Debate as a method for improving critical thinking and creativity

Alfred C. Snider, World Debate Institute, University of Vermont

475 Main Street, UVM, Burlington, VT 05405 USA;

As a college student my major area of study was Asian Civilization, but I went on to study rhetoric with a focus on debate in all its aspects. I am proud to be a professor of debating now at the University of Vermont. Little did I know that I would have this wonderful opportunity to come to a land I loved before I ever visited it and have the opportunity to talk about something I have loved all of my life - the way of the debater.

I recognize that Chinese civilization has a long history of using debate in public policy and public life. The historian Kuan Ch'en noted over 1500 years ago that in China competitive debates were common in a form called "Pure Talk." Here is the description from over fifteen centuries ago:

"[T]here rang out a chorus of great debate. They threaded their way through yin and yang, with literary embellishments sprouting in every direction. Rather than quote from the sages and ancient records, they concentrated on bringing to light the natural order of things. Tzu-ch'un and all the assembled scholars joined the attack, the points and retorts thrusted back and forth like spears. But Lu answered each and every assault with a reply that was more than adequate. They continued the entire day, until dusk fell, without even pausing for food and drink."

China had debate before my country ever existed. My country had debate as a part of its public life at the moment of its birth. But, for all its importance debate has not been widely used as an educational tool until recently.

Increasingly, the use of debating to deal with complex ideas and competing advocacy is emerging as a successful educational tool. While long recognized as an important part of government affairs, academic deliberations, negotiations, philosophy and citizenship, in the United States and around the world the use of open debate as an educational and training tool is increasing. On every continent students and teachers are increasingly using debate as a complex form of communication which can train students in critical thinking and creativity in ways which will be important for their success in the information age they will live in for their entire lives.

While I have worked in a number of different countries, and I am a professor of debating at my university, the information I would like to share today comes from my work with a program in American secondary schools and middle schools called the "Urban Debate Leagues." Through a partnership between the Open Society Institute, a part of the Soros Foundation, several American universities, community organizations and local schools this program has established debating programs in 12 major urban areas, always in schools which have been the most disadvantaged and which contain high levels of students from families below the poverty line. Urban Debate Leagues set up debate "teams" (much like sports teams) which engage in contests against other schools. Teachers at these schools have been trained in basic debating skills and then often are allowed to offer a class in areas such as "Debate and Speech" and "Fundamentals of Debate." The students engage in competitive tournament debates against other schools, cities, and states. I have personally worked with the programs in New York City, Providence, Rhode Island, Atlanta, and many others. I would like to share some of my experiences and findings working and teaching in these programs.


While many different designs for debates are used in these programs, the dominant model is the one utilized in tournament competition. The model is called policy debate and has these components:


Debate is "critical advocacy." It is advocacy in that the debater must advocate, propose, and defend ideas. It is critical because the debater must not ignore the advocacy of others, but must engage them and use the tools of critical thinking to evaluate the ideas of others. This process of critical advocacy has been shown to involve the students in important behaviors and skills which we should cultivate in our citizens.

Debate as a critical skill is more important now because we live in an age of information, where information is power, and debate is all about how to turn information into power.


Debaters have been proven to become leaders and successful professionals. Countless American corporate executives, influential lawyers, wealthy entrepreneurs and elected officials credit their debate experience in school with making them successful. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and suggests some of the following benefits.

Other studies have provided support for these conclusions. A study of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point revealed that cadets with debate training tended to be promoted twice as fast as their non-debating classmates after they became military officers.


The Open Society Institute funded a major evaluation study of the Urban Debate League program in New York City after it had been in operation for three years. Their findings clearly indicated that the students had benefited immensely from these new skills.

Debating activities have been shown to improve academic performance in the areas this seminar has targeted -- critical thinking and creativity.

I want to finish my discussion with a story of one student I worked with in New York City. She lives in a very poor neighborhood, where crime and drug use are common problems.

As early as age four, "CR" looked after her siblings while her mother peddled drugs, initially to support her growing family but later as a means of feeding her own addiction. The drug usage rendered her incapable of holding a job to support her six children, so she married a working man who despised "CR" and her siblings. Fed up with the hardship of her home life, especially with the stepfather's abuse, "CR" decided to use her debate skills and take matters into her own hands. She managed to navigate the legal system in New York to secure financial custody of her siblings. Now her mother can no longer spend the family's food money on drugs. "CR" is only 16, but has already had the responsibilities of adulthood thrust upon her. She says participation in the debate program has virtually saved her life.

Not every student is in as difficult a situation as this young woman, but for all of our students, debating can give them a new and different way to learn skills which are as old as human civilization, and which are more important today than ever in our history.

In September my book, entitled Many Sides: Debate as an educational tool, will be published by the International Debate Education Association. Please contact me later this year if you would like to receive a copy.

I know that four students from China will be attending the World Debate Institute which I direct this summer. I look forward to hosting them with the hospitality you have shown me. If we can be as good a host as China has been, then I know they will have a very good experience.

Thank you for your kind attention.