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Teaching Critical Thinking Through Debate

students sitting at a table having a debate

As the time draws near for U.S. citizens to exercise their voting rights, teachers have an opportunity to engage students in classroom discussions surrounding the presidential elections.

Students must be taught to frame their knowledge with deeper concepts than what immediately surrounds them. For example, French and Spanish territories in what is now known as Texas were governed by political ideologies of those countries. Asking if or how those early days influenced our current political environment broadens the scope of understanding and applicability.

How to Teach Critical Thinking

Teachers encourage critical thinking development through instructional processes like scaffolding and modeling. Students who see their teacher asking questions that require in-depth exploration on a regular basis will begin to ask deeper questions about their own perceptions.

The development of critical thinking skills is segmented into several steps:

  • Knowledge acquisition: Receiving information and placing that data into retrievable chunks for future application
  • Comprehension: Understanding the knowledge gained thoroughly
  • Application: Finding ways to apply that knowledge to real life in a meaningful way
  • Evaluation: Analyzing applications for accuracy
  • Incorporation: Using acquired knowledge in myriad ways and for other purposes than originally identified
  • Review: Evaluating the process through more challenging questions and applications

By leading students through this process, teachers trigger analytical thought and prompt students to look beyond their own knowledge base to expand their comprehension of concepts such as political ideology.

Thinking Critically About Presidential Debates

Using debate strategies as a conceptual starting point, educators can help their students become superior critical thinkers by gradually adding more challenging questions. Utilizing the presidential debates as an example, teachers can assign topics like taxes or government spending — two highly debated issues in the current election cycle. Preparing a classroom for one-on-one debates to improve critical thinking skills involves understanding the topic as well as other factors that affect audience perception.

Debate Strategy #1: Saying what you mean in a clear, concise manner

Educators might ask students to consider the phrase, “I will not raise taxes if I am elected.” Building on this statement, students should be able to identify several areas for further exploration and thoughtful consideration such as the questions listed below.

  • What is the definition of taxes?
  • Does the speaker have the authority to follow through on these statements?
  • What makes this speaker a credible authority?
  • Are there situations that could force the speaker to reverse his or her position?

Critical thinkers will find more complex questions as they carefully consider the statement.

Debate Strategy #2: Matching body language to spoken words

Controlling body language during a debate is almost as important as the words and inflection. In recent debates between the incumbent and the challenger, news commentators have spent hours analyzing body language. Hand gestures, facial expressions, posture and encroaching on personal space can be positive and negative attributes. Teachers can ask students to observe candidates’ body language during a debate and consider these questions:

  • Does this person’s body language mirror what they are saying?
  • What kind of body language do the candidates have toward each other?

Debate coaches advise getting to know the competition by watching films, reading published commentaries or interviews and examining past actions or political voting records.

Debate Strategy #3: Debating in the classroom

Allowing students to host mock-presidential debates is an excellent way to demonstrate the need to ask challenging questions. Every debate will reveal at least one weakness. Discovering these weaknesses provides openings for further understanding and more advanced critical thinking skills.

Teachers that incorporate presidential debate analysis and mock debates as part of their lesson plans will find ample opportunity to strengthen critical thinking skills.

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