattered if I thought about it and started applying it. I had been
used to passively absorbing information at school and just
theoretically understanding things that were not connected to anything
I needed to do (beyond taking tests). It was as if I had two debate
minds–the passive classroom brain and the active in round brain. I
needed to connect the two. Once I started realizing “oh, someone had
a good flowing tip, I should experiment with that” or “that topicality
lecture sort of made sense, I need to read through the file and see
what the lecturer was actually talking about” or “we talked about
strategy, I need to make myself a strategy book that I will show to a
varsity debater” etc, I started to really get how to learn about
debate and my record improved dramatically.
You all are probably past that already so I have a question for you:
What are three things that you have learned a little about and how do
you plan to try them or learn more about them?
Please reply all–I think that the discussion thread will be good for
everyone. I will reply with tips for how to achieve your learning
The replies were amazing—approximately 20 9th grade novices wrote back to the enitre team, sharing their weaknesses, asking questions other debaters might be afraid to ask out of fear of sounding dumb, and listing detailed, specific goals for their skills, and working with one another to arrange practice debates to work on these skills. I do not think 9th graders would be so willing to do this sort of sharing in any other venue.
In fact, the entire team is pretty incredible. The team is huge—almost 40 kids, and there is an amazing ethos of leadership that develops within the older debaters. Junior and Seniors often devote entire afternoons to judging practice rounds of novice debaters. Between rounds at tournaments, they’ll spend all their time going over flows and strategies with younger debaters. At many schools, freshmen fear seniors and try to stay out of their way in order to avoid being pummeled. It’s exactly the opposite in debate. Freshmen seek out seniors as mentors and leaders, and seniors step up into this role in a big way. It’s a pretty incredible culture—one that I wish for my students.
Specifically, here’s what I wish for my physics students:
- I wish we could develop a culture of openness to making mistakes. I would love to be able to send an email to my class and ask them to share with one another what physics skills and concepts they are trying to work on.
- I wish we could develop a culture of decentralized instruction. Debaters don’t wait for the coach to explain how run a Critique, they simply find someone who knows a little bit more than they do and get them to help out.
- I wish we could develop a culture of practice. Debaters seem to intuitively know that practice is the key to improvement, and so they’re always trying to schedule 2 hour practice debates in the afternoon, and get some upperclass student to judge them. No student thinks other students are just “good at debate,” and don’t need practice. I would love it is somehow I could get students to think similarly about their work in physics.
- I wish we could develop a culture of sharing and individual responsibility. Debaters are required to amass gargantuan piles of evidence and arguments. They do this by parsing up the research jobs into individual tasks, and then every debater shares his/her work with the team. Then every debater takes it upon him/herself to read through and prepare that evidence. To make this efficient, debaters develop all sorts of protocols and standards for how to format and share evidence. What if we could do the same thing in physics class?
- I wish we could develop a team ethos beyond our classroom. One thing I get from the debate team email list is a pretty strong sense of what it means to be a team. There’s an incredible amount of camaraderie outside the the normal confines of practice and tournaments. Lots of jokes bantering about. In fact, I think the debate team email list might be one of the very last places where students actually derive benefit from school email (though naturally, most students don’t use their school email address for the debate email list).
Of course there are times we develop a small shadow of one of the above thoughts in my physics class, but never to the extent that I’ve seen in the debate team. This is puzzling, since not only do I teach a number of debaters, I meet my students way more than the debate team does. I get six hours of instruction during school each week, and novice debaters get 4 hours of instruction in debate practice each week. It also isn’t just because physics is a school thing, since in many ways, Debate is way more “academic” than physics. In order to function at a high level in debate, it’s not uncommon for students to read Heidegger, and amass an understanding of philosophy to rival a philosophy major. They spend most of their time combing esoteric journals and publications from think tanks for evidence. All of this seems way more schoolish than studying physics.
This leaves me perplexed. Why can’t we have the same team atmosphere in physics that we have in debate? One big difference I haven’t mentioned is that students choose to participate in debate, whereas physics is a required class. But even this feels a bit hollow, since students choose to take honors physics, the class I teach. Is it just that subjects we teach in the formalized academic day must face some sort of ceiling of team-spirit by the very nature of schooling, and somehow activities students choose to pursue outside of school are freed from these limits and grow into more fully cohesive and bonded teams? And if so, what can we do to transform the nature of school?