May 19th, 2010
Lucky for me, I work in a community where people are forever sending me things that I should read or watch. Someone I can always count on for something worth considering is Justin Medved, our resident virtual world guru. He recently handed me a documentary called “Resolved”, which is a fascinating exploration of the world of high school debating in the US. Having coached debating at our school for a good number of years before the younger generation of teachers took over, I thought I knew all about the debating world – the impromptu debate, the prepared debate, parliamentary and cross-examination style debates, points of order, and yes, even squirreling a resolution. But within 10 seconds of beginning to view the documentary, I realized that US high school debating was something entirely different than I had ever experienced on this side of the border. The “talk” of these debates had taken on an entirely new meaning. Which has raised to my mind the question of what “talk” is all about, and how might schools best shape it.
Imagine, if you will, a contest in which the winner is the one who can state as many arguments in a set amount of time as is possible, keeping in mind that the arguments must relate to the resolution, and must successfully meet the arguments raised by the opponent. In case your imagination hasn’t quite grasped this, think of the Flight of the Bumblebee played in under a minute, and imagine that instead of bow strokes on a violin, you are listening to arguments recited in a falsetto voice. That is what US high school debating sounds like.
Canadian debating is, I believe, a different kettle of fish. Students must not only muster arguments and meet the opposition so as to create what is known as “clash”, they must do so in a manner that persuades the ordinary listener to agree. A Canadian debater must employ humour, voicing, dramatic pauses and an appeal to the values of the audience. A judge in a Canadian debate must evaluate each speaker according to a number of different criteria, including persuasiveness. This contrasts with an American judge’s task, which is to count up points, and follow the flow of the arguments.
The documentary, “Resolved”, focuses upon the fact that debating has been made exclusive by virtue of the rules and criteria that guide their debates. Debating in the US, it argues, favours the select few who have the resources to compile the research and are able to follow the flow of high speed arguments. Although the thesis was compelling, I was equally fascinated by the secondary question of what makes for meaningful speech.
The documentary follows two teams, one from a well-to-do high school in Texas, and the other, a pair of black students from a more mixed high school in Long Beach, California. Both teams are extremely talented. In the end, the black students end up taking the revolutionary approach of identifying their own personal stake in the resolution, openly questioning the rules and values of the debate, and authentically indicating their own purpose and plans for addressing the resolution in their own lives. Whereas the other students are seen to read off prepared scripts, each meticulously filed in readiness to meet the appropriate argument, the black students face the judges and speak from their convictions.
In digesting what I had seen, I came to realize that speech takes on so many forms, and is bound by so many situation-specific rules. High school debating is merely an overly contrived forum for talk, where the rules and criteria for success are largely prescribed and overt. We all face talk situations where we must sort out the rules and then use them to our advantage. At home, children and parents live out unwritten agreements as to the use of vocabulary, emotion, evidence, body language, and voicing, and these inherent rules or expectations are quickly supplanted by other sets of rules when we walk into our place of business, encounter a policeman, talk to our child’s teacher, or meet friends at a local restaurant. Thus, it might be imagined that one of the purposes of a good education is to prepare students to analyze rules, detect expectations, read audiences, and shape their words, gestures, tone, and content to meet every conceivable talk situation. That would be a good education – but would it be enough?
There seem to me to be two answers to this question. In the first place, and as part of the agenda of the black students in the documentary, it is not enough to be trained to meet the situation. For black youth in America, it may be insufficient to learn the rules and live by the rules, particularly when the rules have been developed by a white majority, or worse still, a privileged white minority. As suggested by the documentary, a revolutionary education would empower students to change the rules, and not merely abide by them. The second answer is that to truly educate students, we must not merely teach them to talk, we must help them to develop a voice.
This first answer would seem, at first, to have no place in a private school education. It might be suggested by some that private schools are chosen by parents in order that their children may best understand the rules of the game, and play that game to their advantage. Arguably, this is a mistaken view of private schools, and more importantly, it may be an outmoded view of society and the ways in which people succeed.
Private schools are generally focused upon delivering “21st century skills” to our students, and perhaps number one among these skills is critical thinking. Critical thinking, when properly taught, has the potential to be a dangerous thing. That is to say, a youth introduced to critically think will have both the ability to analyze and the ability to critique. Students will see the parts, and they will see what lies behind the parts. They will see the form, and they will see the intentions that shape the form. Critical thinking makes acceptance of society and its rules a choice and not a duty.
I think it is also safe to say that our society is not so arranged that success comes from merely following the rules. With the pace of technological change and the increasing “flattening” of the world, it is the people who break the rules and give birth to new paradigms who have the greatest success, and not the people who merely follow along. Sure, educated people will want to know how to follow the rules, but they will also want to be able to assess where the rules are taking us all, and be prepared to question those rules. When it comes to the rules of how we communicate with one another, the landscape is changing daily, and those who can think critically and are prepared to take risks in charting new approaches will be able to guide our society to more meaningful engagement and social harmony.
But the second answer is even more compelling. Let us not merely see it as our task to educate students to be able to talk well, let us strive to give every child a voice.
The difference between talk and voice is apparent to every student. Students hear countless speeches from countless individuals at assemblies, class presentations, and on screen. They can detect the difference between those who move their mouths but do not speak to them and those who transport their audience beyond the value of the mere words. Although there are tricks, rhetorical devices, and dramatic techniques that enhance oral communication, there is nothing quite like conviction to catapult a voice across the divide of teenage disinterest, such that the voice lands, not in the ear, but in the heart. How, then, do we teach students to speak with conviction?
Conviction is a surprisingly rare commodity in the public eye, I would suggest. It is out of favour at social gatherings – although it has been suggested to me that this is largely a Canadian phenomenon. We skeptically assume that politicians don’t have it, even when they are applying every rhetorical tactic in their arsenal to convince us that they do. We are bedeviled by a world of advertising in which we come to believe that everything is a sales job.
So how do we get students to see the value of conviction and to live and speak on the basis of their convictions?
In order to speak by your convictions you must be in touch with your convictions. You must “know” in the sense that you must know in your heart. Thus, we must be in the business of helping young people to find their heart. They need to be given the opportunity to discover their true feelings about the world, and they must receive the message that it is okay to express those feelings. An excellent education invokes and provokes an emotional response, but it also protects the individual such that they can take the risks to make public their emotions.
Invoking emotions is a tricky business. It requires an understanding of audience and a dedication to making the curriculum relevant. You have to know your students if you have any hope of reaching them. You have to find the hot spots in your curriculum and give students the opportunity to respond to them. Protecting souls is even trickier. A great teacher makes it his or her business to develop a class dynamic in which trust and respect are paramount.
An essential part of our school’s mission which I think has the greatest potential to help develop voice is our commitment to experiential education. One of the keystones of experiential education is the establishment of authentic experiences – experiences in which what is at stake has deep and multi-layered significance for the student. This is where reflections become so crucial, and where talk is full of conviction. This is where voice can emerge. Listen to students who have come back from working in an orphanage in India. The developed world is not a concept for these students – it is a complex reality that is clothed in personal meaning. And from deep personal meaning come convictions, the foundation of voice.
Thus, a great education does not merely equip our students to talk the talk, but gives them the power to raise their voices and shape the whole future of discourse.