Introduction - Pros of Selecting a New Topic
One of the most important pedagogical decisions Summer Debate Camps make is selecting which topic they use to center camp education around. Broadly speaking, Camp Directors have 2 choices: (i) select a previously debated topic or (ii) select a new topic.
Most camps opt for (ii), and typically the new topic they choose is based on the short-list of topics chosen by the NSDA that can be debated during the upcoming debate season. This 2-part article discusses pros and cons of using a new Camp topic vs the previous season’s TOC topic, which is what students learning debate over summers with DebateDrills (through 1-on-1 in person debate camps, virtual summer tutoring and our Online Debate Camp) have used to learn debate over the summers. Part 1 of this article series explores some of the powerful arguments in favor of (i) and Part 2 explains why ultimately, despite these persuasive reasons in favor of (i), we have opted to use the previous season’s TOC topic.
Developing Research Skills
Undoubtedly, having campers spend the first few days of camp working on a brand new topic they have not researched before forces students to do intensive research. Unlike the regular season, Camps provide unique learning opportunities for students in the form of diverse coaching staffs who allow students to get real-time feedback on their research both in small group labs and in office hours. This unique setting for research provides students - especially novices and students without strong institutional programs - the opportunity to receive guided feedback on their research.
Additionally, given that becoming good at research is an iterative process that requires years of practice, forcing students to research at Camp can create a uniquely educational experience for students who may typically rely on the NDCA Wiki and Briefs for evidence and cases during the regular season.
Equal Playing Field
A new topic is the best - and perhaps only - way to make sure each camper arrives at Camp with an equal playing field against their peers during practice rounds and Camp Tournaments. This ensures information asymmetry is minimal for topic-specific knowledge.
Imagine a student who is a novice...they are inherently at a disadvantage at camp if the camp uses the previous year’s TOC topic. The novice will be discussing and practicing with peers who dived deep into the TOC topic, creating potentially discouraging learning opportunities for newcomers. Similarly, students whose seasons ended after the regular season and did not compete at
Getting a “Head Start”
One of the most tempting value propositions of Camps choosing new topics that are short-listed by the NSDA is that campers might get a head-start on their competition during the regular season if that topic is chosen.
The accuracy with which Camps over the last few years have been able to predict what is going to end up being the Jan-Feb topic has been impressive. It’s likely that there’s some confounding correlation since students who attend Camps (especially if the Camps all choose the same core Camp topic) also influence the voting during the season for what topics ultimately get selected. Regardless, it’s undeniable that there’s appeal to being able to tell campers that the topic they spend 2-4 weeks over summer preparing becomes a topic they debate during the season when the competitive stakes are highest.
Last, but certainly not least, a strong argument for choosing a new topic is that it’s more fun. Using the previous year’s TOC topic can result in stale, recycled argumentation and be boring for students who are tired of thinking and talking about the January-February Topic.
While it’s hard to properly quantify and weigh the importance of “fun” as an end in itself, ultimately the goal of debate is to equip learners with a powerful skill of life-long skills that help them become active and robust participants in shaping our future. It’s hard to imagine students gaining those skills if they aren’t having fun!
In the next article, we will explore some arguments in favor of choosing the previous year’s TOC topic and why the above arguments ultimately weren’t sufficient to persuade us to structure our Online Debate Camp differently.