Debate and/or Discourse?

A few weeks ago a discussion developed on the topic of evolution vs. creation but was quickly diverted to “what constitute a good debate”, since a debate about evolution vs. Creation was aired the previous night on CBC. Within that discussion the issue of debate vs. discourse was discussed and some conclusions were drawn, recommendations were made and a decision to honour discourse as the more mundane method to institute truths was accepted.

In reading this blog, I expect you to bring your own ideas/memories of what a “true” debate or discourse looks like and to be very critical in deciding which of the two methods is likely to produce truths that would create effective change. The aim is not to discredit any method, but to look at them in their context for applicability.

It’s very hard to ignore the truths revealed in a public debate when it is understood that the information is well researched and defended as an idealistic position by an individual, just take a look at the 2007 film “The Great Debaters”, in the film we see that a debate might not always what we envision, my memories of debates would be from high school, in which debates was used to enhance students ability to do public speaking but would seldomly enact the debated facts. Discourse, on the other hand, seems to be the polar opposite of debate in terms of aggression and agreeability, according to our class discussion, but can be very useful method to communicate facts.

I’m going to take you back to a similar situation that might have sparked a discussion on whether debate or discourse was the best method to communicate truth by using the following clip from CBC (Creation vs. Evolution: the debate continues). It somewhat reminded me of our class setting, which was such that neither creation nor evolution was entirely accepted by the class, hence the reason for understanding what a good debate entails.

Debate is described as a broader form, which only examines whether a conclusion is a consequence of premises, and factual argument, which only examines what is or isn’t the imagescase, or rhetoric, which is a technique of persuasion. Though logical consistency, factual accuracy and some degree of emotional appeal to the audience are important elements of the art of persuasion, in debating, one side often prevails over the other side by presenting a superior “context” and/or framework of the issue, which is far more subtle and strategic.

The outcome of a debate depends upon consensus or some formal way of reaching a resolution, rather than the objective facts as such. In a formal debating contest, there are rules for participants to discuss and decide on differences, within a framework defining how they will interact.

”The term discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, a social boundary that defines what can be said about a specific topic; as Judith Butler said, “the limits of acceptable speech”, the limits of possible truth.”

Where should one stand?

Both debate and discourse has a place and time, and in determining the place and time, I believe one must take into consideration some important factors e.g. culture, images1demographics, politics etc., which might have significant influence on the tone of the conversation. In of itself, discourse is debate according to a Google definition, and henceforth I will spend most of my time on the topic of “Debate”.  Debate, is then a necessary evil in most circumstances and should therefore proceed under a set of predetermined rules surrounding the current circumstance.

Debate is “critical advocacy.” It is advocacy in that the debater must advocate, propose, and defend ideas. It is critical because the debater must not ignore the advocacy of others, but must engage them and use the tools of critical thinking to evaluate the ideas of others. To engage in a debate, I believe that debaters must be open to the ideas of their opponents to further strengthen their arguments.

According to Snider “the use of debating to deal with complex ideas and competing advocacy is emerging as a successful educational tool. While long recognized as an important part of government affairs, academic deliberations, negotiations, philosophy and citizenship, in the United States and around the world the use of open debate as an educational and training tool is increasing.”

Many writers including Snider, advocates for set rules/ general guidelines that must be met in order for a debate to be official; this is slightly different to the procedure endorsed by the House of Congress in the United States where each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, and one that I support.

Within our class discussion, many believed that debaters must come prepared to accept the opponents findings, but Parcher alluded to the fact that “A debate by its very nature is filled with conflicting viewpoints. The participants are forced to deal with a plethora of oppositional facts, research, arguments, perspectives and assumptions.”

Parcher also mentioned that “the debater by definition must listen carefully to her opponent in order to achieve the objective of refutation.” This I believe holds greater merits as it allows the debaters to become versatile in their strategy in debating, and as Ambrose (p195) pointed out “…there is still a question of how well prepared they are to meet the task at hand”,  in reference to evaluating one’s own strength and weakness in preparation for a debate.

Debaters and the act of debating warrants some form of change to its audience, sometimes in small increments other times it seems somewhat instantaneous, just think on the various climate change debates over the last decade or so. Within our context, it is therefore important for adult learners to be aware of this change that occur within the classroom, on our own, we may find the answer to a problem, but debate/collaborating  may provide an alternative to what we already know. We are motivated to know more/ to find alternatives.

Adult education is a great advocate for critical thinking as opposed to regurgitating knowledge, Gokhale states that “Employers value employees who can solve complex problems, communicate effectively, and think critically.” Walker and Warhust (2000) claimed that debates in the classroom have been effective in increasing critical thinking by helping students to connect as they learn subject knowledge.

Thus, I believe that when the opportunity arises, debate/ discourse play a very important role in our efforts to collaborate/formulate knowledge and as such should not be compromised in any way. Now, without a rebuttal, this debate would be incomplete. I do believe that in order to generate new knowledge we must be able to expose what we know and believe, to be contested.


Ambrose, S. et al (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Gokhale, A, A (1995). Collaborate learning enhances critical thinking. Journal of       Technology Education. 7(1).

Walker, M. & Warhurst, C. (2000). “In most classes you sit around very quietly at a table   and get lec-tured at…”: Debates, assessment and student learning. Teaching in Higher   Education 5(1). 33-49.

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2 Responses to Debate and/or Discourse?

  1. terrilyn71 says:

    Hi Randy,
    I enjoyed reading this – well written with great explanations! I love the concept of using debate as a tool to learn about others and also ourselves, as well as forcing us to truly understand why we think or believe something and why. If we are going to debate with someone, we need to have reasons to defend our positions otherwise we will not be taken seriously. And, definitely, as you alluded to, this process needs to be undertaken with respect. It is okay to disagree with someone’s ideas or beliefs with explanations, but it is not okay to attack or disregard the person for having them. During the process of debate, people may change their opinions, look at their own beliefs in a different way, or simply defend what they have always believed. Regardless of the outcome, it is a great learning tool and if done properly can bring people closer together, through respect and appreciation, even if they don’t agree.

  2. erintomlinson says:

    Hi Randy,
    Your post on debate and discourse is interesting. I like the connection you make between critical thinking as a valued component of Adult Education and the potential of debates to foster critical thinking in students. I think debates are most successful in helping students develop critical thinking skills when students are required to explore and debate multiple sides of an issue, not just the side they agree with. This enables them to understand different points of view and how the various viewpoints emerged, and hopefully learn more about the topic at hand. Your attention to discourse reminded of a Philosophy of Education class I took while doing my Bachelor of Education. We discussed a teaching method called Socratic Dialogue in which the facilitator poses questions to the students in order to encourage self-examination and examination of different perspectives. The constant questioning of the facilitator is not intended to be negative toward students, but to expose different viewpoints. It seems to me that students would be able to achieve the same types of critical thinking skills through Socratic Dialogue as they could through debate, without the competitive component.

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