In 2018, every Round of the Schools Competition will have a Skills Focus Area, intended to afford debaters an opportunity to improve their skills in relation to a particular aspect of debating. The TDU will accompany each announcement of topics with a brief guide to the Round’s Skills Focus, and adjudicators will provide teams with feedback relating to that area after each debate (although it should be noted that the Skills Focus Area will not be granted extra weight in scoring).

Round 5 Skills Focus: Structure

The first component of effective speech structure is clear presentation of arguments. The term “argument” refers to a broad idea presented in support of, or in opposition to, the topic of a debate. Arguments should be broader than individual facts or examples, but more specific than simple restatement of the topic. For example, in a debate on the topic that we should ban school uniforms, one argument for the affirmative team might be that banning uniforms saves money for students and their families. Specific facts such as “my school blazer cost a lot of money”, or very broad statements such as “school uniforms are bad”, are not arguments.

Generally, the TDU expects teams to present four arguments (sometimes referred to as substantive material) in any debate: two should be presented by the first speaker, and two should be presented by the second speaker. Teams are encouraged to think about which of their arguments are the most persuasive or important, and to present those arguments as early as possible.

Speakers who are presenting rebuttal should deliver that rebuttal before presenting their arguments. Third speakers should conclude their rebuttal with a short summary of their team’s case, and, particularly as they become more advanced, are encouraged to structure or “theme” their rebuttal. More information about thematic rebuttal can be found below, in the Round 2 Skills Focus Area.

Speakers should clearly flag when they are moving from one section of their speech to another. This is often referred to as signposting, and usually only requires a bridging sentence such as “I will now move to my first argument”. Additionally, first speakers for both teams should briefly outline the arguments their team will make at the beginning of their speeches.

The second component of effective structure is structure within arguments and rebuttal, sometimes referred to as substructure. This can take a variety of forms, and individual speakers are encouraged to find a form of substructure that works for them. Some effective forms of substructure speakers may adopt include:

  • conceptualising arguments as consisting of a claim (the argument title), the warrant for that claim (the reasons the argument is true), and the claim’s impact (the reason why it matters that it is true), and presenting these three things in order
  • identifying a number of reasons why an argument is true, and explaining each of these reasons in turn
  • identifying the different groups of people who might be affected by a policy, and explaining how each group would behave in response to that policy
  • explaining why an opposing team's argument is incorrect, before explaining why, even if it were correct, this would not be significant
  • explaining what the world looks like under the opposing team's model, explaining what the world looks like under their team’s model, and concluding by explaining why their world is better.

Round 3 Skills Focus: the Burden of Proof

The burden of proof refers to the extent to which a team chooses to support the principles and assumptions underlying their side of a debate. Similarly to sports like diving and gymnastics, where participants are awarded higher scores for attempting difficult moves than for successfully executing easy manoeuvres, teams in debating are generally more highly rewarded for setting themselves a difficult burden to prove, and almost but not quite achieving it, than for taking a low burden and successfully discharging it. This is because taking a low burden of proof, by explicitly or implicitly accepting that the principles on which a case is based are either unimportant or applicable only infrequently, makes a team’s support for their own case appear limited and equivocal, limiting their persuasive ability.

A team’s burden of proof does not generally need to be explicitly explained during the debate; it can be helpful for a team to give one or two sentences of explanation about the extent to which they support a particular principle, but speakers should not explicitly describe this as their team’s burden of proof. Instead, the burden a team has adopted is manifested in their model (in a policy debate) or their criteria (in an empirical debate); in the arguments they choose to present; and in the way they talk about those arguments, including the concessions they make during rebuttal (and during Points of Information).

For example, in a debate on the topic that organ donation should be compulsory, the affirmative team would be taking a very high burden of proof if they argued that organ donation should be compulsory for all people on their death, without any exceptions for religious or other reasons, and that in some cases it might be acceptable for the state to kill people (prisoners, for example) in order to harvest their organs. This is a high burden of proof because the team is arguing that the benefits of organ donation are so significant that they always trump some other rights, such as bodily autonomy or the right to religious freedom, and sometimes even trump the right to life.

The affirmative team would be taking a very low burden of proof if they argued that organ donation should be done on an opt-in basis, perhaps with an education campaign in place to encourage people to register to donate. This is a low burden of proof because the team is implicitly conceding that other factors, such as bodily autonomy or the right to freely practise one’s religion, are ultimately more important than the benefits associated with organ donation.

Each of these examples obviously represents an extreme and quite unreasonable burden for an affirmative team to adopt in this debate, and realistically teams would usually fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. A burden of proof that is both reasonable and sufficiently high would be to argue simply that organ donation should be compulsory, with no exceptions. Choosing the right burden of proof is a difficult task, but we encourage teams to aim high, while bearing in mind that it is generally not persuasive to argue for manifestly unreasonable policy.

The burden of proof is a complex concept, and is best understood with practice. We encourage teams to put this information to use in their Round 3 debates, and to contact the Schools Coordinators with any further questions.

Round 2 Skills Focus: Rebuttal

Generally, speakers in a debate will present two kinds of matter: arguments supporting their own case, known as substantive, and arguments against the material presented by their opposition, known as rebuttal. Every speaker, aside from first affirmative, should present some rebuttal, and it should represent the bulk of material in third speakers’ speeches. Rebuttal should be presented after a speaker’s introduction, but before their substantive material.

Teams should aim to ensure that every piece of material presented by their opposition is met with at least some rebuttal. Arguments will carry less weight for an adjudicator at the end of a debate if they have been convincingly rebutted.

Rebuttal can generally take one of two forms: explaining why an argument is incorrect, or explaining why it would not matter if the argument were correct. In order to argue that an argument is incorrect, teams might:

  • present facts and examples which demonstrate that the argument is not true in the real world (and, importantly, explain the reason behind these facts and examples)
  • point out that the argument is based on a logical fallacy
  • point out that when the argument was presented by the opposing team, it was not supported by any analysis or evidence
  • explain that the argument presupposes that a certain group of people will behave in a particular way, when in fact they are more likely to behave in some other way
  • highlight any contradictions in the opposing team’s case which suggest that they acknowledge the argument is incorrect

In order to argue that it would not matter if an argument were correct, teams might:

  • note that an argument only affects a small group of people, or that the group of people it affects is less important than another group
  • argue that the outcomes associated with one argument are outweighed by those associated with other arguments raised during the debate
  • highlight any contradictions in the opposing team’s case which suggest that they acknowledge the argument is unimportant

The best rebuttal will take arguments at their highest: even if an argument has not been presented well, or supported by any analysis or evidence, the speaker rebutting it should aim to rebut the best possible version of the argument, rather than simply pointing out that it is obviously incorrect and moving on. This means that high quality rebuttal will often argue both that an argument is factually incorrect and that, even if it were correct, this would not be significant for the outcome of the debate.

For example, in a debate on the topic that we should ban school uniforms, the affirmative team might present the argument that banning school uniforms would be cheaper for students and their families, allowing them to spend the money they would have used to buy uniforms on other things. In response, the negative team could argue:

  • that this argument is incorrect, because without uniforms students will need to buy a collection of different outfits to wear throughout the year, and will likely feel peer pressure to buy expensive designer clothes
  • that even if this argument were correct, it would not be significant, because the money it costs to buy a uniform is a small price to pay for the benefits to community spirit and inclusion associated with school uniforms

As debaters become more advanced, we recommend that they begin to structure or “theme” their rebuttal, rather than just presenting a list of arguments presented by their opposition accompanied by rebuttal relevant to each of those arguments. In particular, third speakers in senior competitions are encouraged to structure their rebuttal as responses to several (generally three) major themes present in their opposition’s case, grouping arguments and evidence together under one of the themes and responding to them from there.

Round 1 Skills Focus: Models

The Round 1 Skills Focus will be models.  In debates with topics beginning with the phrase “that we should…” (also known as policy debates), it is important that affirmative teams explain to the audience the way in which they would implement the policy proposed by the topic. This method of implementation is known as a model. Models should be presented by the first affirmative speaker, but every speaker should understand what their team’s model involves.

Negative teams may not propose a new model for the policy supported by the affirmative team, although they are permitted to argue that the affirmative’s model would not work in practice. Instead, negative teams should tell the audience the policy they would support as an alternative (sometimes known as a counter-model). Are they happy for the world to stay the way it is? Or is there a substantially different, better way to address the issues raised by the affirmative team? The negative team’s counter-model - even if it involves making no change to the status quo - should be presented by the first negative speaker, but again, every speaker should understand what their team’s model involves.

Models and counter-models don’t usually need to be very detailed, but they should give the audience all the basic information they will need to understand how a proposed policy would work in practice. As a rough guide, a speaker should not spend much longer than twenty seconds explaining their team’s model. Models do not replace one of a team's arguments, and should be presented before a speaker begins to present their arguments.

As an example, in a debate on the topic that we should colonise space, the affirmative team’s model should answer the following questions:

  • Who will coordinate the colonisation of space? The United Nations? Individual governments? Private companies?
  • Who will get to go to space? Can anyone apply? Or will people have to pay to go?
  • Where in space will we colonise?
  • How many people will colonise space? Will everyone eventually leave Earth?

The affirmative team’s model does not need to do the following things:

  • Provide an exact cost of space colonisation, or explain in detail the manner in which it will be funded
  • Explain the technology that will be used to colonise space
  • Provide an exact timeline for space colonisation
  • List every location in space that could be colonised

In developing a counter-model, the negative team should consider the following questions:

  • Is there a better way to spend the money that space colonisation would cost?
  • Should we continue with existing space exploration programs?
  • How else could we solve the problems space colonisation might aim to address?