Monash Association of Debaters

Mollie Gerver

Debaters Debating Outside Debates: Israel as a case study considering the impact of formal debate training on informal discussions of controversial policies

Giving a debate speech in front of a panel of judges requires a certain level of
self-confidence to express a stance, an ability to muster arguments logically, and
a certain level of critical thinking to refute an opponent’s points. Rules against
interrupting- and the necessity of listening- mean that there is a particular culture
of discourse during debates. It is less obvious if these cultural characteristics exist
outside of formal debate settings. Because of this, one may ask the question,
“How do debaters and non-debate university students use argumentation and
personal experiences when freely discussing controversial policies, and what is the
culture of discussion in this discourse?”

In Israel there are two major debate formats: the World Schools debate format
for high schoolers, where two teams compete against each other, and the British
Parliamentary format, with two teams on the proposing side and two teams
opposing. The latter is meant to loosely mirror multiple parties in parliament
who agree to support or oppose a bill, but for different reasons. Both formats will
be considered in this paper. The main argument presented is that the skills and
tendencies developed by formal debating manifest themselves during informal
policy discussions among debaters, and that the competitiveness inherent in
debate activities may also affect the style and substance of arguments in nondebating
discourse. This argument will explore the existing theory on the topic
before presenting new qualitative research in the form of three focus groups.

Theoretical Framework

It is widely accepted that formal debating transforms the way in which debaters
think. A 1987 study by Colbert found that debaters did better on critical thinking
tests on two tests handed to them before and after training, and that debaters also
increased their scores by a greater amount than the non-debaters. 1 Colbert used
the model of critical thinking defined by Edward Glaser in 1941, which involves
knowledge of logical inquiry and the ability to apply such logic.2

Moreover, in all areas of life where individuals’ opinions differ to their peers,
according to Pearce and Littlejohn, individuals must choose whether to engage
in debate and disagreement, or to suppress their differences. Unlike in debate
tournaments, where one needs to express an opinion and where one is assigned
a side that is not necessarily one’s own, debate outside of tournaments is- at least
to an extent- a choice engage rather than suppress. Pearce and Littlejohn argue
against the conventional wisdom that communicating can prevent conflict by
claiming that it can create and maintain conflict, and only sometimes resolve
conflict. They found that rationalism and intelligence was pronounced when
political speakers from the American religious right and the “humanist secularists”
addressed those who already agreed with them, but that little rational argument
arose when they addressed each other in political discussions and debates.3

Furthermore, literature on the actual and perceived effects of debate coaching
has observed a potential conflict between debaters’ desires to ‘win at all costs’ and
the ability of debating to provide educational benefits its participants. Burnett,
Brand and Meister argue that the competitive element of debate detracts from the
educational element by putting greater emphasis on “unwritten rules” which must
be adhered to in order to win. 4 Swanson points out that some of these “unwritten
rules” are valued only by those within the forensic and debating community, but
not in wider society. 5

According to Hinck, there are both “intrinsic” skills which are only beneficial
in debate tournaments, and “extrinsic” skills which are of benefit outside of
tournaments and therefore educational. He distinguishes between “artificial
engagement” – engagement that only persuades judges in a debate and no
outsiders, or does not persuade anyone—and “authentic engagement” that
would persuade audience members outside of official debate tournaments.
Hinck is against speakers being both “forensic virtuosos” who only can please
tournament judges, as well as demagogues who appeal only to the wider public.

Hink distinguishes between formulaic models for argumentation and the more
creative argumentation skills that cannot be learned from a book.6 This creativity
may service a speaker outside of debate tournaments by allowing him to tailor
arguments for a specific crowd, thereby creating authentic argumentation.

In sum, the existing academic literature addresses debate clubs and training,
examining the motivations and skills gained from debate instruction, as well as
the repercussions of disagreement in non-formal policy discussions. However,
such studies do not check to see if critical thinking is applied verbally by debaters
in the absence of the strict rules of debating or test-taking, nor does it explore the
conflicts that may arise when debaters state their real, and not assigned, position.
In addition, existing studies lack an examination of the general rhetorical norms
and culture of discussion applied when official tournament rules and codes of
ethics are not forced on participants.

Qualitative Framework

Three focus groups—two made up of debaters and one of non-debating
students—met to speak about policy subjects chosen for their controversial
nature. The debaters met at schools and the non-debaters in an apartment. The
aspects observed included types of argumentation and logic, the use of personal
experiences and examples, and the culture of discussion, including how often
participants interrupted and listened to each other. The focus of the study was on
the quality of rhetoric and argumentation, not the opinions themselves.

The first three topics discussed were “What should the Israeli government do
regarding Gilad Shalit?’’, “What is your opinion regarding Free Trade, including
tariffs, regulations, and subsidies?’’, and “Should gay couples be allowed to
adopt?’’. The high school debaters, who spoke less on free trade, also were asked
to consider “Should euthanasia be legal’’. “Should there be a minimum bodymass
index (BMI) for models?” was also given to the university students.

The six high school debaters, who spoke in English, were all members of the
Jerusalem after-school debating club Siah VaSig – The Israel Debating Society, and
had been debating between one to four years. 7 The eight university debaters, who
spoke and understood both English and Hebrew, were all members of the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem Debating Society, and had been debating anywhere from
half a year to almost ten years. The eight non-debaters had no interest in debating
and were students from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including both the main
university and the Rothberg International School.

Argumentation: Logical explanations and personal experiences

In the discussion on Gilad Shalit, the high school debaters initially made statements
with little explanation, such as Miriam’s statement, “a soldier must give up his basic
right to life in order to protect the country” and Ayelet’s statement that giving
up terrorists for Shalit is “reversing the natural order of things.” Explanations
for statements slightly improved in the second topic of free trade, but there were
very weak logical links throughout. For example, Yishai stated that subsidies and
tariffs hurt free trade, which is bad because free trade and no subsidies can lead to
a lower price. Miriam made the most logically backed statement that fixed prices
can happen without subsidies through companies agreeing on prices between
themselves, and that at least with subsidies the government can fix a lower price.
Rather than refute this argument, Yishai responded that laws could prevent this,
and Mellissa responded that loopholes in laws would still allow companies to set
prices between themselves. Even though the refutation was not directly refuting
the assumptions made, they still “refuted the refutation” and even “refuted the
refutation to the refutation” which was more logically defended than initial
statements. With euthanasia, the harms of suffering versus society viewing death
as immoral was analyzed and backed up with logic as the discussion progressed.
There was not a single argument based solely on personal experience. The only
argument that used the first person in the Gay Adoption discussion was done by
Yishai who said that, “If I don’t help someone with their homework it will hurt
them” but that he should still not be forced to help someone with homework—
so to, he argued, a child should not be forced to be raised by a gay couple just
because the gay couple will suffer if they are childless.

In the focus group with university debaters, there were concrete justifications for
statements from the onset, and also more personal examples. Tomer started with a
non-personal argument that freeing prisoners could encourage more kidnappings
and then discussed his own experiences in the power troopers unit to show that
soldiers know the risks. Dikla spoke of the issue of public morale, because
the public wants him home at the price of freeing prisoners, which was lightly
tautological as the discussion at the time had been on if the public should want
him home at this expense. Shira gave the first appeal based on personal emotions
of individuals, saying they should “wear the shoes of the family, of the friends, of
the soldier that is kidnapped” but then proceeded to the more logical argument
that a soldier knows the risks and expects the country save him when going into
a military campaign. Hayah refuted this, saying, in slightly less clear words, that
soldiers still went into the army even when death was a risk, so fear of kidnapping
and not being saved shouldn’t deter them.

In the free trade discussion, Channan made a non-personal logical statement that
taxes at the border were good because they could be invested in infrastructure.
Hayah said that trade blocks either pull regions out of poverty or don’t “depending
on what side of the debate you are on” with no logical explanation. Tomer made
the argument of comparative advantage in a bit of a formulaic manner, and
Caylee also used a somewhat formulaic argument that free trade hurts countries
who must compete against richer countries who themselves have subsidies.
Hannan made an assumption that outsourcing non-service related sectors lead
to countries being only service-sector oriented and made another assumption
that this was something bad, without backing either assumption up. All except
for Tomer built arguments on the assumption that tariffs are good for the local
producer and bad for the consumer. In the gay adoption discussion, all except
for Tomer were supportive of gay couples adopting and made simple arguments
about the importance of the best home. Racheli assumed that a right to have
children existed and did not back this up. Tomer agreed that in principle gays
adopting was fine, but that the harm of the child should be taken into account,
thereby making a clear distinction between his principled versus practical stance.
As a whole, the university debaters did not refute as much as the high school
debaters, used slightly more personal examples, and also used more logic from
the onset.

The final group, those of non-debaters, were far more likely to use personal
examples as sole justifications for their opinions. Yitz began the Gilad Shalit
discussion with, “As a person who did the army and knows what it’s like to be
away from home and be in a situation like that….” In the gay adoption debate,
Aaron stated that because he, as a gay person, did not want children and did not
like children, he was neutral about what policy should exist. As the discussion
continued, more logical and non-personal arguments arose, such as the fact that
adoption is preferential to foster homes. However, Ben and Aaron, who disagreed
with each other, both responded to this argument with personal experiences of
friends raised by gay couples. In the discussion on free trade, Aaron began his
justification with saying the absurdity of his paying high prices for imported
tennis rackets. Others argued that his personal need to tennis rackets should not
override other needs. When discussing requiring minimum BMI for models,
Linda spoke of her younger sister who struggled with her weight and self-esteem.
All participants supported a law to create a minimum BMI. None questioned
the assumption, or defended the assumption, that models were a major cause of
anorexia. The euthanasia debate had the most personal justifications for stances
to the point that the first three speakers began with stories of family members
who suffered before death but who still chose not to use euthanasia. There were
some participants who were persuaded to change their mind on the BMI and gay
adoption debate.

Culture of Discussion: Interrupting and sensitivity

In all three focus groups, interrupting was minimal. When it did occur in the
group with university debaters, others in the group intervened to create order and
prevent interrupting. In the high school debating group and the non-debating
university group, many requested to speak rather than interrupt, and the other
group members gave them permission. Or, alternatively, participants waited for a
pause in the conversation in order to comment. In the high school debate group
Yishai initially dominated the discussion, but later others, especially Miriam,
began to speak with as much conviction and for as long as Yishai. While the nondebaters
never interrupted each other, the non-debaters also had two participants
who did not speak at all on two of the topics.

The most potent example of personal sensitivity to others not being offended was
in the non-debating group. One participant said nothing in the gay adoption
discussion until very near the end, at which point she gave a very long introduction
saying her opinion offended many people, and that she did not want to offend
anyone, and then proceeded to say that, for religious reasons, she was against gay
adoption. Aaron, who did not agree with her, responded that she made “complete
sense”, and that is why he was not offended at all. Linda replied that she was
incredibly grateful for his response, and that she would normally not offered this
opinion in other forums. This can be contrasted with the university debate group
where many responded relatively angrily to Tomer, who was against gay adoption
due to practical considerations harms on the child. None responded to Linda,
who admitted beforehand that she only wanted to not deeply offend anyone and
never expected to actually persuade anyone.

Stating opinions, apologizing for ignorance, and use of humor
The non-debating group had more participants who chose not to state their
opinions on multiple occasions, specifically two participants, Trey and Sarah.
However, they listened intently. In the other two groups, participants who did
not have opinions stated this within the discussion, rather than stay quite. When
a quite person did eventually speak up in the non-debaters, they at times were
apologetic beforehand. Linda, for example, said that she was speaking “from an
American perspective,” though her logic, that soldiers should expect their country
to save them when they enlist, could have been applicable universally. Ilyah in the
Shalit discussion and Aaron in the free trade discussion both said they knew very
little about the topics before saying their opinion. While a lack of confidence in
the subject of free trade was common in all three groups, confidence to refute
other’s unconfident statements was common among the debaters. Even refutation
was missing with the non-debaters, with four not saying anything.

In all three groups there was one participant that made jokes throughout the
discussion, though there were far more jokes among the non-debaters. At times
these jokes were meant to half persuade others, as when Aaron mocked those
who think gays cannot raise children by saying, “You kidding me?! A bunch of
queens trying to raise a child? Oh goodness girl!” With the university debaters,
the occasional joke was meant to strengthen the argument. Haya, for example,
said that Israeli soldiers knew the risks of being recruited, including the risks of
death and kidnapping, “unlike Canadian soldiers who sometimes shovel snow.”

A theoretical framework for understanding the impact of debate training in

The intrinsic and extrinsic skills discussed by Hinck and Swanson suggest that
certain rhetorical methods are relevant outside of a formal debate (extrinsic) while
others are not (intrinsic). The “personalized communication” that Swanson argues
is more effective outside of forensic communities seems to have been applied more
with the non-debaters, who made personalized arguments that would not have
been relevant to all in a formal debate. Linda’s religious justification, however, was
personalized for herself and her religious community, not for the other members.
Nor was her statement meant to persuade any in the room, merely to present her
opinion in a way that others could understand it, or at least not be completely
offended by it. Even with her position being very contrary to all others, she still
managed to gauge a supportive response from Aaron.

If Swanson is correct to say that personalized communication is often more
affective outside of formal debate judging panels, this may be consistent with the
fact that participants in the non-debating focus group were persuaded to change
their mind or at least alter their opinions when personal examples were utilized.
High school debaters, who perhaps have less experience applying “extrinsic skills”,
used no personal examples, while the university students, who would have had
more non-academic life experiences, and where the majority only began debating
at a later stage in life, were more likely to include personal examples. However,
another reason for the lack of persuasion in the debate groups may be that the
debaters felt that they were in a type of competition and were motivated to win
against an actual or abstract third party, rather than to directly persuade each other,
which is impossible in a debate. Even if Hill empirically showed that education
was a greater motivator than winning for why students join debate clubs, winning
was still one motivation, and the educational benefits, according to Wood, arise
because one is motivated to gain educational skills in order to win.

Critical thinking skills in refutation, prominent in the high school debate group,
were not widely used with the non-debaters, which is consistent with Colbert’s
tests. Interestingly, the university debaters also used critical thinking, but tended
to weave personal stories and jokes into their points, perhaps exemplifying
Hinck’s objection to being entirely a demagogue or a “forensic virtuoso.” Because
the high school debaters refuted refutation, as opposed to only refuting initial
arguments, they were far more likely to use the “creating argumentation” that
Hinck discusses. Their exploration of very complex questions of the differences in
depression from terminal illness and other types of depression only arose because
all were eager to reply to others statements, rather than settle on remaining quite
because they had already had their turn to speak. While they had flaws in their
logic, their arguments were not formulaic.

Pearce and Littlejohn’s claim that disagreements lead to irrational arguments was
not shown. Linda’s introduction to why she felt gay adoption was wrong from
a religious standpoint was logically consistent, and was meant to respond to a
group she knew disagreed with her. Indeed, total agreement in the BMI discussion,
and therefore no refutation, also had almost only personal examples in place of
logical argumentation. Rational responses were only apparent when refutation
to refutation occurred, suggesting, perhaps, that open disagreements can be
expressed rationally when participants are creative enough to think of new, nonformulaic
responses, rather than simply moving on when others respond to them.

Pearce and Littlejohn also point out that disagreements in a discussion can lead
to a lack of listening, which was not seen in the groups, most pronounced by the
disagreement between Linda and Aaron, but also seen when the university debaters
disagreed on Gilad Shalit yet listened to each other’s opinions and responded,
and the disagreement that occurred on euthanasia with the high school debaters.
However, the conflicts that Pearce and Littlejohn describe did arise in the gay
adoption discussion when only one speaker had argued a particular side against
all others, as was the case in the university debaters and the non-debaters, until
Linda spoke up as a second anti-gay-adoption voice. The high school debaters were
by far the most likely to truly listen to each other even when extreme differences
arose, and even when a single debater took a unique stance no one else held.

The ability of the university debate group participants to prevent interrupting is
perhaps a skill gained from debates themselves, where debaters must take turns
serving as judges to keep order. In this sense, perhaps experience with moderating
and judging debates serves as an “extrinsic” skill as defined by Hinck. Or,
alternatively, the types of people who join debate are the types who prefer formal
order and equal speaking time.

Confidence to state opinions was far more common among the debaters, which
is similar to what Mazur claims about the ideals of debate training. Many of
the non-debaters had opinions, but were hesitant to share them unless pressed
by others or, after long pauses, by the moderator who assured that none would
be judged. The common use of humor with the non-debaters, and the use of
humor as a substitute for a logical argument, is more closely related to Hinck’s
“authentic argumentation” and Voth and Smith’s argument that politics—where
debates take place without formal debate rules—increasingly uses humor in place
of an argument.

One of the major potential influences on the high school and university groups
was their knowledge that other participants were club members, perhaps leading
them to use fewer personal examples out of knowledge that these examples
would serve little in persuading others. A focus group with mixed debaters would
have assisted in perhaps limiting this reflexive cause. In addition, the job of the
moderator could have been viewed partially as a judge, also affecting the types of
arguments used. In addition, acquaintance with the moderator in the high school
club, and partially in the university group, could have lead to fewer explanations
with particular arguments, out of an assumption that the moderator understood
the logical links, and there was no point in explaining them. The use of both
English and Hebrew in the university debate group may have affected the flow of
conversation and therefore other elements, such as interruption, refutation, and
even argumentation. The fact that only the non-debating group had students from
abroad may have affected the type of rhetoric they used, and been one reason for
the differences seen between them and the debaters. Finally, debaters may have
felt they were in a debate because the discussions took part in a classroom close
by debate practices in the university and the high school.


Hinck’s separation of intrinsic and extrinsic skills does not take into account that
intrinsic skills may become extrinsic if all are debaters, in a forum outside of
an actual debate. Many of the members of the focus groups had received only
limited training in debating, perhaps the equivalent of what many middle and
high school students receive as part of the educational curriculum in Australia.
Yet, they still were more likely to give less personalized arguments. If more receive
even limited debate training, then perhaps more logical and homogeneous
arguments will become more accepted, and they will not only be relevant for
those in debate clubs. Whether logical arguments are preferred, however, is itself
up for debate.

Hinck’s “creative argumentation” was not seen in initial statements in all three
groups—formulaic argumentation was the norm at the beginning of discussions,
even to the point where logical links were not explained, perhaps out of an
assumption that all had heard the argument before. However, high school debaters,
who had been trained from an earlier age, had shown remarkable creativity in
responding to others. The format of high school debating requires that one
team give four speeches, with fewer constructive arguments, and more time for
refutation. This forces speakers to refute refutation and refute the refutation to the
refutation, etc. Creativity is perhaps necessary and formulaic arguments difficult,
because responses must be more pin-pointed to a specific issue that the team
happens to chose to attack. This creativity in refutation, while still being fairly
logical, also fits in with the critical thinking which Colbert found to be common
among high school debaters.

The use of humor and sensitivity of the non-debaters reflect Voth and Chris’s
analyses of humor in political discussion, and also a type of non-competitive
element. However, the mutual respect to hear out others’ opinions, and the
surprising lack of interrupting in all three groups, expresses a generally tolerant
culture of discussion, regardless of debate membership. However, the nature of
what debaters said within this culture of discussion clearly presents potentially
unique elements of the type of discourse that arises among debaters, even when
the strict rules and motivation to win are taken away, and when speakers can
freely express opinions.


1 Kent Colbert, “The Effects of CEDA and NDT debate training on Critical Thinking ability.”
Journal of the American Forensic Association. Vol. 23 (Spring 1987) pp. 194-201.

2 Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College,
Columbia University, 1941

3 W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn, Moral Conflict: When social worlds collide, USA:
Sage Publications (1997) p. 12

4 Ann Burnett, Jeff Brand, and Mark Meister, “Winning is Everything: Education as Myth in
Forensics.” The National Forensic Journal. 21(1) (Spring 2003). Pp. 12-23

5 D. Swanson. Introduction. National Forensic Journal. (10). Pp. 49-50

6 Edward A. Hinck, “Managing the Dialectic Tension between Winning and Education in
Forensics: A response to Burnett, Brand, and Meister.” National Forensic Journal. (2003) 21(3)
PP. 60-75

7 Students came from four schools—the Pelech School, The Hartmen High School, and the
Hartmen High School for Girls, and Rosh Tzpirim School.

Burnett, Ann; Brand, Jeff and Meister, Mark “Winning is Everything: Education
as Myth in Forensics.” National Forensic Journal. 21(1) (Spring 2003). Pp. 12-23

Colbert, Kent “The Effects of CEDA and NDT debate training on Critical
Thinking ability.” Journal of the American Forensic Association. Vol. 23 (Spring
1987) pp. 194-201.

Glaser, Edward M. An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking,
Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941

Hill, Bill, “Intercollegiate Debate: Why do students bother?” Southern
Communication Journal 48(1) (1982) pp. 77-88

Hinck, Edward A “Managing the Dialectic Tension between Winning and
Education in Forensics: A response to Burnett, Brand, and Meister.” National
Forensic Journal. (2003) 21(3) PP. 60-75

Mazur, Michelle A. “Women in Parliamentary Debate: An examination of
women’s performance at the National Parliamentary Debate Association’s National
Tournament.” Parliamentary Debate: Journal of the National Parliamentary Debate
Society (8) pp. 31-36

Pearce, W. Barnett and Littlejohn, Stephen W, Moral Conflict: When social worlds
collide, USA: Sage Publications (1997) p. 12

Smith, Chris and Voth, Ben “The Role of Humor in Political Argument: How
“strategy” and “lockboxes” changed a political campaign.” Argumentation and
Advocacy, 39(2) (2002)

Smith, Chris and Voth, Ben “The Role of Humor in Political Argument: How
“strategy” and “lockboxes” changed a political campaign.” Argumentation and
Advocacy, 39(2) (2002)