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Building Advocates: Helping Principals Find Their Voice for Speech Activities

By Thomas Lietz on September 29, 2020 hst Print

The world of the secondary school principal – often the fate-determiner for speech activities in the schools – is one of competing interests. When decisions are based on data and best practices, the need for debate and speech activities ought to be evident now more than ever.

In his article The Value of Speech, Debate and Theatre Activities: Making the Case for Forensics, Dr. Minch (2006) isolates three essential reasons speech activities are so critically important for student development. First, he argues that speech activities allow learning to move beyond the classroom into authentic opportunities to demonstrate deep learning, understanding, application of skills and feedback that is just not possible within the construct of the 50- or even 90-minute classroom.

Secondly, speech activities provide a uniquely focused opportunity to enhance critical life skills, specifically communication and critical-thinking skills. These are increasingly valuable in a world rich with information and in need of qualities necessary to process, organize and utilize that information. Debate offers the most intense practice in these behaviors and is perennially referenced by scholars, CEOs, presidents and even principals, as the gateway and direct route to advanced critical-thinking and analytical skills.

Finally, Minch discusses the impact on critical competencies of reading and writing and their subsequent impact on standardized testing. High school administrators must improve reading, writing and math proficiency as a requisite measure of school success. As Dr. Minch states, debate, as well as speech and theatre, engenders fundamental skills central to student success, and “the relationship with overall academic performance is intuitive” (2006, p. 17).

Researchers outside the world of debate and speech activities certainly substantiate these claims. The SAT was redesigned seven years ago, rewarding critical thinking capacity, not vocabulary. Use of context, command of evidence and source analysis, challenges grounded in “real-world contexts” – skills emphasized in the SAT – are inherent to debate and speech.

Educational researcher John Hattie’s work on performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning, incorporate his “effect size” evaluated learning strategies designed to ensure enhanced learning (2020). Hattie’s highest effect sizes, his “enhanced zones of effect,” include skills specifically germane to speech activities, such as inquiry-based learning, feedback and formative evaluation (practice). Assessment-capable learners, that is students who understand the purpose and desired outcomes of their learning – a central tenant of organized speech activities – reside at the highest levels of enhanced effects.

Coaches understand this value, but administrators are not always so tuned into these facts. Chris Kuhlman, one of Michigan’s most successful speech and debate coaches, four-time recipient of Michigan’s coveted George Ziegelmueller Award for the top debate team in the state, and coach of individual and team state champs for the past eight years, had this to say about the importance of administrative support for speech activities:

Administrative support is at the forefront of any successful program or class. It is through administrators that coaches and teachers can be empowered to educate students and nurture their skillsets. Moreover, administrators need to recognize the value in an elective that provides students with a lifelong skill. Access to this must start with administrative support. Their promotion of these activities is essential.

When Michigan State University placed its debate team, sandwiched between its football and basketball teams on its social media – touting its championship culture – the university broke through a unique barrier acknowledging the importance of speech activities (Putnam, 2015). Imagine the power of that kind of circulation at high schools. Promotion of sports happens naturally – that is not the case for speech activities.

Administrators often have the power of life and death for speech activities with budgets hanging in the balance, and few activities in schools offer the same immediate and long-term benefits as do speech activities. However, when budgeting to improve schools academically and social-emotionally, these activities are seldom in administrative sights unless they were participants themselves.

Coaches need to invite administrators to realize the value of speech activities. To be supported, know your administrator, do the audience analysis work at which speech participants are so skilled, and tailor your approach to meet their needs rather than your own.

Make advocates of administrators. COVID has demonstrated the fragility of athletics, whereas speech activities can utilize virtual platforms to take the floor and flex their oratorical muscle. Administrators must be invited to understand the value that investment in debate and speech adds to overall success of their schools academically and culturally. Debate and speech activities exist either because there is an individual coach who will recruit and sustain the activity or because the school, as an institution, believes speech and debate is important and will ensure staff and support is provided. Having an administrative champion is essential.

The world of high-stakes assessments still holds sway in k-12 education, but soft-skills, social-emotional well-being, and collaborative capacities are creating counter gravity. Debate and speech activities instill in competitors practical and academic capacities extending far beyond any competitive round. Similar to the way robotics captured administrative imagination in the STEM-driven mid-90s, so debate and speech is poised for critical mass in the soft-skill centric 21st century marketplace our students will enter. Speech and debate’s time has come, and principals are needed to champion these activities and provide resonance to that voice!

Works Cited

Hattie, J. (2020, September 9). Visible Learning. Retrieved from Visible Learning.org: https://visible-learning.org/

Minch, K. (2006). The Value of Speech, Debate and Theatre Activities: Making the Case for Forensics. Indianapolis: NFHS Publications.

Putnam, J. (2015, December 28). Which is MSU’s top team? This squad has a good argument. Detroit Free Press.