Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Impromptu Speaking and Digital Citizenship: Thoughts from the National Debate Tournament

Today is Thursday, June 14, 2012. More importantly, today is the Thursday of the National Forensic League Championships, or as I affectionately call it, Impromptu Day.

For those of you who have never been to a High School Speech and Debate tournament, I want to take a few minutes to paint a picture, because it is what is best about education on a number of levels. Students who are passionate about learning, competition, performance and excellence are competing in intellectual, communicative, and critical thinking activities through their own choice, guided by passionate teachers and educators.  They are also generally dressed really nice and on their best behavior which is also cool.

Students wait for postings of the semi-final speech competition
The national tournament is the culmination of this activity, gathering over three thousand of the best speakers, debaters, and performers from around the nation. To compete at this level you must qualify through local competitions and the quality shows. Over the course of three days students compete in ten main events, gradually narrowing the field from hundreds, to sixty, to 12, to 6, to the national champion.

On Thursday of nationals week, about a thousand of the speakers and debaters who have been eliminated from main events gather in a single room for the Impromptu speaking competition. These students have a variety of skill sets: excellent speakers, critical analyzers, extemporaneous responses. Each of these skills play a part as 3/5 of the competitors are eliminated each round throughout the day. The competition is intense and the stress level resembles a marathon as students are given five minutes to prepare a five minute speech on a choice of three topics and then wait to find out if they survive to compete in the next round. Sometime late Thursday evening, the final six competitors are sent home to prepare for a final round of competition and the crowning of a new national champion.

It is amazing.

As I drove into the competition this morning I was reviewing the last minute advice to give my six students entering this fray:
  • Speak slowly and give yourself time to think of your next sentence
  • Play to your strengths, debaters are analyzers -- don't try to out-smoothtalk a person who gives prepared speeches every weekend.
  • Find a structure: Thesis supported by two independent  points works well. Examples should support the points, not the thesis directly. Don't speak a string of examples. It's not good in life and not good in competition.
As I constructed the final piece of advice in my head regarding introductions (quality quotations, striking statistics, alliterative anecdotes), I was struck by a disconnect that applies to Impromptu speaking, Extemporaneous speaking (30 minutes of researched preparation), debate events -- the lack of Internet.

I am often asked to draw on my forensic experience to be give impromptu speeches about technology, digital citizenship, a pre-dinner invocation, etc. It is not atypical for me to reach into my pocket and grab a phone to look up a quick statistic, remind myself of the exact wording of a quotation that stuck in my head, or find something pithy from a Jesuit. In the same way that technology has made memorization of quick-reference facts unnecessary in many circumstances, the internet has done away with the traditional quotebook, almanacs, etc. -- Except in competitive speech.
[end interlude]

While computer use has been growing in competitive forensics at all levels (taking notes, storing/retrieving local information, reading speeches), there is a ban on connectivity in all competitive events and only explicit acceptance of any computer use in debate and one type of speech.

The original NFL. Click for more information
On Friday evening, the National Forensic League will crown a new champion in Impromptu speaking. She will have weathered a brutal day of competition against the top high school speakers and thinkers in the nation. He will have been witty, insightful, and inspiring. This champion will have done this without access to the largest repository of information available in human history.

and this is a missed opportunity...

One goal of education is to provide opportunities and experiences that allow for the development of specific skills and thought processes that will serve the student, his or her community, and ultimately the world in becoming a better place. As we move through the beginning phases of a culture of information availability and inundation, the ability practically and effectively access information quickly and apply it appropriately is going to be essential.

Students who are limited to local information are under-served in developing the skill of accessing the most relevant, up-to-date, and effective information...even with five minutes of preparation.

Students who are not given the choice on how to use their time (outlining points or googling a quote; finding a statistic or developing an anecdote), are missing a practical and useful experience that will serve them well as they become the communicators and leaders of the future.

These are the life skills necessary for the next generation of students. And educational institutions, from schools to competitive organizations, can play an essential role in developing these life skills through practical application, opportunities for failures, and reflection on the choices made each day, in each class, in each round.

Instead, our students find themselves relying on the tools of the previous generation of competitors: printed sheets of quotations alphabetized by topic, memorized stories that can apply as an introduction to a speech that is shoehorned to fit a  punchline, a few memorized statistics.

To be fair, there are a number of practical reasons for this decision that I am sure the competition committees have to take into consideration: equality of opportunity, issues of connectivity and power, the ethics (or lack thereof) of illegal contact with coaches during rounds. But it wasn't that long ago that most educators fought tooth and nail to prevent the use of cell phones in class.

The paradigm is shifting. We need to reassess the educational objectives of our organizations.
  • Are we holding onto outdated modes of instruction? 
  • Are the techniques that are being taught the skills that will most effectively allow our #digital.natives to transform into the #digital.citizens that will deal effectively with more access, more data, and more distraction than we can possibly imagine today? 
  • Are we playing it safe in our schools?
Education is at a crossroads in so many ways: how do we teach? what do we value most? how much control is necessary or effective? Ultimately, these decisions should be made based on what prepares the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and speakers for the future that they will face. We have to start answering these questions now.

You have five minutes.