How policy debate works

What Is Competitive Policy Debate? (courtesy NAUDL)

A.  Framework of Competitive Academic Debate:

A debate team is comprised of two debaters from the same school. These two people operate together as a team throughout a tournament, alternately arguing both sides of the resolution. An individual debate consists of two opposing teams from different schools. In policy debating, one team, labeled “the Affirmative”, identifies a specific problem that falls under the agreed-upon resolution, and proposes a specific “Plan of Action” to solve the problem. This is a process similar to proposing legislation in Congress. The opposing team, labeled “the Negative,” argues that the Plan of Action is flawed or is no better than the current situation – the Status Quo. The fifth person participating in the debate is the judge, who is not from affiliated with either school. In the end, a judge listens to the arguments presented by both teams and decides who wins; whether or not the Affirmative Plan should be implemented. If so, the Affirmative team; if not, the Negative team wins. There are no ties.

Debate is a structured competition, with procedures and rules designed to maximize educational value and competitive fairness. Because they must debate both sides of the resolution debaters cannot win by simply having a stronger viewpoint. Debaters cannot interrupt a speaker, therefore voice level, aggressiveness, and even raw eloquence cannot dominate a debate round.  Rather, debaters learn to understand and argue both sides of an issue, even if they personally favor one viewpoint. Debating is structured to provide a fair opportunity to win on either side of each issue, based primarily on the persuasiveness of logic, evidence and emotion presented.

B.  Mechanics of a Debate Round:

In the competitive academic debate activity, each debate is called a “debate round.” In a “round” every speaker in the debate gives two speeches. The first is an 8-minute “constructive” speech where they build their arguments. Their second speech is 5-minutes long and called a rebuttal speech where the constructive arguments are refuted. Each of the four debaters gives their constructive speech. Then each of them gives their rebuttal speech. The Affirmative team goes first and last. In the first constructive the Affirmative presents their Plan of Action and the rationale behind it. Next, the negative in their first constructive speech has the burden to respond to the specific arguments in the Affirmative case and plan. Then the teams alternate speeches rebuilding and extending their original arguments.

The negative team begins the rebuttal speeches. Then the teams alternate speakers, with the affirmative giving the last speech in the debate. Rebuttal speeches are similar to jury summation in a court. No brand new arguments are permitted in the rebuttal speeches. Effective arguments are generally supported by facts, examples and expert quotations that provide credibility to their arguments. Effective arguments are generally repeated and refined throughout the debate. Debaters try to “cover” as many arguments in the debate as they can while working within their time constraints. Much of debate strategy revolves around the choices debaters make in which arguments to emphasize as the debate goes on.

There are question and answer periods in the debate as well. Each debater asks questions for three minutes and also in a separate period has to answer three minutes of questions. These “cross-examination” periods follow each constructive speech. Usually these periods are used for clarification, understanding and previewing upcoming arguments. Debaters must base their questions on the previous speech. The judge when deciding the debate does not consider points made during the cross-examination unless they are formally introduced in a later speech.

C.  Deciding the Winning Team:

The judge listens to the entire debate, taking notes of all the arguments in the round. At the end, the judge reviews the notes and decides whether the Affirmative or Negative is the winner, based solely on the arguments presented during the debate. If time permits, the judge normally provides explanation and feedback to the debaters verbally. The judge may also write a “ballot” explaining their reason for voting one way or the other, as well as offering suggestions to the debaters for improvement.

The judge must be totally impartial and may not use their own personal beliefs, values or opinions to decide the debate, even if they are directly contradictory with the debaters’ arguments. Judges decide based on the issues in the debate, not speaking style. While style will always have an indirect influence, the judge places greater emphasis on logic, evidence and clarity of explanation. Debate is primarily a contest of analytical thinking, careful listening and logical explanation. The judge does, however, rate the speaking ability of each debater.

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One Response to “How policy debate works”

  1. […] League, train and organize teachers and parents to operate tournaments, teach educators and adults how to Coach Debate, getting the community and students involved, integrating a Debate course into the curriculum, and […]

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