When I was in elementary school, there were 2 things I knew how to do well: state my opinion (even when I wasn’t asked) and do first aid for injured kids. Consequently, I ended up on the debate team, and I was also one of the first people who was called to the playground when another student got hurt.
I was at one school up until grade 5, but I had to transfer to a new school for grade 6 because my family moved. The general elementary school debating environment at the time comprised of teachers writing pages of arguments for their students; the students would then memorize these arguments word-for-word, and spit them back to their opponents with a touch of passion. And that was how it worked at my first elementary school. The best teams were great at cramming.
When I moved to my new school, the teacher in charge of the debate team was a fresh college graduate with a more … flexible and innovative way of thinking. There was a state-wide debate competition for elementary schools and this teacher got wind of it. He put together a team and started working with us – my new school had never participated in competitive debates, so it didn’t even have a debate team before now.
This futuristic teacher would sit with us and discuss the arguments he had in mind for a topic before he wrote them, and because this new environment involved us in the process of staging the arguments, I let loose and shared a lot of original ideas with my team: what I was thinking about the subject versus the typical points people made when speaking on the topic.
Eventually my teacher had me write my own arguments! I would write what I would propose if I was genuinely arguing for a government policy with the state or truly trying to change the educational system … what I would say if my argument was really going to change the world! This was so much fun, I would ask my parents what they thought about the topic and they would give me their points. Sometimes their points would actually oppose each other, giving me some insight into the kind of arguments my opponents might pose and how I might counter them in the rebuttal – the first speaker had to do a rebuttal for the whole team at the end, and I was always the first speaker. This was a different debating world, and I was loving it! (Image: The Odyssey Online)
My teacher never denigrated any of my arguments; he only helped me organize them in a way more effective way, differentiating between stronger points and less-convincing ones. We also only had a few minutes to speak, so it’s not like we could have shared all the great points. What do you think happened at the end of this story? I won first place in the state! New school, new teacher, first time school participates in competitive debate, wins first prize. Why do you think this happened?
1. More than anything, I believe it is because I argued ORIGINAL IDEAS, ideas that came from me. I was more convincing because I actually BELIEVED what I was arguing for. I wasn’t memorizing someone else’s opinion on the matter. I was speaking my mind.
2. Because my ideas were original, I didn’t have to work up the zest to present them, I was GENUINELY PASSIONATE about the positions I was defending. By the way, because our team was leading the debates, we always got to choose what side of the topic we wanted to argue – this helped us to actually argue a side that we were more aligned with as a team, versus any side that just had many strong points that could be made. If we believed something, we were going to find the arguments to back it up. Trust me, sometimes we chose the less popular position and still won.
3. Because our team was more of a think-tank than a memorization-tank, we could ADJUST to our opponents’ arguments. My job as the first speaker of three was to listen to all the arguments from both sides after I had spoken, and write a rebuttal for my team on the spot, so that my rebuttal was RELEVANT. I also didn’t have to deal with the fear of forgetting what I memorized on stage: it was MY point, it came from me, and I could say it how I meant it.
4. Because we had spent a lot of time thinking on the topics and were very INVOLVED in the process of laying them out, we had tons of postulations we could employ to counter arguments we may not have anticipated from our opponents. However, our opponents were only ready to counter obvious arguments, not original ones; they were not prepared for us. My team was able to use the ‘element of surprise‘ to disarm them – we weren’t recycling old arguments, we were out for a kill.
5. My teacher TRUSTED me to create rebuttals on the spot, to think logically through my summaries because he had spent TIME working with me and helping me organize my personal arguments. He started by TRUSTING me to write my own valid arguments in the first place.
What do you think I am trying to tell you through this story? It’s your turn to be a think-tank! Let me know what part of this post speaks to you most and how it might apply to areas of your life or relationships in the comments below 🙂
[Header Image: The Knox Corps]