Developing Civic Competencies Through Debate
Young people are notoriously politically disengaged, voting at rates well below older citizens. However, research suggests it is not apathy that drives this trend but rather a lack of skills needed for young people to follow through on their interest in policy and politics. The rise of “fake news” and political polarization, as well as the loss of faith in public institutions has brought renewed attention to the importance of developing the skills needed for K-12 students to become active and informed citizens. Unfortunately, traditional civics education has tended to focus on basic civic knowledge without accompanying training in critical thinking, argumentation skills, use of evidence, media literacy, public speaking, social perspective taking, and the ability to productively engage those with whom one disagrees. When programs that train students in these skills do exist, they tend to be found in elite private or suburban high schools, widening opportunity gaps on the basis of race and class.
One notable exception are policy debate programs run by networks of nonprofit organizations—both at home and abroad—dedicated to cultivating just this skills among public middle and high school students who are otherwise unlikely to receive this training. Debate has an intriguing potential to facilitate otherwise difficult conversations because it requires students to switch sides. As a result, participants are never sure whether opponents are expressing deeply held beliefs and a safe space is created to explore multiple perspectives on charged issues. This project seeks to evaluate the effect of such debate programs—in contexts from the Boston Public Schools to the nation of Rwanda—on student academic outcomes, as well as their broader civic competencies, such as the ability to conduct research, analyze public policies, back up arguments with evidence, evaluate the credibility of evidence, distinguish fact from opinion, think critically on your feet, listen to and work collaboratively with peers, consider perspectives that are different from your own, and speak persuasively. Through quasi-experimental and experimental studies, we will further develop and gather evidence of validity for new tools to measure these important civic skills, a key step toward contributing toward our field’s understanding of what it will take to ensure that young people are not only civically engaged but prepared to be effective stewards of our collective well-being.