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opinion

Scott Stirrett is the founder and CEO of Venture for Canada

Increasing political and ideological polarization poses a significant threat to Canadian democracy and society. From climate change to a looming global recession, Canada faces immense challenges, which require thoughtful and nuanced discussions. Too often issues of national importance devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks.

Young Canadians need to be taught how to have healthy debates, which focus on the substantive arguments, involve active listening, and encourage both sides to acknowledge some validity to their opponents’ arguments.

Participating in debate guides us to carefully consider others’ viewpoints, to adjust our thinking when new information comes to light, and to shy away from demonizing folks who hold differing views. The world is a messy place and rarely are individuals “good” or “evil.”

Teaching young Canadians debate skills could have significant long-term benefits for our democracy. Over time, more Canadians would expect leaders to argue with evidence and arguments, and likewise, more leaders would contribute to healthy debates.

I believe one of the most effective ways to mitigate the threat of political polarization is through training young Canadians via debate-centred instruction (DCI), a methodology modelled after competitive debate that helps students develop essential skills such as critical thinking, communications and teamwork. Unfortunately, most educators do not use DCI in their classrooms and few students have access to participate in competitive debate.

DCI leverages the claim-evidence-argument framework. Students are first given a prompt, such as “Did the French Revolution have predominantly negative consequences?” They then consider the evidence for and against the motion and compose arguments for and against the claim. Lastly, students verbally present their opinions and debate back and forth with their classmates.

Students can compete against one or several other teams. In the most common form of competitive debate in Canada, students must respond to “points of information,” which are unplanned questions from an opposing team. Topics are wide-ranging, with the only restriction being subjects that force one team to argue against a widely accepted moral principle or scientific theory. Generally, students are given a topic only 15 minutes before the debate starts, which forces them to learn how to think on their feet.

DCI also equips young people with transferable skills such as public speaking, teamwork and critical thinking, which are becoming more important because of the rise of automation.

As Robert Litan, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues in his book Resolved, “DCI teaches through active student participation in learning that many, if not most, problems in life do not have simplistic solutions.”

Participating in competitive debate changed my life through providing an outlet to channel my teenage energies into something productive. Taking part in competitive debate helped to transform me from an unruly young person who was almost expelled from middle school to a high-performing student and member of the Canadian national high-school debating team. In contrast to the traditional “sage on the stage” lecture style of education, DCI is far more engaging and makes learning fun.

Beyond my personal experience, research indicates that even after accounting for self-selection, debaters are more likely to academically outperform similar students. DCI provides young people a low-stakes opportunity to overcome their fears of public speaking and improve their communication skills, work collaboratively with others, and think critically about important issues. In doing so, DCI helps prepare young people to successfully enter the work force.

The most cost-effective way to develop debate skills in young people is through training teachers to integrate DCI into the classroom. According to Mr. Litan’s research, this can be done through a relatively inexpensive week-long training program offered in collaboration with school districts. Once teachers are trained in DCI, debate-related activities can be integrated into existing curricula.

As more teachers are trained in DCI, competitive debating would also flourish and the number of students participating would significantly increase. Canada needs well-resourced organizations, similar to the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues in the United States and Debate Mate in Britain, to foster access to competitive debate across the country. Educators should also consider integrating DCI into continuing education and re-skilling programs, as young Canadians are not the only people who would benefit from learning debate skills.

The political polarization that devastates so many other countries poses a significant threat to Canadian democracy. We cannot be complacent. Training young people with debate skills will significantly increase Canadians’ ability to have meaningful and healthy debates on the critical issues facing our country, while helping young people to develop the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly evolving economy.