Marshall’s Curious Convictions on Camp Curricula

This is a guest post by VBI Curriculum Director Marshall Thompson about an idea for our curriculum. Please fill out the poll at the end, or write a comment, to let us know what you think. 


There has been an idea floating around in the back of my head for several years. It is a good idea (or so I think), however, people in the debate community do not yet give universal deference to my ideas (more’s the pity). Unfortunately, this idea, unlike some ideas I have, actually requires other people to get on board because it deals with an experimental camp curriculum structure which I would need students to opt into. This article is intended to gauge interest in my idea so that VBI can decide if it would be worth trying out this summer.

I will divide this proposal into three parts. The first part will present my curriculum model, the second part will defend the model, and the third part will provide some thoughts on some of the model’s drawbacks.

The Idea

Debate camps should structure labs around interest rather than skill level or experience. Most camps currently divide up labs based in a skills hierarchy. You have top lab and second lab and then a mass of labs generally organized by skill down to the novice labs. Within these labs you will have debaters of diverse interests. I think that is the opposite of what creates the best environment for learning debate. I think labs would be better structured if we grouped kids into what interested them. You would have the framework interested labs, the K interested labs and so on (exactly what the groupings should be is a matter on which I would appreciate the input of others). Within these labs you will have debaters of diverse skill levels.

Now, there a number of things that my idea isn’t, and it’s important to explain that upfront.

First, I am not suggesting that all of camp turn into ‘focus weeks’ where you just spend two or three weeks learning about one style of debate. The framework lab would not just work on framework debate; like any debate lab it would go over the various styles of debate. It would spend time teaching how to run and answer Ks, theory, plans and so on. However, the lab would spend more time on framework debate and it would approach that style in greater depth.

This kind of focus already happens at debate camps. Often one of the first activities a lab does at camp is go around and ask students what they want to focus on improving at. And in most labs you get loads of different answers without much useful overlap. In my model we would simply build the labs around those areas of focus in order to make sure instructors can spend adequate time ensuring each student gets to work on their focus as much as possible (and making sure instructors will have the right expertise).

The lab’s specialty would also provide a lens from which to approach certain generic topics. For example, the way you answer a K if you read a critical aff is VERY different than if you read a case that spent three minutes discussing Rousseau’s Social Contract. More policy focused debaters answer deontology differently than either framework or K debaters do. Thus, generic ‘how to answer K lectures’ in lab often suffer because they do not have a unified lens from which to approach the topic. The lab specialization would help to provide that to a limited degree (again I am not suggesting that the lab would only address how to answer Ks as a framework debater).

Second, I am not suggesting that we would build labs around the same drill and instruction activities just with a different grouping of student. We would build up lab curriculum from the bottom in order to try and take full advantage of the multilevel and interest grouping. Thus, the labs would make opportunities for student instruction, peer case editing etc. a priority.

Third, I am not suggesting that these labs would be as structurally isolated as many labs are now. Often the only interaction that labs get at debate camp are when instructors intentionally set up inter lab debates. On my model such inter lab interaction would have to be more frequent. Not only would the camp work with the various labs to schedule those inter lab debates in a more productive fashion (have the K debaters learn to answer frameworks and the framework debaters learn to answer Ks on the day before the inter lab debates), the camp would also prioritize instructor swaps, thus some of the K instructors would swap with some of the framework instructors when the labs were going over how to run/answer Ks and frameworks.

Fourth, we would not fold the novice lab into this curriculum. Debaters without any experience would not be able to reliably say what they want to focus on, and too many other complications would get mixed in.

Fifth, not every lab would have to be organized in this way, there would well be labs with the traditional structure for students who do not yet know what they want to specialize in.

So that’s the idea, now for the interesting part.

Pedagogical Particulars

I think there would be a huge number of benefit to this model of lab division. I will organize some of the advantages by a heuristically useful, though deeply inelegant, division: the benefits of multilevel labs and the benefits of lab specialization.

Benefits to a Multilevel Lab

I expect many students and coaches will be most concerned with the multilevel aspect of my proposal. However, it is also my experience that many of the most successful debate coaches actually operate their team through strong multilevel integration. I think this is because it implicitly takes advantage of a host of benefits. I know that as a novice on my team at Walt Whitman I was incredibly fortunate that I had bible study during novice practice and thus attended the ‘varsity’ practice. While there were times I did not know what was going on, listening to more advanced conversations were incredibly valuable in broadening my understanding of debate. Here are some of the biggest benefits I think that a multilevel lab would have.

First, a multilevel lab would significantly increase opportunities for student teaching. It is difficult to oversell the pedagogical benefits of teaching as a student. Dr. Wendy Kasten puts it well:

While role theory suggests that people live up to the expectations others have of them, cross-aged tutoring puts some of this into practice. When students of differing ages and abilities help each other in either incidental or systematic ways, the tutor benefits from the self-esteem and confidence that the new role engenders. There are other equally important advantages. The act of teaching is the most powerful learning tool known. Most teachers have learned this feature on their job, as they discover their own new competence in areas they are required to teach. The same holds true for students of all ages. The act of teaching not only requires synthesis but also prompts one to express these new understandings. The act of translating one’s understanding into language is intellectually demanding. One must understand the concept, break it down into parts, describe it with words, and gauge the reaction of the recipient. The sum total of all this is deeper, unforgettable understanding (Drake, 1993; Hedin, 1987; Juel, 1991; Leland & Fitzpatrick, 1994; Lougee, Grueneich, & Hartup, 1977; Teale & Labbo, 1990; Valletutti & Dummett, 1992). [1]

Nor would these benefits merely be isolated to the most experienced kids in the lab. This is because experience does not translate into universal expertise. Debate labs are like schools in that the kids who are several grades ahead in math are not necessarily the best in the humanities. Dividing students up by skill level at most debate camps is frankly a fiction, while the students might have similar records or years of experience what they know best will vary widely. I have taught many labs (including top labs) where there were students who might know a lot about debate broadly but had significant gaps in their education about various introductory specifics.

Multilevel labs would go in with this as an expectation, it would not assume uniform understanding, and thus even less experienced kids will be furnished with opportunities to teach those things they do know well.

Second, a multilevel lab will broaden exposure. Imagine the educational benefits for kids in a JV lab who after each drill got to see a student from top lab do the same drill. Likewise think of the educational benefits of having top kids give feedback to less experienced debaters, helping them to see mistakes the way judges see them (and in a way that is hard to do when others are around the same experience level as yourself). Similarly, top lab kids will learn a lot about the underlying strategy of casing by having to provide case edits and advice to less experienced students (nothing trains you so well in the mechanics of strategy then finding ways to make cases strategic with half the number of cards and without relying on advanced or confusing concepts). Similarly, younger students in proving case edits to older students will get to see up close the strategic features that they may run into during the year (and will do so in an environment where they can talk to the author in an honest form without the misdirection of CX).  There is literature to back this idea up as well. Dr. Kasten again:

[T]heorists such as Vygotsky talk about the benefit of spurring learning and development as a result of problem-solving opportunities that occur between learners of different abilities (the zone of proximal development). Learners benefit from each other through interactions in ways that cannot be accomplished alone (Vygotsky, 1978). Others have added to this idea by emphasizing the value of multiple perspectives and models in learning, even when the models aren’t necessarily all good ones. The mere presence of perspectives caused by interaction is a powerful learning catalyst (Bornstein & Bruner, 1989; DiLorenzo & Salter, 1965; Piaget 1928, 1977; Trudge & Rogoff, 1989; Webb, 1977; Wood, 1988). This type of learning is an inherent feature of multiage classrooms[.] [2]

Third, multilevel labs would have an enormously beneficial effect on student’s character. Working with students of different levels in a supervised environment helps to develop charity in students and craft debaters into more considerate persons.  This is important, it has strategic value given that students during the year compete with a multilevel team. But more importantly, learning charity is important to improve tolerance in debate. I have seen far too often an experienced debater leaving camp with an obnoxious arrogance which translates into a cool cruelty to younger or non-circuit debaters they debate during the year.  Debate camps are partly responsible for the phenomena, and have a moral obligation to try and combat it.  This is not just my own theorizing, I looked it up and studies agree with my intuitions. It turns out that “in affective and social indicators, students in multi-age classrooms strongly outperform students in single-grade classrooms (Miller, “Multiage Grouping”; Pratt; Connell). They score higher in study habits, social interaction, self-motivation, cooperation, and attitudes to school (Gayfer).” [3] Overall multilevel classrooms empirically result in “fewer aggressive and competitive behaviors; instead, individuals in these mixed-aged settings show more caring, nurturing, and altruistic behaviors.” [4]

Fourth, multilevel labs will force greater consideration of students as individuals. I think one of the least productive aspects of most camp labs is the homework assigned, this is not because homework is not valuable but because it is often generically assigned to everyone in the lab. This is not good pedagogical practice. Individual students require different amounts of sleep, work better alone or in groups, will struggle more and less with different assignments etc. It will not be possible to take such a non-tailored approach to instruction and assignment in a multilevel lab. By making recognition of individual difference in abilities core to the curricula process it would help refocus education on the needs of individual students. “Multilevel programming recognizes that each student is at a different stage of learning and focuses on the developmental stage of the learner; of necessity, the focus moves to individual learning along a continuum.” [5]

There are other benefits, but I think the above is a representative sample.

Benefits to a Topic Specialized Lab

First, there is lots of inefficiency packed into debate labs as they currently stand. This is often the clearest in the second week of lab when all the basics have been covered. When I discuss what to cover with my fellow lab leaders its difficult because different students want to spend time on different things, often radically different things. Inevitably some students don’t get what they want covered, and others have to review material they already know extremely well. This is unfortunate, especially because I think often the decision about what to cover has less to do with students and more to do with instructor interests than it should. My model would help to group both student and instructor interest to cut down on a lot of that inefficiency.

Secondly, this model would provide a more reinforced learning environment. You learn more effectively when future lessons build off of and reinforce previous lessons. In a world with a shared specialization there is far greater ability to create that reinforcement. For instance, after the Framework lab goes over how to answer Ks they would debate the K lab and be guaranteed to put that experience into practice. Similarly, framework debate would be a repeated theme that would tie together otherwise disparate lessons in way that should naturally lead to greater reinforcement. 

Third, this model would allow time for instruction that often is not gotten to during debate camps. For example, by the time you cover how to run frameworks, theory, Ks and policy arguments (plans and counterplans), and then cover how to answer each of those there is not enough time to then discuss how to answer each of those given what you are running. There are 8 lessons if you go over how to run and answer each position, if you go over how to run each position against each other position (how to answer framework while reading a K) you end up with 16 additional lessons not even considering adding in judge adaptation. The result is that you never learn how to answer Ks as a framework debater (or vice versa) with the result that K vs framework debates (which I judge quite often) are ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE.

Dangers and Drawbacks

This is a far from foolproof suggestion. Indeed, there are a number of dangers I see in trying to adopt it. First, there is significant literature that says that multilevel classrooms are worse than ordinary classrooms when the teacher tries to just recycle old single level curricula. While you may often want to divide up the lab for some instruction, trying that primarily rather than using the multilevel features of the lab will produce poor results (or so the literature warns me). Camps don’t always have the best track records for providing the instructor training that may well be necessary to pull this off. This is one of the reasons I want feedback on the model, because I do not want to try and spend all the time developing curriculum to them not have enough student interest to have justified the time.

Second, I worry deeply about encouraging further fragmentation in debate. There is no denying that fragmentation exists currently, and grouping students up by interest has the potential to make LD even more exclusionary and cliquish than it is now (sometimes it’s hard to believe that is possible). I think instructors would have to be very cognizant of this risk and work hard to counteract it. I think inter lab integration will also be an important tool to minimize this tendency (both having labs work together and by swapping around instructors to encourage debaters to see things from different perspectives).

Thirdly, I worry that this will decrease student’s willingness to step outside of their comfort zone. I’m not sure how real this worry is, because I think kids who choose to specialize in what they are comfortable in would have done so anyway (and indeed because the labs will go into greater depth they might actually learn more than they otherwise would). However, it is still a real worry for me.


There are other worries I have and other benefits I see (from the inability to find the representative instructors to eliminating the unhealthy fetishization of top lab) and will be happy to discuss those ideas in the comments if anyone would like. For now, I would like to try and gauge feedback on the idea through the attached poll to see if there would be enough interest to justify moving forward with the idea.

[socialpoll id=”2342737″]



[1] Wendy C. Kasten, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kent State University. “Why does multiage make sense? Compelling arguments for educational change.” Primary Voices K–6 6.2 (1998). Pages 5-6.

[2] Ibid 5.

[3] Manitoba Education and Youth. Independent Together: Supporting the Multilevel Learning Community. 2003. Chapter 1: Learning and Teaching in a Multilevel Classroom. Page 1.4.

[4] Ibid Kasten, 6.

[5] Ibid Manitoba, 1.6.