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High School & Middle School Debate Events and Formats

August 2, 2014
Published in Uncategorized

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Debating formats

As academic debate has developed in the US over the last 100 years, a variety of debating formats have emerged. These formats make-up debate “events” at different debate tournaments throughout the United States.

In this brief post, I will review the popular formats. These formats differ not only in structure but also in terms of the norms, opportunities, and content differences that they present for the students.

In our speaking & debating workshops, we do build familiarity with all of the events and teach skills that will help students become competitive regardless of what format they participate in.

Policy debate

Policy debate is the oldest form of debate in the United States.

The format is a two-on-two contest, with two debaters on one team representing the Affirmative and two debaters another team representing the Negative. Each person in the debate delivers one eight minute constructive speech, one five minute rebuttal speech, asks questions for three minutes, and answers questions for three minutes.

First Affirmative Constructive (1AC) (8 minutes)
Cross-examination (CX) (3 minutes)
First Negative Constructive (1AC) (8 minutes)
Cross-examination (CX) (3 minutes)
Second Affirmative Constructive (1AC) (8 minutes)
Cross-examination (CX) (3 minutes)
Second Negative Constructive (1AC) (8 minutes)
Cross-examination (CX) (3 minutes)
First Negative Rebuttal (1NR) (4 minutes)
First Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR) (4 minutes)
Second Negative Rebuttal (2NR) (4 minutes)
Second Affirmative Rebuttal (2AR) (4 minutes)

In Policy debate, students debate a resolution for the entire academic year. This year’s (2014-15) Policy debate resolution is,

The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth’s oceans.

The first reaction of many to the idea of a year long resolution is that it would be boring to debate the same resolution for the entire year. While this would be true if the resolution was debated as a general question, in Policy debate the Affirmative will advocate for a specific “case” in a given debate and the Negative must challenge that specific case. For example, Affirmative teams on the ocean resolution might argue in favor of aquaculture, ocean thermal energy conversion, ocean wind power, mapping of the sea bed, and many other potential proposals that focus on increasing non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth’s resources. The Affirmative proposal is called its “case.”

Affirmative teams must be able to defend against Negative attacks on the specific policy, including specific case attacks, disadvantages, counterplans (alternative plans), and philosophical objections to the Affirmative advocacy. All of these arguments, as well as answers to them, must be supported by research, making policy debate a “research intensive” event. Sample Affirmative cases and Negative arguments for beginners can be found here.

At the end of every “round” of Policy debate, a judge declares a winner and a loser and assigns each individual speaker points based on the strength of his or her speech.

In Policy debate, debaters usually speak very quickly and judges are expected to be experts in judging Policy debates and to be well-versed in the debate arguments specific to the resolution. Similarly, it is necessary for debate coaches/teachers to develop a significant amount of expertise not only in the practice of Policy debate but also in the arguments being debated.

A full list of past policy debate resolutions is available here. And this judge training video provides an excellent overview of Policy debate.

Policy debate is rarely practiced outside the United States.

Lincoln-Douglas debate

Lincoln-Douglas (L-D) debate started in the 1970s, largely in response to concerns about the speed at which Policy debaters spoke but also as an effort to provide a debate event for individuals (as opposed to people debating on a team of two) and as a way for debaters to focus more on philosophical topics.

The format of an L-D debate is

Affirmative constructive (6 minutes)
Cross-examination (3 minutes)
Negative Constructive (7 minutes)
Cross-examination (3 minutes)
First Affirmative Rebuttal (1A4) (4 minutes)
Negative Rebuttal (1NR) (6 minutes)
Second Affirmative Rebuttal (1AR) (3 minutes)

L-D resolutions last for two months. November-December 2013 Lincoln-Douglas resolution was,

Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, truth-seeking ought to take precedence over attorney-client privilege.

A list of L-D resolutions can be found here.

For the first 25 years of the life of L-D debate, resolutions were always debated as general questions.

Recently (the last five years), L-D debate has started to adopt many of the practices of Policy debate. Although debate is still one-on-one, L-D debaters, at least at the national circuit level, have started speaking quickly, developing specific cases, and arguing in favor of counterplans. Many now refer to it as “one on one Policy debate.” You can read about the evolution of L-D debate on Wikipedia.

At the end of every “round” of L-D debate, a judge declares a winner and a loser and assigns each individual speaker points based on the strength of his or her speech. Like Policy debate, there are growing expectations that the judge is an expert in the practice of L-D debate as well as being very familiar with the arguments being debated. Similarly, it is necessary for debate coaches/teachers to develop a significant amount of expertise not only in the practice of Policy debate but also in the arguments being debated.

LD is rarely practiced outside the United States.

Public Forum Debate

Public Forum (PF) debate is a relatively new debate format that was developed in the late 1990s as a response to the “excesses” (speed, specialization) of Policy and Lincoln-Douglas debate.

The format is a two on two competition, with two debaters representing the Pro and two debaters representing the Con. Each person in the debate delivers one four minute Constructive or Rebuttal speech and then a two minute Summary or Final Focus speech. All debaters participate in “cross-fires” questioning and answering periods.

The format of a Public Forum debate is as follows.

1st Speaker, Team A (4 minutes)
1st Speaker, Team B (4 minutes)
Cross-fire (1st two speakers, 3 minutes)
2nd Speaker, Team A (rebuttal), (4 minutes)
2nd Speaker, Team B (rebuttal), (4 minutes)
Cross-fire (2nd two speakers, 3 minutes)
Summary Speaker, Team A (2 minutes)
Summary Speaker, Team B (2 minutes)
Grand Cross-fire (all four speakers)
Final Focus Speaker, Team A (2 minutes)
Final Focus Speaker, Team B (2 minutes)

PF resolutions usually last for one month. The November 2013 PF resolution was

Resolved: The benefits of domestic surveillance by the NSA outweigh the harms.

A list of previous PF resolutions can be found here and a list of resources for available for past topics is available here.

PF resolutions are debated generally and specific cases are strongly discouraged.

At the end of every “round” of PF debate, a judge declares a winner and a loser and assigns each individual speaker points based on the strength of his or her speech.

Unlike Policy debate, and to a growing extent in L-D debate, there is no expectation that coaches and judges have any expertise in the topic area being debated. Public Forum debaters do not speak quickly. These practices make PF debate more “accessible” to a wider audience.

Although debaters are expected to prepare in advance, there is a substantially lower expectation that arguments are defended with research and evidence (debaters are expected to rely more on logical reasoning) than in Policy and L-D debate.

As a result of the accessibility of PF debate, it is the fastest growing (by a large margin) debate format in the United States and it is rapidly catching on in other parts of the world (China, Dominican Republic, Korea, and other countries). If schools are interested in developing new debate programs, I strongly encourage them to start by developing a Public Forum debate team.

World Schools Debate

Although it is not widespread in the United States World Schools Debate (WSD) is a popular format in other parts of the world and due to efforts of the US National Speech & Debate Organization it is beginning to catch on in the United States.

WSD pits two teams of three debaters against each other, with each debater delivering an eight minute constructive and one debater delivering a four minute rebuttal. There is no formal questioning period, but debaters can interrupt each other’s speeches to ask Points of Information (POIs).

The affirmative teams is referred to as the Government or House and the negative team is referred to as the Opposition.

The format of WSD is:

First Speaker of the Government (8 minutes)
First Speaker of the Opposition (8 minutes)
Second Speaker of the Government (8 minutes)
Second Speaker of the Opposition (8 minutes)
Third Speaker of the Government (8 minutes)
Third Speaker of the Opposition (8 minutes)
Reply Speaker of the Opposition (4 minutes)
Reply Speaker of the Government (4 minutes)

Unlike in the previous formats, resolutions, referred to as “Motions” in WSD, are different for every round in a debate tournament. Half of the resolutions are usually announced before the start of the tournament and the other half are announced only an hour before the debate.

Like Public Forum, there is less of an emphasis on research, but debaters are required to be familiar with the issues of the day in order to be prepared to speak on the motions that are not previously announced.

Some sample motions from previous tournaments are here

WSD debaters speak at conversational speed.

At the end of every “round” of WSD debate, a judge declares a winner and a loser and assigns each individual speaker points based on the strength of his or her speech.

Although WSD debaters speak at conversational speed and engage in debates that are less research centered, there is an expectation judges have experience with the event and some level of expertise in judging it.

WSD is certainly an accessible debate format and has a lot of potential for schools developing debate programs, but the format is not widely practiced in the US outside of New York City and Houston, TX. Schools that wish to compete in debate tournaments in their local area may want to focus on other formats until this one develops.

Parliamentary Debate

Parliamentary Debate (PD) is a variation of the WSD format and certainly precedes it in origin, though WSD is more popular at the high school level in the US.

The PD format is as follows (from Wikipedia) –

  1. Prime Minister Constructive (PMC): the first affirmative speaker presents the affirmative case
  2. Leader of the Opposition Constructive (LOC): the first negative speaker presents the negative case and answers the PMC arguments
  3. Member of the Government Constructive (MGC): the second affirmative speaker upholds the affirmative case and responds to the LOC arguments
  4. Member of the Opposition Constructive (MOC): the second negative speaker upholds the negative case and responds to the MGC arguments
  5. Leader of the Opposition Rebuttal (LOR): the first negative speaker summarizes the round. New arguments are not allowed.
  6. Prime Minister Rebuttal (PMR):the first affirmative speaker summarizes the round and responds to any new arguments brought up in the MOC/LOC Opp block. New arguments in the PMR are not allowed.

Specific rules and speech times vary slightly between organizations. NPDA, APDA, and OSAA[ use the 7-8-8-8-4-5 format, CHSSA[ and the ASU Invitationaluse the Claremont 7-7-7-7-5-5 format, the SCU Invitational uses the 6-7-7-7-4-5 format, and Yale high school tournaments use the Osterweis 4-5-5-5-2-3 format. PHSSL borrows its 8 speeches 6-6-6-6-6-6-3-3 format from World Schools Style debate

PD is similar to WSD in the way the motions work – some are announced in advance and others are announced just prior to the start of the debate –, but PD pits two teams against two teams, with a (hopefully) qualified judge ranking the teams 1-4 at the end of the debate. Unlike in the other previously discussed formats, no winner or loser is declared

Congressional Debate

Congressional Debate (CD) is also referred to as Legislative Debate and Student Congress.

Although I have discussed it after LD, PF, and WSD, this is not because it is chronologically a more recent format; CD is nearly as old as Policy debate. I have just discussed it after the others because the format is completely different.

In CD students prepare model legislation in advance and then prepare to present it to a room full of Congressional debaters. There are usually 24 to a room. Debaters must convince other student debaters/legislators of the value of their legislation and work to gain their support.

Sample legislation from the US National Speech & Debate Association’s national tournament is available.

Debaters do receive the legislation that is submitted by other debaters in advance and are expected to prepare arguments related to the legislation.

In CD, judges do not declare a winner or loser but rate the debaters. As explained by Wikipedia:

Judges either serve as a scorers or parliamentarians. Scorers judge individual sessions

  1. Evaluate individual speeches, awarding speaker points (usually on a 1-6 scale)
  2. Evaluate the presiding officer, awarding speaker points (usually on a 1-6 scale)
  3. Holistically rank the judge’s eight most preferred contestants, considering the presiding officer for inclusion or exclusion among those eight.

CD is the second fastest growing debate format in the United States and since many tournaments offer CD, new schools may wish to consider pursuing it.

International Public Policy Forum

International Public Policy Forum (IPPF) debate is a very recent format in the US, and now the world, that is supported by the Bickel & Brewer Foundation.

In this format, students, representing their schools, submit written essays arguing for or against the resolution chosen by the IPPF. After the first round of submissions, the top 64 essays are selected and schools are then pitted against on another in subsequent elimination debates. The top sixteen teams are flown to New York City for a live competition and the first place team receives a $10,000 (USD) prize.

The IPPF topic for the 2014-15 school year is,

Resolved: Mass surveillance is not a justified method of governmental intelligence gathering.

An essay and resources can be found here.

Given that expertise is not required to write the essay and that schools do not need to supply judges, this is a great event for schools interested in developing debate teams to participate in.

Other Formats

The formats that have just been discussed are the most common ones and the ones that you are likely to find a debate tournament organized around.

It is certainly possible to find other formats and often times other formats are organized for the purpose of practice or developing more informal debating opportunities.

In order to have an educational debate, the most important elements from any format to retain is the notion of constructive, rebuttal, and questioning. These are the core components of any debate.

Differences Amongst Formats

As you can see, there are many differences in the timing and structure of the different debate events, but the major differences are really in approach and norms, not in the structure. For example, although Policy debaters speak quickly and engage in extensive research-based preparation, they could speak slowly and engage in less research while still using the exact same format. The norms and practice differences between the events are really the important differences.

The existence in differences in norms and practices amongst different events creates many debating opportunities for students. Some students may wish to make a greater time commitment to debate and engage in Policy debate while others may prefer a more moderate experience. Some coaches and schools may have the expertise necessary to participate in Policy debate while others are just beginning and prefer PF debate. Some coaches and students may find certain norms and practices to be more pedagogically valuable.

Regardless as to what format students, coaches, and schools choose, students who participate in academic debate will learn how to develop arguments, research, think critically, and develop a number of other academic skills. The most important thing is that students, coaches, and schools embrace debate.  The particular format is not especially important.

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