The importance of debate in active learning and the development of critical thinking skills

Daniel Baldino, Head of the Politics and International Relations Discipline, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, discusses why the use of a debate style framework in undergraduate political textbooks is so important.

The structure of Australian Foreign Policy, OUP ANZ, Oxford, 9780195525632Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates is based around a deliberate pedagogical design that aims to encourage critical thinking, reflective learning and self-assessment. Debate has long been considered central to intellectual development and effective communication. As Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed, ‘The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.’

Such an approach was relatively straightforward. For example, two separate authors each contributed to a specific chapter topic, theme or controversy. The text is then presented in debate style presentation, with one author on each side of an issue. For example, the utility of the UN, to what extent Australia is a climate change laggard or the merits of Australia’s approach to alliance management with the US.

It should be highlighted that although a calculated debate format was used, sometimes overlapping and interrelated but divergent or disagreeing approaches to a single issue are presented rather than two diametrically opposed standpoints. Rather than pressing for a polemical discourse, students are encouraged to appreciate numerous nuances and varying degrees of connection as well as vivid notes of distinction.

For most university students, reading a textbook is a slightly intimidating or disconcerting experience. They are handed a chapter, often written by some distinguished scholar or senior professor who has been doing this sort of thing for decades, and then asked by tutors and lecturers to argue over it. If this is the first time they have encountered a thorny topic or multi-layered issue, how can they lucidly disagree with the expert author? Worse, as students go through their studies and into graduate and higher levels, they quickly find that other just as knowledgeable experts will have different views and varying assumptions about the same topics they read about. Why then did the textbook present it as a straight forward or settled point?

So this book takes a different approach. It embraces the value of debate alongside constructing and defending an argument as a valuable scholarly activity. Academic debate remains a robust educational tool to test ideas and to facilitate both a depth and breadth of study. It can help us understand, evaluate, disentangle and formulate new and alternative ideas about a range of contested and controversial topics, in a wide range of areas including foreign policy, in a meaningful and rational way. The debate format itself was intended to help students become independent thinkers and problem-solvers while appreciating the varied assessments, perspectives and assumptions that other scholars and policymakers might bring to a range of real-world and critical modern-day political challenges.

At the same time, the task of articulating ideas, and effectively defending or even adapting one’s own position, will demand critical thinking, reflection, accurate research, valid evidence and high-level analysis. Unfortunately, it is often too easy to dismiss the contested nature of problems or discount (or even dismiss) the complexity of facts, methods of interpretation and the existence of ‘shades of grey’.

Notably, always trying to be ‘balanced’ can simply lead to the spread of informational bias, misperception and imprecise reporting. So students must be wary of the trappings of false equivalence —the presentation of opposing arguments as equal, when one side has a wealth of evidence, analysis and logic while the other side of the argument is substantially weaker. Too often—with climate change ‘denial discourse’ being an obvious example—a variety of public debate formats in the media tend to avoid trying to establish genuine rigour, allow lazy logic to go unchallenged and have no real merit as vehicles for discovery and good reasoning. In short, not all arguments are equal. A badly designed debate obscures this, suggesting equivalence between the two sides; good debating practice on the other hand can help us recognise which side has the stronger argument and why.

Overall, students should derive long-term benefits from their time in the classroom and be encouraged to think critically and develop problem-solving skills through creative tasks and group work. But rather than supply students with static facts, the framework of Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates hopes to serve them better by teaching them how to define a problem, how to decide what they need to solve it, how to find and evaluate new information, how to recognise limitations and strengths of arguments, and how to be prepared to both change or adapt as well as justify their opinions based on new pieces of evidence. As facilitators hoping to motivate students to engage in learning situations and to assist reflecting on particular learning experiences, the authors all believed strongly that students continue to need skills in, and an attitudinal commitment to, high-quality and active debate points in their learning situations.

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