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Students Find Voice in Great Debate

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Curt Olson


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A quiet student raises a hand to express an opinion. It’s unquestionably an act of bravery, given that opinions aren’t always shared in class. But thanks to a new program, Debate Across the Curriculum, University of Denver students are increasingly tapping into a tool as old as Socrates—debate.

This is not the political theater style of debate. It’s a lesson in civil discourse. Much like SPARK, DU’s recently launched annual day devoted to civil discourse and freedom of speech, it seeks to expose students to different ideas so they may better form their own.

Debate Across the Curriculum is used in classrooms across campus by teacher invitation. The process covers three class periods—the first prepares the students, the second is the debate itself and the third is a debrief session where students discuss what they learned. It’s noncompetitive. No one is declared a winner.

“It teaches you your conviction should come after thinking, not before,” says Darrin Hicks, professor of communications studies. The former DU debate coach developed the program, which is sponsored in part by Braver Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to political depolarization. It debuted in fall 2022.

This is a new program that is working with individual faculty members in their class and uses debate as a teaching tool,” he says. “I advise faculty members how to have a debate around an issue in their class. We have a really simple model: The essence of debate is two people on opposing sides of an issue.” Each side presents its case point-by-point, and questions follow.

“The University of Denver believes it is our responsibility to help our students hone the skills needed to engage in meaningful debate or discussion on complex issues,” DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner says. “This is the holistic education we promise with the DU 4D Experience—and it’s what will help our students thrive in the long term.”

Sociology professor Hava Gordon, one of roughly 40 faculty members who have used the program, has incorporated it into her classroom twice. “There aren’t just two sides to an issue,” she says, “but there are multiple sides that deserve exploration. Debate can be a way students can dialogue an issue and not be afraid of disagreeing. It gave them the tools to engage with a different perspective than theirs in a way that expands their learning rather than disagreeing with someone who disagrees with them.”

Hicks says that’s the power of debate. “Ultimately, we learn what we don’t know yet and what we would need to know before we commit to a public policy position.”

Psychology professor Chip Reichardt says that debate can help remedy one of the problems in education, which, he says, often tells students what to think without teaching them how to think. He says he has led informal debates in his classes for 45 years, but none achieved the results delivered by Debate Across the Curriculum. His students debated an emerging topic that is top of mind for individuals worried about everything from intellectual property to job security: This House believes that artificial intelligence (AI) can never produce work that is as truly creative as the best creative work produced by humans.

With Debate Across the Curriculum, the debate lasts for one class period. Every student is required to participate. Students are assigned sides, and each must present a point and answer questions from classmates. All questions are directed through Hicks, the moderator, a step that Reichardt says lessens confrontational tones. Students signal their approval about what is said by lightly tapping on their desks.

“This type of thing generally leads to really good thinking,” Reichardt says. “This gets students who tend to be quiet talking, and after that, they [are] less hesitant to talk. It’s structure, but it’s not unpleasant. It’s engaging, inviting, stimulating.”

For Gordon’s advanced seminar, Globalization from Above and Below, Hicks moderated a debate on the problems globalization presents for democracies.

One of the participants was Falmata Wako, a 21-year-old student with a double major in finance and business information and analytics. Originally from Ethiopia, he now lives in Denver. “I think the debate was great,” he says. “It made me critically think about the issue we were discussing. This was especially true because I was arguing for the side that opposes globalization, even though I initially didn’t necessarily agree with that side of the argument. After the debate, I came out realizing the complexity of the issue and that there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to practice debating skills and constructive disagreements with other students.”

Gordon says she wants to bring debate to all her classes because it was such a great experience for students. “Some students said it was the best part of the class. I would say it was their most engaged day. It was a way for students to synthesize their learning up to that point in a way that was way more engaging than a midterm exam or a paper. They made all the course material come to life.”

Like Reichardt, she saw normally quiet students begin to speak out, something she didn’t anticipate. “I thought students would hang onto their talking points, but I saw their arguments evolve in real time, and they thought of new points in response to the other students.”

That’s to Hicks’ liking. “If we want to promote the ability for students to engage in a civil manner, we have to teach them how to do that,” he says. “Debate is the single best method we have so they can truly understand each other, and from that engagement form their own core beliefs and figure out how they want to live their lives.”