When we think about debate and topics that are commonly debated, it is rare that we would think about using debate in the field of mathematics. However, it is being done, and the result is a new level of empowerment and growth in mathematics students. I searched for some time to find examples of how debate is being used in the teaching of mathematics, and all roads continued to lead to High school math teacher and debate coach Chris Luzniak. To see him in action, you can watch him highlighted on PBS. Or you can listen to his podcast. I recently interviewed Chris for additional insight. Let’s read what he had to say about his passion for the topic, his technique, and advice for where instructors can find additional information.

What drew you to the field of teaching mathematics? 

In college, I decided to major in mathematics, and I went to grad school for math right after that. I love math. I was teaching undergraduate math classes while in grad school, and I found I enjoyed teaching math more than the research I was doing. I think math is fascinating--all about patterns and problem solving. Even more fascinating is how to help others understand the beauty in the subject.  

Why is debate important in learning mathematics? - As a follow up- what are the transferable skills?

To me, math is about communication and argumentation. Think about every time your teacher asked you to explain your answer or when you learned about proofs. I know a lot of students think math is all about getting a correct answer, but I think math is more than computation. Math is really about making sense of ideas or patterns. Math is about problem solving. And, to me, being good at math is being able to clearly articulate and defend your conclusion. That sounds like debate to me: making a claim and defending it with a convincing argument. 

In what way(s) do you use debate in your classroom?  

I use debate in many, many ways in my class. I often start class with short debates because it starts conversations and helps students' brains become more attuned to critical thinking. Debate questions are incorporated within classwork, homework, quizzes, and tests, too. I don't always ask for the right answer. Instead, I ask what is the best method or whose model is best. If you truly understand a topic, you can articulate your understanding and defend your conclusion--you can debate math! 

You can see plenty of examples from middle and high school math in my book Up for Debate!  (published by Stenhouse). 

Is there a specific branch of mathematics that is more suitable for debate?

I don't think so. I think everything in math can be made into a debatable question. Try and stump me. Or check out our podcast #DebateMath (debatemath.com). Did you know you and I might have different definitions of a trapezoid, depending on what state we live in?

Why do you think using debate in teaching mathematics is not more widespread? 

I think the US math curriculum is focused on learning too many topics quickly each year. So, the focus becomes on how quickly you can get the correct method or correct answer and move on. There's not enough focus on reasoning, problem solving and debating. It's partly a product of the Cold War--when the focus of school math was to get as many students to Calculus as possible, and nothing has really changed since then. It's easier to keep doing what we've been doing. And because we don't debate more, no one is used to questioning things. This is why my friend Rob and I created the #DebateMath podcast--to get educators debating ideas around math and math pedagogy. 

What do you think are the personal/student impacts of debate? 

I believe the benefits are huge. Specifically for math class, it helps increase discourse, makes for more engaging lessons, and makes lessons more student-centered. Students can improve their critical thinking, verbal processing, vocabulary, and argumentation and reasoning. It helps build better mathematicians! And on a personal level, debate can improve listening, speaking, and flexible thinking skills. It really helps build more thoughtful and empathetic humans, something our world needs badly. 

What resources exist for mathematics teachers who want to try using debate in their classrooms? 

I don't know of many other people doing much with debate in math, specifically. I would suggest starting with my website (luzniak.com). There are examples of questions that I have shared, and some of the Debate Cards were created by other math teachers who gave me permission to freely share them on my site. My book Up for Debate! has many examples and a much more thorough explanation of what I do and ways to develop debate in any math class. 

Do you think these methods can be implemented by a teacher who is new to debate?

Absolutely! My whole goal in sharing debate activities on my website and in my book was to make them accessible to all teachers, at any level of comfort. The whole goal is to start small, getting students more used to talking and creating small arguments and building from there. I also host an online workshop (Up for Debate) for more in-depth professional development for this, as well as consult with schools who want more direct help. 

Sawyer I. Basch is a life-long resident of New York City. His primary areas of focus are on science and statistics. His current research interests include scientific communication about genetically modified organisms, student interests in learning STEM, and intersections of science and technology.

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