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Why can’t physics class be more like the debate team?

October 31, 2011

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?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jenny Heidt permalink
    October 31, 2011 1:29 pm

    Jenny Heidt (the debate coach) here. I am flattered by your incredibly nice post. I am lucky to work with such great kids.

    I have thought about the same issue and have been frustrated by some of the same things. I am not sure what to do but here are a few observations:

    *My students seem surprised when I admit to my own mistakes. If I agree with them that a test question was confusing or tell them that I did not think that class went all that well because I designed an exercise that did not work out, they seem sort of shocked. I often comment on my own teaching so they get used to it after a few weeks but I think that it is interesting to see their reactions at the beginning of the semester. Are they used to adults being more closed off about their own trial and error processes? Do I come off as unprofessional in their minds in comparison to a teacher who is less open?

    *I think that it helps that the debaters have such clear goals in terms of skill development. They can see someone who is better and know that they need to work to get there. I have some of that with my 9th/10th public speaking class as well. They are good at reflecting on where they are and where they need to get because they see it as a skill. In contrast, my 11th grade History of the Modern World students tend to think of writing ability as an innate trait and not as a skill. It might be that they do not have clear role models? Or, that they do not see how others come to improve? In debate, it is just obvious that the people who put in more work get better results. The kids see each other practicing and model it. I am not sure how to demonstrate that with writing or critical reading (aside from spot praise on improvements).

    *Grades play a big role. When given a choice, my students will often vote for a lecture over an activity because they know that I write the tests or will grade the essays and they want to hear how I plan to phrase things, what I emphasize etc. I try to assure them that we will cover everything that we need to even if they are responsible for more of the content but it is easier for them to be passive. I think that they would prefer to be bored and feel safe than to put the mental work into an activity and worry about missing a few extra questions.

    *It helps that debate rewards very diverse types learning. They can choose to specialize in certain types of arguments or some research to beat a particular rival. I can give some choice in class (like read one of these 3 historical novels or something) but the range is much narrower.

    *The debaters know that only personal mastery will be effective. It is very, very hard to “fake it” in a debate. But on a test? Students can memorize and forget or imitate what the teacher said without deep understanding and it is fine. I think that the way John goes back to previous material and re-tests on it with physics makes sense but I am not sure how to do that with history.

    Anyhow, I also want my classes to be more like the team and am sometimes stuck.

  2. October 31, 2011 8:25 pm

    This is a stab in the dark, but it’s the dark I’m exploring this semester. In a debate, you are most certainly graded. But you are graded on the quality of your reasoning. I’m starting to think that failing to teach students to evaluate the quality of their reasoning (using criteria like clarity and coherence, which can be used even when the “correct” answer is unknown) erodes their ability to recognize what “understanding” feels like.

    That’s why I have mixed feelings about the immediate-feedback system you describe for quizzes… on one hand, it can help students identify flaws in their reasoning right away. On the other hand, it reinforces the idea that there is a single right answer, and doesn’t help them judge what makes that answer well-reasoned (in addition to being accurate).

    • November 8, 2011 10:44 pm

      I keep coming back to this comment because it really has me thinking. I totally take your point about reinforcing the one approach to problem solving. In class, we obviously try to discuss multiple approaches to solving problems, and often, our warm up activities ar a great example of this. But I think you are right that it may be looking at the teacher’s key make subtlety show students only one approach. Just today, I was working with a student who was doing a correction to a problem, and it was pretty clear she had straight copied the answer key without much understanding of what she was doing.

      This pushes me to be more explicit about showing multiple possibilites in my solutions and to think about ways of getting students to figure out a better way to use the key. I also find that some students struggle even to read my answer key, even when I go as far as to explain the process of solving a problem step by step in sentences and algebra/diagrams. Maybe we also need to work on how to read a proper solution.

      • November 12, 2011 1:46 pm

        Hm — good point about the skill of “how to read an answer” — hadn’t considered that, but I think you’re right that it’s a skill worth teaching. Your point about the subtle contradiction is exactly what I was thinking of. I’m really not sure what to do about this…

  3. November 1, 2011 2:46 am

    Debate is a powerful motivator at your school, but at most schools it is not. So I don’t think that the difference is simple “debate vs. physics” one.

    Some of it may be due to competition being a more powerful motivator than grades—there are schools where science fairs and robotics competitions drive students to high levels of performance. But there are lots of schools where it is difficult to get students interested in doing those activities also. Chess clubs sometimes get this level of enthusiasm.

    Some of it may be a charismatic teacher—that’s hard to replicate.

    Some of it may be a cultural thing—if the good habits are passed down from older students to younger it can create a self-perpetuating culture. Culture engineering is a very hard things to do though.

  4. Anon permalink
    November 13, 2011 10:52 pm

    Force them to compete. Grade on a semi-strict curve.

    a) Fierce competition over grades already happens at your school John/Jenny.

    b) It won’t discourage friendships; it will make them. Debate success is zero-sum, yet somehow debaters find some of their best friends in the activity. That is because the activity makes no claim that it isn’t internally competitive. Your school attempts to sweep competition under the rug and sends contradictory messages about the importance of grades. Eliminating this confusion and encouraging competition would force students to actively learn rather than passively absorb. This would drive students together as it does in debate, through similar drive and struggle. There would be less sharing of notes, ideas, etc but what that really means is that each student must work hard on their own. This would also lead to less copying of homework, something I feel most teachers would appreciate.

    c) Friendships that blossom in non-competitive environments are not productive in the sense that they do not increase the likelihood a student will try harder/be more enthusiastic about school. These friendships tend to breed apathy. Comments like “that test was impossible” “ya, screw this class” foster a culture of nihilism and disenchant students.

    d) There are costs, but none that aren’t already happening. The competitive students already ostracize their peers and seek out students with similar attitudes. The students who fall behind now might be motivated to improve when negatively compared to their peers. They might not, but considering that is the status quo there’s really “only a risk.”

    e) It’s more realistic. Competition is inevitable. The sooner people realize that they must adapt and make friends despite highly competitive atmospheres the better for all parties involved.

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