Curricular Components 1: Lab

In the ‘Curricular Components’ miniseries within the Curriculum Corner (ok, even I admit that is too much alliteration in one sentence) we are going to provide an in-depth look at the various elements of VBI’s programming. This will not just be a description of the individual curricular elements. We will also look at what role those elements play in our overall understanding of camp, and how we think these elements can be improved.  So, this post will be split into three parts. First, an overview to the curricular element, second a discussion of why the element is important, and third a discussion of some of the challenges and solutions we have been thinking about when crafting the program. 

This first entry in our Curricular Components miniseries is dedicated to lab.

What is Lab?

Those who have been to a debate camp before almost certainly know what ‘lab’ is. It is the most ubiquitous element across debate camps. Every camp I have taught at has sorted students and instructors into labs, at least during their main session. If you are new to debate camp though, then hopefully this explanation will give you a better idea of what your time at debate camp will be like (no matter what camp you are at).

Labs are, in some ways, like a class in high-school. Students are divided into groups of 8-12 and those groups are paired with 2 or 3 instructors, called lab leaders (we match up instructors so that our 1:4 staff to student ratio is reflected within the individual labs). Students spend a good portion of each day with their lab, and thus lab really becomes the central curricular element of a student’s time at camp. Practice rounds are organized within and between labs. Lab leaders are the instructors in charge of assigning case writing and homework. Lab is the context where debaters spend the most time developing core debate skills, learning technical concepts and grasping debate strategy.

Labs differ from a classroom, however, in not being lecture based. Rather than focusing on lectures, labs focus on things like drills, practice rounds and discussions. That is the reason we maintain a 1:4 ratio in labs: it ensures that lab leaders can split up the lab and work with students in more focused and individualized ways. 

Why Lab?

Given that just about every debate camp uses the lab system, it must be important. One reason lab is so important is that labs are ‘foundational’ to most of the curriculum. 

First, labs are pedagogically foundational: labs ensure students develop those core debate skills which are key to scaffolding what they learn in elective studies. Second, labs are socially foundational: students spend more time with their labbies than any other group and thus, normally, build their closest friendships in lab. Third, labs are competitively foundational: for example, each lab forms their own ‘Omegathon’ team for daily interlab competitions (be it a ‘pub quiz night,’ a limbo competition, or a contest to see which lab creates the best lab cheer). Fourth, labs are logistically foundational: we require lab leaders to track attendance, ensuring we know where students are.

Labs are also important because they allow us to more directly specialize the curriculum to meet the needs of every student. We group labs based on a host of characteristics including skill level, age and interest (more on that below) and this allows lab leaders to customize the curriculum so it meets the needs of individual students. Lab leaders tailor what content to cover and at what level based on the skill sets of their students. They can assign homework, such as case writing, in a way that considers the experience and interests of their students. Much of a camp’s curriculum, such as what modules to offer, is set at the level of the whole camp. Lab, however, allows major parts of the curriculum to be set at the level of the individual student.

A final, and important, feature to lab is that it provides a ‘team’ dynamic to the camp experience. Debate camp is about more than teaching students content, it’s also about teaching students how to better teach themselves during the year. But students, for the most part, won’t work alone during the year. Most students will prep and learn with a team. Thus, lab provides students a picture of how they can work with 7-11 other students to effectively prep and collectively improve.

How Can Lab be Better?

Because lab is so foundational to the VBI curriculum, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it better. I want to mention three problems that we have been thinking about/discussing as curriculum directors. The first problem is that it is difficult to be sure what the optimal way to group students is, the second is that it is difficult to balance lab leader specialization and the third is the problem of instructional redundancy.

Lab Grouping

There is a temptation to group students just based on a rough judgment of relative experience. You put the top twelve most experienced debaters together, then the next twelve most experienced debaters and so on, until everyone is sorted.

While I understand why camps are tempted towards this system, it is, after all, the fastest way to organize students, it turns out to be too rough to produce effective groupings.

Indeed, this doesn’t even really allow you to group students by similar skill levels. Two debaters with similar records could be in completely different places for every specific debate skill. If one debater reads plans and theory a lot, and another does almost exclusively framework debate you might end up having debaters who have similar tournament experience needing to learning entirely different sets of ‘basics.’ If you ask most lab leaders who have taught an ‘intermediate’ lab at camp, they will surely tell you that often they need to cover all the basics because while every kid knows a lot of the basics, none of the basics is known by every kid. So, two kids in the room require you to cover the basics of theory, two require you to cover the basics of plan debate, etc. Now, good lab leaders can deal with this problem by dividing up the lab to work on these skills, and by teaching the basics in ways that provide a helpful review for the more experienced debaters, but it does show that there is something problematic about merely organizing labs around rough judgements of skill.

There are at least two other things that it is important to consider when grouping labs.

First, you need to consider how different students flourish in different learning environments. Because of my dyslexia, I am a strongly auditory learner. When I read a book for school, I need to have my computer read the book aloud to me, otherwise I won’t process it well. Some students, when trying to learn a skill like answering theory, will find it especially helpful to see an example of a technique well executed; others, like myself, have difficulty translating examples into practice and find it easier to learn about a technique through discussion.  Some debaters, in turn, lose focus during discussions, while others lose focus during individualized work-time. Grouping students, at least partially, based on the sort of environment in which they learn best can pay real dividends.  (Note: talk of ‘learning styles’ needs to be qualified.  While a significant amount of academic literature argues that different people learn in different ways there is reason to think that the influence of learning styles has been over stated. Additionally, the academic consensus seems to be that everyone learns best by mixing up lots of different learning styles, so instructors must be carefully not to overemphasis one way of teaching just because of a stated preference of the lab.) 

Second, it is important to consider student’s interests when grouping labs. Most instructors can relay a time when they asked their labs what they wanted to cover the last few days of camp and got a different answer from every student. This problem will always exist to some extent, but it can be lessened if one considers interest, along with learning styles and experience, as a relevant criterion for lab placement.  Another advantage to grouping students by interest is that it helps internally regulate student attention. Most students can attend for longer to things they are interested in, which means the more students share interests the easier it is to ensure breaks in instruction occur at the right time for every student involved.

Obviously, once one considers learning styles, interest and experience as all important features of student groupings it takes a really long time to group students into labs. Still, it pays off with far more cohesive learning environments.

A second way that VBI is trying to improve lab grouping is through a voluntary opt-in lab system that we will beta test this summer at VBI Swarthmore. The change would shift emphasis away from similar experience levels and focus more on areas of student interest. Last year I argued at length for this proposal, and so if you would like to get an idea of what the system would look like you can check out the post. (Note: you would only be considered for the program if you actively opt-in.)

Lab Leader Specialization

Because lab leaders are so influential in their labbies’ education at camp, there can sometimes be a worry that the interests and specializations of lab leaders translates into an unbalanced education for their students. Even when you are hiring extremely talented staffers it remains the case that people cannot be experts at everything. I know LD debate quite well, but there are still parts of it which I would happily acknowledge I am not super qualified to teach. I don’t think this means I am not a worthwhile hire for a debate camp (it would be strange if I did think that), instead it just means that I, along with the camps I am at, need to ensure that there are ways to balance out my specializations.

There are several ways to combat the problem of lab leader specialization. The first is to ensure that lab leaders balance one another. Because I am better at teaching analytic philosophy and stock contention debate it makes sense to pair me with an instructor who is better at teaching either policy style or K style debate. This helps ensure that students get a more balanced perspective from their instructors. That alone, however, does not alleviate the problem. For example, suppose we want to split up for drills answering a K, it might still be that I am just not as qualified to give useful feedback at responding to Ks as many other instructors at the camp are.

Thus, VBI is working on an ‘instructor exchange’ program to institute this summer. If my lab needs an instructor with a particular specialization, then we could put that information on the exchange (at the same time mentioning the areas of specialization our instructors have). Then, labs can coordinate an instructor swap for a lab session or two. I have used this technique informally before and found it quite helpful, by providing a formal mechanism we can ensure each lab can benefit. This is not the only way to solve this problem; an alternative and very effective solution is the rotation system developed at TDC (honestly, I don’t know which would be better, the reason I want to try out this system is to provide more flexibility to instructors in picking when and for how long swaps occur as well as maintaining more  instructional continuity by not swapping all the instructors in a lab).

Instructional Redundancy

A third danger with labs is that you risk one instructor not having much to add for some parts of lab and thus tuning out. If I am teaching students about Kantian philosophy, my fellow instructors might not feel like they have much to add to the discussion (though this is almost never true, debaters will have to explain philosophy to people who do not specialize in it, so getting alternative perspectives even in those contexts is helpful). This is a real worry, it sends a bad message to students when instructors tune out and it damages the instructional setting by depriving students of a plurality of perspectives.

The easiest part of solving this problem occurs at the level of camp policy. VBI, like most camps, is very explicit that instructors should be engaged at all times with instructional activities in lab. Similarly, VBI insists that labs focus on things like discussions and drills rather than lectures (which decreases opportunities for instructors to tune out).

However, these solutions are never perfect, and the reason they are not perfect is just because teaching is hard. We are all only human and after weeks and weeks of debate camp everyone (myself included) has difficulty focusing. The other prong of VBI’s solution, therefore, is instructor training and care. VBI places a big emphasis on instructor training, we provide instructors with opportunities to have their lab sessions observed to allow future brainstorming with curriculum directors of ways to resolve problems developing in lab. We have great instructors, but there is always space to further develop in one’s teaching skills.  Thus, VBI tries to emphasize teaching training to empower instructors with additional solutions to problems like instructional redundancy (an example of a technique I like to employ is splitting up into mini discussion groups with one lab leader a piece and then bringing those discussion groups together later for a whole lab discussion, this tends to improve both student and instructor attention).

VBI has also spent a lot of time this year discussing ways to improve our instructor care. We are developing a program to give instructors time off to recharge if they are working at multiple sessions. Similarly, we put a lot of work into designing our daily schedule to ensure instructors can get plenty of time to sleep and relax allowing them to be alert and focused during all instructional periods.

That’s Lab! I hope you found this overview helpful whether in designing your own camp curriculum, understanding what you would be signing up for at VBI, or helpful in getting inside my head (not sure why you would want to do that, but who knows). Let us know in the comment section if you have any additional questions about the lab system at VBI, or would like to know our thoughts on other aspects of the lab system.