Diversifying the Discussion: The Classic Debate Exercise for Today’s Diverse Youth

Today we have a guest post from Kirstie Lynn Dobbs, lecturer in the political science and public policy department at Merrimack College. She can be reached at dobbsk [at] merrimack [dot] edu.

As Generation Z—born after 1996—emerges as the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort in America’s history, its members are likely to find themselves engaging with people who possess contrasting opinions. Amplifying the classic debate exercise to strategically include students with vastly different backgrounds serves as an opportunity to socialize college students into being receptive of alternative viewpoints. I found this to be true in my introduction to U.S. politics course at Merrimack College.

Two of my U.S. politics courses are with students in the Early College program at Merrimack. These students are predominantly students of color from immigrant communities and tend to identify as strong Democrats with extremely liberal ideals. My full-time Merrimack students are mostly non-Hispanic whites from the New England area. These students identify mostly as Republican and lean moderate to conservative. These two groups have dramatically different perspectives, ideals, and life experiences that shape their political beliefs.

I developed an exercise in which the Early College and full-time Merrimack students came together to research, form an argument, and debate a political issue. First, students participated in a pre-debate reflection on their perceptions of Democrats/liberals, Republicans/ conservatives, students at Lawrence Highschool (where Early College students are enrolled), and full-time Merrimack students. Next, the full-time Merrimack students joined my Early College courses. These extra classroom hours counted as experiential learning credit. I distributed students from both groups into teams and randomly assigned teams to a pro or con side of their chosen issue (such as legalizing marijuana, abortion, and immigration). Students had two classroom periods to research and form their argument and a third classroom period to debate.

After the debates, I asked students if the activity changed how they might interact with someone who held opposing opinions. Many students commented that interacting with classmates with different political positions enhanced their understanding of those perspectives. One student remarked, “The media tends to portray the opposing side very inaccurately. They [conservatives] are people like me. They deserve just as much respect . . . to receive respect, I must give it,” and “I will be more understanding and more aware of arguments from the other side…I see how important it is to listen and understand rather than listen and respond.” Students also found common ground on issues like LGBTQ rights and immigration.

This exercise is not novel; many educators use in-class debates. The unique feature here is the inclusion of participants with a range of backgrounds and political views, as a means of better representing the world students will encounter when they ultimately leave the college campus. And, unlike many other learning activities commonly used by instructors, it becomes even more feasible when teaching online. Students with diverse backgrounds attending a variety of institutions can easily engage with one another when the debate exercise occurs in a virtual environment.