POV: The Overlooked Influence of Speech and Debate Programs
POV: The Overlooked Influence of Speech and Debate Programs
They not only help students organize their ideas and develop arguments, but also provide deeper lessons
One of the most resonant moments of Judge (now United States Supreme Court Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson’s opening confirmation hearing last month was her recognition of high school speech and debate (forensics) coach Fran Berger’s impact on her as a competitor for Miami Palmetto Senior High School. It resonated for two reasons: first, I competed against students from Miami Palmetto’s team when I was in high school, a few years after the judge, and those kids were fierce. Second, anytime I have the opportunity to acknowledge people who have shaped me profoundly, I also cite my high school forensics coach, Mary Lewis, and my college coach, Matt Sobnosky. Beyond helping me find my voice as an orator, they mentored me in ways that exceeded the bounds of a classroom.
Though some might perceive speech competitions as the epitome of geekdom, Chadwick Boseman, Stephen Colbert, Chris Pine, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Oprah Winfrey are among those who competed in forensics—and I think we can agree they did OK. Additionally, Brown Jackson will soon share a bench with other forensics alums, including Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and the justice she succeeds, Stephen Breyer (Hon.’95).
Thousands of students compete annually in forensics tournaments, locally and regionally. Most competitors aspire to compete at highly competitive national tournaments sponsored by national organizations, such as the National Speech and Debate Association (high school) and the National Forensic Association (college). Multiple scholars, including Andrew C. Billings and Kristopher Copeland and Kendrea James, have studied the educational and developmental benefits of competitive speech and debate for college students. In 2019, the National Forensic Journal published my essay, “Impact by Intention,” on college forensics as a High Impact Educational Practice.
On a more personal level, last summer when my brother and sister-in-law visited New England, they humorously mentioned their 13-year-old son was very argumentative and might excel in forensics. Shortly after our conversation, I sent my nephew a letter explaining why forensics was so formative for me and why he might enjoy it. Here’s an excerpt:
“On a literal level, I learned various skills including how to research, organize my ideas, develop arguments, and deliver a speech. I also made many great friends and got to travel all over, from Washington, D.C., to New York City to Atlanta, Ga., to Osh Kosh, Wis. (!)
Beyond that, I learned deeper lessons like how to appreciate the creativity and innovation of my peers, set personal goals, embrace constructive feedback, and root for my teammates even when I didn’t meet my own goals. Most importantly, I learned that finding your own voice is an ongoing process. Though I was very fortunate to place at the state tournament and compete nationally for all four years, and even won some large invitational tournaments, I learned something more valuable than winning.
You see, at my very first tournament, held when I was 14, I was new to the speech and debate world. Though I had some decent preliminary rounds I did not make it to the finals where the top six compete directly, and I was very disappointed. It was the first time I wasn’t good at something immediately. Rather than feeling defeated, I read my ballots and decided to write a new speech. I researched it, drafted it, memorized it, practiced it, and honed it with the help of my coach. My mom also bought me a new suit to commemorate the occasion!
At the next tournament, I remember finishing my first round and feeling proud of the progress I made with the support of my team. Though I won third place at that tournament, and was now a genuine contender, so to speak, what mattered was the work. ‘Losing’ at the first tournament forced me to work on my craft, which was very humbling and rewarding.
I enjoyed competing so much that I chose to attend Emerson College partially because it had one of the oldest oratorical societies in the country. In college you typically compete in multiple events and compete more frequently. I usually did after dinner speaking, persuasive speaking, informative speaking, and impromptu speaking. Occasionally, I did prose and duo interpretation. All my experiences in high school prepared me well. Once again, I grew as a speaker, and was able to celebrate triumphantly and cope with the occasional disappointment graciously. I was part of something larger, and that communal feeling gave me a sense of purpose. Additionally, my college coach became a mentor and friend, and my two best friends are also from the team.”
As an administrator and academician, my forensics background has helped me articulate my ideas clearly, think on my feet, and communicate with a personal touch. Having competed against students mentored by Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s former coach, I can assure you forensics makes you formidable no matter the circumstance.
Vincent L. Stephens is Arts & Sciences associate dean for diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I completely agree! Doing speech & debate as well as Model UN completely changed my confidence and public speaking abilities. I really hope students from all majors would consider speech & debate as an extracurricular. The skills you learn are absolutely vital in any career — not just Political Science or Law. Win or lose speech & debate is a great way to make friends and learn true life skills.
I love how you describe your experience in your article! They are very vivid, specific, and thought-provoking! I can feel that you have grown more confident and mature through the experience of these debate competitions, and I can also handle your love for them! I believe that your experiences can inspire more people and give them the courage to stand on the debate stage too!
Dead on. Life changing experience.
As someone who also did debate in high school, I completely agree that it has a profound impact on students. When I was in high school, my school offered an elective where students were taught policy debate and then competed against one another. I took this course along with 20-some other students, but since it was an elective in high school the majority of students in the course had not necessarily chosen to take it. In the beginning, many students were very reluctant to engage and take the course seriously. However by the end many of the students who were originally unhappy to be in the course were fully engaged and glad to have taken it. Some even decided to take it again the following semester. This really speaks to the power of debate and the influence it has on students. Even after just a short 3 month span, many students saw the positive impact it had on their logic and communication skills.
As for myself, I credit my time with debate as one of the main reasons I have become a good public speaker. My debate teachers favorite phrase: “Use your silence.” repeats in my head every time I’m about to speak to a crowd. She wanted to teach us that “um” “uhh” and other filler interjections were unnecessary, whereas silence has power.
You touched on this in your letter to your nephew a bit, but I’d like to highlight again how debate teaches you to learn from your failures. In a typical class setting you write an argument-based essay, get your grade, and that’s the end of it. In debate, when students lose, they have to improve the same argument and try again and again. This teaches students to learn from their failures by directly confronting them, which is a valuable skill in and outside the classroom.
I absolutely love how you speak about how great an experience debate was for you! I never debated myself but I volunteered as a debate judge for high-schoolers and middle-schoolers and it was so incredible to watch how they improved after every round and came back to debate in more tournaments.
A lot of people think the effects of debating are just limited to enhancing your public speaking skills or becoming a better debater but there are so many more benefits to it like increased academic engagement and performance, even for elementary and middle-schoolers who participate in debate (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0013189X19830998).
I personally feel like whenever my classroom had debate-style teaching, I benefited a lot from it and my knowledge was strengthened in a way no memorization could.
Thank you for this article and this reminder of how life-changing and amazing debate is!
As a former speech and debate kid myself, I really resonated with a lot of what you talked about. My high school forensics coach also had a profound impact on me as well. He helped me find my voice, improve as a public speaker, and was a huge mentor to me during my high school years and even beyond. I still remember all the afternoons spent in his classroom after school with my teammates.
I specifically competed in Student Congress under the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League. Despite never having had the opportunity to compete at Nationals or even placing at our own tournaments, I think one of the things I appreciated the most was what ‘losing’ meant. As you mentioned, ‘losing’ often meant going back and working on your craft. For me, I often left tournaments determined to practice more and return better prepared.
I’d also add that another thing I also appreciated most was the opportunity to engage with other high school students from Massachusetts. Many of the schools we competed against were from much different parts of MA and so I enjoyed getting to know, and eventually becoming friends, with people from a variety of different backgrounds. Had it not been for speech and debate, I’m not sure I would have had that opportunity.
As someone who was on the debate team in high school, I agree fully with the deeper lessons and takeaways students gain from it. Debate participation promotes innovative thinking and problem solving, and also helps students build links between words and ideas to make concepts more meaningful and clear. I could see myself grow as I spent more time with my debate team and our supervisor. The daily exercises pushed me and helped me learn how to better vocalize myself in front of large crowds.
Debate instilled in me poise and confidence. As someone who was very shy and avoided public speaking at all lengths, debate really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I learned to articulate my thoughts very well and how to conduct in-depth research on various topics. Such skills I learned during my time with the debate team now have transitioned into my various professional settings and classroom settings in college.
Thank you for sharing this article and reminding us all how powerful being on a debate team is.
Thank you Larry England, This concern gained my attention a few weeks ago. Speech and Language are the most important classes offered in schools no matter what career or profession students seek. I worked 37 years in the schools in Kentucky as a Teacher, Counselor, and School Psychologist and I saw how much the communication classes helped students develop self confidence and motivation to excel in school and in life.
These students learn to organize their thoughts and the information they have sought in order to communicate an idea to others. The activities also build writing skills. The students learn to debate an issue intelligently and speak well in any social or business setting throughout their life. No other class or after school activity offers these lifelong skills as comprehensively as Speech and Language. Thanks for letting me address this important issue.
Jan Roberson Stogner
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
I believe that being in communication classrooms and competing on the speech team were some of the most impactful experiences of my life. I competed in a few different categories over the years, but my favorite was Prose. My first couple years of competing held very few successes for me (if the definition of success is coming home with a trophy). I was what my speech coach, Mr. Larry England, called a ‘late bloomer’. But with the encouragement of friends and coaches I didn’t give up, and by my junior year of high school I was finally able to experience the thrill and pride of helping our team bring home more trophies. However, I feel there were other more important successes over my years in speech classes and team competitions. With guidance I built resilience, friendships, self-confidence and so many other skills that have served me well in every aspect of my life.
I grew up in West Kentucky. Blue collar country boy. Always got “talks too much” on my report cards. Got involved in speech/debate in middle school and was winning tournaments by the time I was a freshman. My coach is as influential on my life as my parents. I’m now the CEO of a half billion dollar company. Beyond basic reading, writing, and math, these classes had more to do with who o became than anything I studied.