College debate: Is logic white?

African-American college students are transforming debate tournaments, writes Jessica Carew Kraft in The Atlantic. Traditional debate — based on logic and evidence — is tainted by “white privilege,” they argue. Instead “alternative” debaters rely on personal experience — and ignore the topic they’re supposed to be debating.

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

In the 2013 championship, Emporia State students Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith used a similar style to win two tournaments. “Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.”

Arguments “can come from lived experience,” says Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University.

Others say “alternative debate” doesn’t require students to research evidence or develop “the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution.”  

Some colleges may form a new group devoted to “policy debate.”

It’s all part of the war on standards, writes former debater John Hinderaker, now a lawyer, on PowerBlog. The value of debate is “now being lost, as standards have disappeared, logic is out the window, and bullshit about race is replacing actual argumentation.”

Co-blogger Paul Mirengoff, also a lawyer and a former debater, adds:

College debating, it seems, has been radically transformed in ways that make it easier for African-Americans to succeed at it.

As for the notion of “privilege,” it is now clear that the debaters of our era were privileged in a limited but important sense. We were required to take the activity seriously and to meet high standards in order to succeed.

. . . We were also privileged to be judged by adults who held us to knowable standards, and we were privileged to debate serious opponents.

Defining logical argument as a “white thing” does not do blacks any favors, in my opinion.

Joe Miller’s Cross-X, about a low-performing Kansas City high school’s winning debate team — questions the fairness of traditional debate. He profiles black students who win a national tournament, earn college debate scholarships but find they’re not prepared for college-level work.

Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?