I never participated in debate growing up, but recently I volunteered to judge at a debate event for the Boston Debate League. Middle school and high school kids participated and since I’m new to this experience so I was assigned to the middle school group.
All the groups had the same topic under a broad theme chosen for the year. This particular day, the kids were debating the proposition of allocating money and research time toward colonizing on Mars, which falls under a broader topic discussing whether the US should continue NASA efforts for space exploration. Can you imagine 10 and 11 year old kids debating this topic? Of course the debate coach for each team prepares a script for them to read during the speech portion of the debate. But the kids have to listen to the opposing speech to gather questions for a cross-examination period. They also have to know their material and evidence well enough to answer critical questions from the other side. Each middle school team competed twice, changing sides of the topic to argue against what they presented in the first round.
Technically our role as a judge is to choose a winning team based on the quality of their arguments. For the middle school groups, we are also there to support them if they get stuck during the debate, acknowledge their strengths and qualities in the debate process, and to give constructive feedback that creates a positive experience for the kids, encouraging them to continue with debate.
I think the debate experience is helpful to kids of all ages. They learn how to research and analyze the information relating to the topic. They learn that there are two sides to every story. The public speaking skills and handling criticizing questions will prove very valuable. But the most significant benefit for the kids is having the opportunity to speak in front of adults and have someone listen to their point of view.