Livening Up the Classroom at Brown

Brown has a history as an innovative university. In 1970, Brown established the New Curriculum, known today as the Open Curriculum. A radical idea then that remains controversial today, the Open Curriculum gave students almost complete freedom to choose what to study. The Open Curriculum was a great achievement. However, in the 43 years since the Open Curriculum’s adoption, Brown has unfortunately not made another positive and major change to the curriculum.

Some might argue that no change to the curriculum is necessary because the Open Curriculum is the best possible curriculum and therefore needs no improvement. But though the Open Curriculum is good, there is always room for improvement — after all, what is perfect in life?

Today, Brown has the opportunity to continue its history as a pioneer in higher education: Brown should introduce debate into classes. What is debate? By “debate,” I mean argument between students over an issue in the class. For example, in a World War I history class, a debate might take place between two students on the question “Why did the U.S. enter WWI?” The whole class would be involved, since the remaining students in the class would ask questions of both sides, attempting to expose weaknesses and contribute strengths to the arguments.

Our professors get to debate professionally, in their fields of speciality… why don’t we ask them for some training?

In a science class a debate might be an argument between a few students over the answer to a difficult problem. Each side would attempt to prove its conclusion using evidence and logic, and just as in the history class, other students in the classroom would add their own points and questions to help resolve the debate. Since a debate requires a subject and logical reasoning, which is common to all classes, debates could exist in every class. Introducing debates into Brown’s classrooms is prudent for three reasons:

  1. Debates increase student ability more than typical lectures,
  2. Debates make class fun, and
  3. Debates help students develop professional skills, which are often not taught in classes.

Debates increase student ability far beyond the increase in ability from ordinary lectures. Many education researchers today believe that the best learning comes from active learning, or student participation in activities designed to teach the material, as opposed to the passive reception of material in a lecture. A 2004 study at Bucknell University examining the effectiveness of active learning found that “broad support” existed for the effectiveness of active learning.1 The Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning at the University of Delaware argues that active learning is preferable to lectures for four reasons:

  1. Students are involved in more than listening,
  2. Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students’ skills,
  3. Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation), and
  4. Students are engaged in activities (e.g., reading, discussing, writing).

Debate fits all four of these criteria. Debate is clearly more than listening. Debate develops students’ speaking and argument skills rather than simply teaching students about the relevant subject matter. Debate involves significant higher-order thinking in the process of crafting, delivering, and responding to arguments. Finally, debate is of course an activity that falls under discussion. Since debate has all the positive qualities of active learning and comes at no additional cost in the form of materials, introducing debates every so often would be a boost to student achievement.

Apart from debates’ benefit to learning, debates make class fun. Turning learning into a competitive match brings out energy and excitement. Also, competition brings out the best in people, and, the classroom being no exception, we can expect that the best discussion and learning will happen in the classroom under competition as well. I know that the most fun moments of class at Brown I’ve had have been heated but respectful discussions. The quick mental attack, parry, and defense of debate is a thrill.

Lastly, debates would develop professional skills such as public speaking and on-the-spot thinking that are necessary in almost any job. Many employers claim that college graduate do not possess adequate real-world skills. Many colleges are reluctant to teach real-world skills because they are difficult to teach and also because colleges believe that academic learning will suffer if professional skills are given more attention. One beauty of debate is that it combines academic learning (the subject of the debate) with professional development (speaking, presentation, and quick thinking). Warren Buffett, clearly able in academics and an accomplished professional, has said about communication: “If you improve your communication skills, I guarantee you that you will earn 50 percent more money over your lifetime.” Out of the many professional skills Brown could teach, debate has the most benefit to future careers.

Introducing debate into Brown’s classrooms would improve learning, liven up the classrooms, and prepare students to be better professionals. It is likely that debate may not be the best improvement that could be made to the Open Curriculum. However, it is also likely that in 1970, the Open Curriculum was not the best improvement that could be made to the curriculum, but it was still a great improvement that was adopted. Let us adopt debates into the curriculum and continue to raise the bar of educational excellence at Brown.


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About the author

Oliver Hudson is editor emeritus of the Spectator and a graduate of Brown university in Applied Math-Computer Science.

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