Most simplistically, debate is an exchange of arguments. An argument consists of a claim being made by the arguer and a warrant – a reason that the argument is true.
People can really argue about anything. For example, two people could argue over where they should eat, whether or not fast food causes obesity, or if humans are substantially responsible for changes in the Earth’s average temperature. Regardless of what they argue over, in any argument people are always advancing a claim, the argument, and a reason it is true, the warrant(s).
Academic debate structures this arguing into a contest debate that is governed by rules, the requirement of evidence, the responsibility to respond directly to an opponent’s argument, and offers a neutral judge to resolve the arguments. It works by capturing the desire of people to argue and actively participate in their own learning and turning that into an educational experience where students learn to prepare and deliver arguments on both sides of a given resolution, also known as the debate topic.
Competitive academic debate establishes the framework for this exciting process by structuring a debate around a topic, or resolution. This essentially turns learning into a game, an intellectual joust, if you will.
In an academic debate, each side will advance a number of arguments that are related to a given topic and then will answer their opponent’s arguments throughout the debate. The goal of the constant argumentative sparring is to produce an answer to the question of whether or not one side’s advocacy should be supported. The Affirmative, or the Pro side in Public Forum Debate, will argue that the resolution should be supported. The Negative, or the Con, will argue against it. At the conclusion of the debate, a judge will decide which side has prevailed based on the arguments made in the debate.
In the course of developing arguments in support of, or in opposition to, the resolution, debaters will engage in a number of steps – inquiry, invention, advocacy, and synthesis.
Inquiry. Inquiry involves research. Debaters conduct research on the resolution under discussion in order to be prepared to present specific knowledge in support of what they are arguing for, and to refute the arguments that are being made by the other side.
The process of preparing research begins with Questioning and Wondering. Debaters may begin by asking others what arguments they think support or oppose the resolution at hand. They may think to themselves what arguments can be made. After they have formed some initial thoughts, they will begin researching to learn more about the topic they are debating and to provide support for what others may have thought of.
Invention. Invention involves creating arguments and will be necessary as students advance through their debate careers. During the process of inquiry, debaters will discover arguments that have been made by others, and will often take the arguments of their previous opponents and make many of those in their future debates. Invention, however, is the next step – debaters creating their own arguments based on their reading.
Advocacy. Advocacy involves making arguments in a given debate. To be effective, debaters need to present arguments in a way that will convince the other judge to accept them and consequently vote for their side in the debate.
Synthesis. Synthesis is being able to organize, combine, and package a set of arguments in a way that supports an overall conclusion. Such a synthesis may involve recognition that the opponent’s arguments may be correct, but that the negative or affirmative position is still overall the one that should be accepted.
Learning the process of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis is a challenge. Debaters will start training by simply advocating basic arguments that have been developed by others. The goal of this stage of debate is simply to develop some basic advocacy and refutation skills. As students have the opportunity to participate in more debates, they will develop more advanced skills associated with inquiry, advocacy, and synthesis.
As debaters learn the skills of inquiry, advocacy, invention, and synthesis, they move beyond simple pedestrian arguers to effective advocates who will become leaders in any career that they choose. This intellectual growth will all occur in an environment that drives competitive success and excellence.