I was homeschooled from Kindergarten through 8th grade—after 4 years of public high school & 4 years of public university, I spent 8 years teaching elementary and middle school. Now, I’m returning to the homeschooled world with a message.
Let’s start with the punchline: homeschoolers are uniquely situated to dominate the world of competitive debate. And they need to do so, for themselves, and for the world.
Debate is the ultimate merger of academic skills. Competitive debate consists of hour-long rounds where reading, writing and research meet speech, persuasion and confidence.
Homeschoolers often excel at the hard academic skills needed to win rounds.
Although the causes are varied, homeschooled students consistently outperform the average public school student on academics, nearly across the board.
Yet, there are potential areas of challenge in homeschooling as well as successes. Poor teaching, low motivation, insufficient support for disabled or neurodiverse students, wide variance in standards — just like in public schools, the world of homeschooling has a number of cracks that it is possible for students to fall through.
The practice of debate can help to fill these cracks as well, for those who need it. A growing body of evidence from Daniel Shackleford (Johns Hopkins) and Briana Mezuk (University of Michigan) shows increases in academic skills (1,2), test scores (1,2), graduation rates (3), and behavioral markers (4) like attendance for school students practicing debate.
And it makes sense: working with college-level material to research, read, analyze, write about and debate current events is sure to both challenge and inspire many middle- and high-school students.
Yet these latter skills—speech, persuasion, and confidence, can sometimes be underdeveloped in homeschooled students.
Now, let me be clear: homeschoolers aren’t poorly socialized. Research on socialization for homeschooled and public/private school students shows some differences, but typically shows homeschooled students as more cooperative, assertive, and empathetic than public/private-schooled students, in addition to having less conflict in their close relationships.
But where exceptions arise, students who spend their days at home may not be properly situated to remedy their issues. I was one of those students.
When I went to high school at age 14, my sweet public-school peers greeted me, and, unable to handle even simple greetings through a thick blanket of social anxiety, was quickly labeled as ‘unfriendly’. Looking back, I was unable to make eye contact or return greetings or make even basic small talk, so I can see how they arrived at that conclusion.
In teaching for the last 8 years, I’ve met 14-year-old Joel in many forms. I’ve met girls and boys, homeschooled- and public- and private-school students who share the ‘unsocial syndrome’ in any one of its flavors.
During this time, I’ve witnessed first hand one thing that helps these students grow in confidence: debate.
Practicing debate puts you at your limits of comfort of socialization, of intellect, of focus and of academics. If any of these limits is high for you, you won’t find a better way to push it than debate. And if it’s low—well, debate is a wonderful way to strengthen these skills.
In the Public Forum debate style, the debaters of America are assigned a political current-event topic each month (or two). Students then work with a partner to learn about the topic, research the topic, and write speeches and other materials to help them debate other teams of two in local, regional and national competitions. As a small gift from the pandemic, many of these competitions are now accessible and online.
Each of these hour-long rounds is a chance to read body language and facial expressions, to open your voice and express your thoughts, to listen and evaluate and respond, to exchange ideas, and to develop social skills in a way that sports or music or summer camps simply cannot.
Homeschoolers have the potential to dominate debate. In post-covid 2021, there are an estimated 3.7 million5 homeschoolers in the US—and that number is still on the rise. The National Speech and Debate Association, the nation’s largest debate organization, has had 2 million students in its history. Homeschoolers have the numbers.
Homeschoolers also have the advantage of time. Learning at home dispenses with commutes, the slow pace of learning along with 30 other students, and extraneous activities of school that we all know are nonsense but somehow can’t avoid. The core academic prep-work of debate takes time, and homeschoolers have more time to prepare than public school students.
Lastly, homeschoolers have values. Most students ‘find themselves’ in public schools—but families often homeschool their students for value-based reasons. Many families are instilling values at home that they feel would benefit society. And it’s only through learning to effectively communicate these ideas with the world that these values can spread.
So here’s my call: help your homeschoolers expand their limits, work on their underdeveloped skills in a fun and engaging way, and embrace the unique position homeschoolers are in to dominate the world of political debate.
1- Ko, T., & Mezuk, B. (2021). Debate participation and academic achievement among high school students in the Houston Independent School District: 2012 - 2015. Educational Research And Reviews, 16(6), 219-225. doi: 10.5897/err2021.4137
2- Mezuk, B., Bondarenko, I., Smith, S., & Tucker, E. (2011). Impact of participating in a policy debate program on academic achievement: Evidence from the Chicago Urban Debate League. Educational Research And Reviews, 6(9), 622-635. Retrieved from https://academicjournals.org/journal/ERR/article-abstract/1967ABB6575
3- Shackelford et al. (2019). Participating in a high school debate program and college matriculation and completion: Evidence from the Chicago Debate League. Educational Research And Reviews, 14(11), 397-409. Retrieved from https://academicjournals.org/journal/ERR/article-abstract/671B41361137
4- Shackelford, D. The BUDL Effect: Examining Academic Achievement and Engagement Outcomes of Preadolescent Baltimore Urban Debate League Participants (2019). Educational Researcher. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0013189X19830998
5- Ray, Brian. Homeschooling: The Research, Scholarly articles, studies, facts, research. (9 September 2021). Retrieved 10 September 2021, from https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/
Joel Mounts was born in New Jersey and raised in Michigan. He studied biopsychology in undergrad before launching into a career in education, earning certificates from the education colleges of the University of Michigan, Harvard, and the University of British Columbia. After teaching research skills at his university library, he went on to teach English in China and finally debate in Taiwan. He currently resides in Michigan where he runs Debatetrack, a brand dedicated to providing free and high-quality resources for debate students competing in Public Forum, the most popular debate style in the US. Find out more about Public Forum, including how to get started, at debate.thinkific.com.