Skills for Life: Improvisation Arises in Debate

I love to dig into project-based learning experiences.  Through PBL, students not only gain deep knowledge of a relevant subject through intensive study, but they build collaborative and problem-solving skills in a meaningful context.  There are a plethora of project-based learning contexts to explore; one of my favorites is debate.

In a few weeks, I see students transform from individuals into teams, from apathetic and ignorant to engaged and informed, from timid to confident.  These are lofty goals for any educational arena: for debate, for classroom discussions, and certainly for improvisation. 

Students make numerous mistakes throughout the process, and the day of the debate is no exception.  Research may be sporadic, speeches may be too short, partners may have gone home sick, entire papers may have been forgotten at home.  While these same situations might feel devastating to an adult at a business meeting, my students had an advantage: They had been trained in the philosophy and art of improvisational theater.

As I walked around the room observing the intense, supportive, and courteous debates, I saw evidence of our work and play in improv shown through the behavior of these middle school debate teams.  With only a few notes, many students were able to confidently improvise persuasive speeches.  They adeptly cross-examined and answered each others' questions.  What may have been most impressive was the combination of commitment and risk-taking shown throughout the experience.

How are these skills useful?  While I can think of a wide variety of applications in school, in social groups, and in the workplace, I'd love to hear your ideas for the relevance of improv and debate.  Is arguing worth weeks of class time?  You'd better believe it.


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