Up for Debate

During the pandemic, should restaurants be allowed to offer indoor dining to their customers? Last month, when this complicated question was on many New Yorkers’ minds, Upper School Mathematics Teacher Stephen Bonnett brought it and other high-stakes issues to his Introduction to Economics class.

Collaborating with Upper School Librarian Liza Oldham, who is the Director of the Annenberg Center for Learning and Research, Mr. Bonnett designed a comprehensive unit that centered on the elements of a persuasive debate.

Because the overarching goal of this capstone project is to strengthen students’ skills as social science researchers, sophisticated thinkers, and convincing public speakers, thorough preparation was in order.

As such, the students spent weeks studying an array of scholarly and popular readings – on economics-focused topics like housing, the stock market, and e-commerce – and critically examining the evidence the articles offered, paying particular attention to gaps or assumptions that weakened the central theses. The students practiced presenting their findings to their classmates.

With these preliminary lessons serving as a foundation, the students were ready to embark on a bona fide debate experience. First, they submitted nominations of debate-worthy topics, most of which touched on timely trends and events, and ranked their level of interest. Ultimately, two piqued the class’s curiosity in equal measure. Thus, half the students made plans to debate the pros and cons of indoor dining while the other half discussed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The afternoon class, a combination of in-person and virtual learners, was poised to make cases for and against indoor dining. The minimum-wage team, who gave their arguments during a previous session, served as judges for this debate, evaluating each team’s performance and helping to determine a winner.

Ahead of the presentations, the teams compiled annotated bibliographies that fortified their pro or con arguments. At a minimum, each bibliography had to contain 12 sources, including five from popular press, two scholarly references published in academic journals, and one international source. The students added brief summaries to each of their references, describing specific ways the information helped enhance their position.

“Okay, let’s get this started,” said Mr. Bonnett, a hint of excitement in his voice. “In favor team, you’re up.”

For the next 15 minutes, three students took turns outlining the main argument and reinforcing their stance with solid examples, each speaking for approximately four minutes. “Opening indoor dining is the only solution to save restaurants,” posited the first, who functioned as the “opener.” Her teammates contributed compelling evidence to support their case.

“Opposing team, you’re up,” said Mr. Bonnett as this team’s opener, who spoke from her spot in an Upper School classroom, delivered a cogent introduction. Once again, two more students, one joining remotely from home, put forth their carefully gathered evidence against opening indoor dining.

“Now is not the time to consider reopening restaurants,” one stressed, adding, “We have a moral obligation to decrease the risk of Covid.”

Following both teams’ presentations, Mr. Bonnett announced the last component of this invigorating debate, the rebuttal/closing, during which one representative from each team had the opportunity to refute any pieces of evidence from the other team, while bolstering their own team’s position.

Citing a variety of facts and figures, the students pointed to factors like mask wearing, access to vaccines, and tax credits for restaurants in their arguments, counter arguments and closing statements. The final minutes of this class were devoted to questions and comments from the student judges. “That was articulate, thoughtful and well-argued,” one remarked.

“Well done, all,” praised Mr. Bonnett, who planned to proclaim a winner after receiving feedback from the student judges. “This is such a current topic and such a meaningful one.”

With that, the students – capable researchers and accomplished debaters all – took a welcome break before embarking on their next activity.