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Debate for Civic Learning: A Model for Renewing Higher Education’s Civic Mission

Paul E. Mabrey III, Kevin E. Boston-Hill, Drew Stelljes, Jess Boersma|December 13, 2021

Rapidly eroding financial support and tuition increases that outpace inflation threaten the viability of an education that considers civic engagement as foundational. Simultaneously, institutions of higher education are increasingly perceived by the public as market-driven entities existing for the economic benefit of the individual, the upward mobility of a social class, and in turn the further sedimentation of racial and class differences. Now, more than ever, our nation is in need of deliberate attempts to fashion common understandings, ways to navigate inevitable disagreements, and reasonable paths forward. Higher education is positioned to respond to these civic needs but requires a commitment to be bold and remain dedicated to our shared civic mission in the face of alarming polarization and vacated institutional trust. One way institutions of higher education can return to their shared sense of civic mission is with the integration of debate across the curriculum through innovative partnerships and collaborative design. Debate across the curriculum utilizes intentional course redesign to offer active learning experiences that combine public speaking, evidence-based reasoning, collaborative learning, and argumentation into various advocacy simulations. The debate for civic learning model has faculty partnered across multiple institutions to design, integrate, and assess debate-based pedagogy to positively impact student civic learning. Students and faculty across disciplines have reported that debate-based pedagogy helped improve classroom engagement, critical problem solving, perspective taking, empathy, and advocacy skills. This mixed-method research provides insights not only into debate-based course design and learning improvement strategies but also into how faculty, students, and administrators can partner between institutions to demonstrate a shared commitment to the civic mission of higher education and democratic promise of our nation.

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