Through the Eyes of Novice, How Debate Makes a Difference in Just One SeasonSai poses with trophies

Being brand new to debate is a scary prospect, but it’s also an amazing opportunity to grow academically and personally. Research shows that just one year debating makes a significant difference for academic outcomes:

A recent study analyzing academic outcomes of 3,515 debaters versus their peers in Boston showed that middle and high school students who debated experienced significant improvement in their English and Language Arts standardized test scores. Effects were seen in a few as 1.5 years of debating. Debate had positive impacts on ELA test scores of 0.13 SD, equivalent to 68% of a full year of average 9th grade learning. The most significant gains were from students who were lowest-performing at baseline (Schueler & Larned, 2023).

Of course, facts and figures can only capture a fraction of the larger picture. Students telling us, in their own words, about their experience makes all the difference. That’s why we’re putting a spotlight on one brand new debater, Sai Yang. 

Sai Yang, novice debater at Saint Paul’s Johnson High School, shared his experience at the end of his first debate season, showing just how rapidly it makes a positive impact. Read on to learn Sai’s story through his major takeaways over the year.

Sai poses with his team at the Championship tournament. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

Teamwork & Trust 


The first lesson Sai learned was the inherent vulnerability when debating with a partner. Going into debate, Sai wasn’t big on teamwork, “normally, I like to do everything by myself, but…I remember one of the first tournaments that me and my debate partner, Josiah, went to, I was completely reliant on him.” Josiah, who has more debate experience than Sai, rose to the occasion and, “showed that he knew what he was doing while also helping me along the way.” Josiah took notes (called flowing in debate) and helped Sai prepare speeches while also explaining what was important and why. Sai remembers, “it just felt really good to have someone who knew what they were doing and was willing to help out.”

Beyond appreciating peer to peer mentorship and support, Sai also sees the benefit of learning to work with others and being part of a team as he thinks about his plans after high school. He’d like to be an engineer, “and that means being part of a team so I think what I’ve learned in debate and teamwork in general will really help me out in my future career.”


Entering “The Zone” of Critical Thinking

Sai’s favorite aspect about debate is how he feels when he’s, “in the zone,” as he calls it. He felt the pieces fall into place when his partner couldn’t make it, leaving him to debate alone. Sai recalls, “it was really nerve-wracking…but along the way I started connecting the dots.” Suddenly, he was seeing the interactions between the different examples and evidence used in the debate. “I was really in the zone for making my arguments…it just felt really good.” 

Critically thinking about and synthesizing everything happening in a debate round gave Sai a real sense of accomplishment, relishing the process of, “my brain taking in information and using it to formulate arguments,” especially as he learned how to adapt arguments to defend his case against opponents in real time during a debate.

Ultimately, being, “in the zone,” is what Sai loves about debate. He says he knew he was in the zone, “whenever I was going up against another team and they were making a really strong argument and I’m just thinking how do I counter this point? How do I prove my point is better?” Being in the zone, “meant my brain was working overtime as I was making lots of strong connections.” Nothing captures the enthusiasm of a new debater more than Sai’s conclusion: “I guess being in the zone is just feeling really excited for what I can say next.” 


Seeing All Sides

What Sai really didn’t expect from debate was agreeing with the people debating him. It started with the realization that to better appeal to their judges,  Sai and his partner needed to think about the debate and the issues being discussed from their point of view. “To convince someone of something is kind of like empathizing with them,” Sai explained, adding how that insight can be used to show another perspective or appeal to people in different ways. 

By the end of the season, Sai reports there were, “some rounds where I even ended up siding with the opponents because they were making really strong arguments.” Losing debates and being wrong is part of the process, however, Sai notes, concluding, “this whole debate season has just been teaching me there are multiple perspectives to an argument and multiple perspectives can make really strong arguments too.”

Thanks for taking the time to share how your first year in debate went with us, Sai! It is young, voracious scholars like you who inspire us everyday!

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