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Using Debate to Foster Critical Thinking and Communication Skills in the STEM Classroom

by Nathaniel Greene

Over the past few years, there has been an increased focus on addressing critical thinking and communication skills in the STEM classroom. This is due in large part to the release of the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards, both of which have emphasized the need for a greater focus on teaching these skills in the classroom. Critical thinking and communication skills have also become particularly important for individuals seeking employment. In a recent study, Hart Research Associates (2015) noted that employers place a high value on “demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors” and that the most highly rated learning outcomes included “written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings” (p. 1). Providing an instructional environment in which these various learning outcomes can be achieved can be difficult, particularly when teachers must construct their curriculum around the demands for content-specific instruction and standardized testing requirements. Creating an instructional environment that would specifically lend itself to achieving these learning outcomes became the goal for me and a colleague of mine, Justin Bourque. We believe we were able to successfully address these goals by introducing elements of organized debate into the classroom.

In 2012, we were presented with a highly unique opportunity. We were asked by a school district if we would be interested in collaborating together to create and co-teach a high school course that would introduce students to the elements of ethical decision-making. Since Justin came from a social studies background and I came from a chemistry background, we were both interested in the different perspectives we could bring to this kind of course. After a lengthy set of discussions over the summer, we determined that we would approach the course by creating two-week modules around specific ethical issues in STEM. Each module would begin with an introduction to a specific ethical issue, after which students were tasked with investigating and researching the issue and participating in class discussions using the Socratic method. At the end of the week, students were required to take a position on the issue and write a persuasive essay arguing for one side or the other. During the second week, students formed groups of four or five and chose one particular argument to defend. The module concluded with a public debate between the different student groups, moderated by the instructors and often a third faculty member or administrator. During our first year, we covered topics in genetics, cloning, stem cell research, robotics, Nazi experimentation, climate change, technological reliance, and nuclear power.

Written and Oral Communication Skills

Utilizing the two-week modules, our course challenged students to present their own arguments to scientific issues through persuasive essays (written communication) and by participating in the team debate (oral communication). During the second year, we added an additional oral component as a final examination. The final examination required students to take a position on an issue that had not been discussed in class, research its salient points, and give a 10-minute presentation on the topic. At the end of their presentations, students defended their position in an open question-and-answer format in front of the rest of the class.

… our course challenged students to present their own arguments to scientific issues through persuasive essays (written communication) and by participating in the team debate (oral communication).

Using persuasive writing tasks and teaching the principles of oral argument encouraged students to develop communication skills by applying them to various topics in the fields of STEM (though this same format could have been applied to any content area). As instructors, we worked with students to hone their public speaking skills, taking time during each of the modules to discuss the elements of rhetoric and the structure of a persuasive argument.

Students learned to identify and use data to back up important claims, both in their writing and in their oral arguments. And, equally as important, students learned to view problems from multiple perspectives in order to strengthen their own positions. It was exactly these kinds of skills—identifying and constructing arguments, supporting claims with data and examples, communicating effectively through writing and speech, and viewing an issue from multiple perspectives—that we believed would serve students most effectively, both in higher education and in the workplace.

Critical Thinking Skills

“Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome” (Halpern, 2014, p. 8). Teaching students how to effectively use critical thinking skills is an important goal across all content areas, and using debate to foster critical thinking became particularly effective for us in the classroom. As Garrett, Schoener, and Hood (1996) noted, “reading, writing, analyzing, and synthesizing compel students to think at a higher level. During the debate, students have to think on their feet, calling on reason, logic, and judgement—the corner-stones of critical thinking” (p. 38). The preparation involved with the debates in our classroom involved significant amounts of reading, group discussions, and self-reflection, which led students to make individual choices in a variety of different posed scenarios.

Teaching students how to effectively use critical thinking skills is an important goal across all content areas, and using debate to foster critical thinking became particularly effective for us in the classroom.

We structured the debate to include opening statements by each side, two sets of rebuttal arguments, and final closing statements. Each member of the team had to take responsibility for one section of the debate so that no student ever monopolized the conversation. During the debate itself, students were often put “on the spot” by their opponents, requiring them to think quickly and modify their own thought process to respond to arguments in a valid, appropriate, and professional manner.

Outside the classroom, we are often called upon to make difficult choices, whether we want to or not. The critical thinking skills that students gained as they consistently prepared and participated in the debates provided a set of tools they could call on to deal with real problems in their future personal and professional lives. And although our course focused on topics in the fields of STEM, the skills themselves are not content-specific, allowing students to adapt them to almost any situation.

Assessing Student Performance

During the initial course development, we decided that we wanted the assessment to include a significant element of the student’s own voice and self-reflection. To accomplish this, we focused on providing as much directed feedback as possible during the writing portion of each module, helping each student analyze his or her own arguments and make changes through multiple drafts (as opposed to assessing just a final product). In this way, we were able to facilitate a constant work-in-progress mentality with the students to help them view their own work in progressive, rather than absolute, terms.

To facilitate an assessment of critical thinking and oral communication skills, we concluded each debate by asking the students to reflect on their own performance and to comment on what they felt were their strengths and weaknesses. Then we opened it up to the rest of the class and asked the audience to identify what they saw as positive strengths and also to provide specific, constructive criticisms. In this way, students took a visible role in identifying the level of their own performance through self-reflection and by interacting with their peers in a safe, constructive environment.

As instructors, we would generally add comments and suggestions to the student’s own evaluation as we deemed appropriate, and we would provide a written assessment to each student that summarized their own reflections and the comments from their peers. In this way, we were able to provide an organized structure to the course assessment that included a significant element of individual student voice. From our perspective, this provided an additional level of ownership for each student in terms of their own performance and represented one more way to encourage them to think critically.

Conclusion

As instructors, our situation was unique in that we were able to structure an entire course around the principles of debate using this instructional tool as a means to teach critical thinking and communication skills. However, we have also used this model in some of our other courses, wrapping the persuasive writing and debate preparation around the normal course content and modifying the time frame to suit the needs of the course and the students. The reception we received from students who took our initial course was overwhelmingly positive, and several students asked to repeat the course again the following year. The first year we offered the course, it was available only to 10th and 11th graders, but during the second year we opened up the course to all high school students. Our initial concerns that 9th and 10th graders would struggle to compete in a debate format with their older peers turned out to be unfounded, and the underclassmen showed just as much success as the older students. Debate and its attendant preparation can be a powerful tool for teaching written and oral communication skills and provides a strong context and safe environment for students to enhance their critical thinking skills. As teachers, we need to continue to find and utilize instructional methods like debate in our classroom—methods that are engaging and motivating and that challenge students to enhance their critical thinking and communication skills.

Nathaniel Greene is a science teacher at The Founders Academy and an educational leadership doctoral candidate at Southern New Hampshire University.

References

Garrett, M., Schoener, L., & Hood, L. (1996). Debate: A teaching strategy to improve verbal communication and critical-thinking skills. Nurse Educator, 21(4), 37–40.

Halpern, D. F. (2014). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (5th ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf