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Debate and The Art of Learning: A Reflection

Tian Yan 2

Guest Blogger: Tian Yan

This article is about how I apply the practice of debate and the ideas discussed in Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” to my own personal development. Like Josh, I’m writing as honestly as I can, and in doing so, am sharing with you the most personal aspects of my life—things I’ve not even told my closest friends.

My name is Tian Yan. I’m a final-year software engineering undergraduate from Malaysia.

Three years ago, I dropped out of a top-20-world-ranking university because I was failing my academic course. I returned to Malaysia and continued my education in the Asia Pacific University College of Technology and Innovation (UCTI).

For more than a year, I battled personal demons because I got kicked out from the university I worked so hard to enter. I was more disappointed in myself than other people were and I wasn’t sure if I could ever accomplish anything difficult again. Having to restart my education with much younger peers did not help matters.

But then I discovered debating.


A friend asked me to participate in an upcoming debate tournament. I was scared as hell because I had scars from debating back in high school. Fortunately, I quickly agreed to participate before my mind gave me excuses not to go. I needed to regain a sense of accomplishment.

I learned to love the game. We got killed in that first tournament, but I made many close friends who took me under their wings and taught me the foundational skills of debate.

In my second tournament, we broke through the quarter-finals as underdogs. A debate adjudicator thought we had potential and trained us for free in a one-day crash course.

In my third tournament, we gave it everything we had. Even though we had had only four months of debating, we managed to emerge in the octo-finals of the Asian British Parliamentary debating championship. I hadn’t felt so alive in a very long time.

More important, I always meet someone new in every tournament. When we compete against each other, it feels almost like a reunion. In his book, Josh says that “Experience is what you get when you don’t win.” I would add: “Friendships are what you get just for trying.”

I discovered Josh’s “The Art Of Learning” through an interview he did with Dave Lakahni and Dr. Ben Mack. When Josh shared his insights in winning world chess championships and Tai Chi Push Hands tournaments, they resonated with my own debating experience: How Josh found his love for chess and described the experience as “reconnecting with a lost memory”….How he turned down the offer to share the world championship title with a draw because it was not a meaningful win….And how he transfered his excellence from chess to Tai Chi, a sport outside his domain.

All that felt just like my experience with debating.

Like white chess pieces, the Government team has the strategic advantage over the Opposition team in deciding the first move.

As in Tai Chi, we tempt our opponents to overextend their case beyond the limits of their arguments and use their admissions to prove our own case in no definite order.

Like Josh, debaters create chaos in debates and trap our opponents with an unexpected attack.

After studying Josh’s ideas, debating took on a whole different meaning for me. I now see it as a vehicle for developing mental discipline and keeping my mind even and focused during critical moments. The practice influenced my debating philosophy and taught me to love my rival opponents, even the ones who played dirty. In Josh’s words:“Your opponent is your enemy, yet there is no one who knows you more intimately, no one who challenges you so profoundly and pushes you so relentlessly.”

Since we’re stuck without a coach, it can be intimidating to debate against world champions and other seasoned debaters. And so, part of our practice is to learn everything we can from every opportunity we get. The pressure I feel to win lies in the fact that my career started late. I’ve only six months left to debate and if I can accomplish something worthwhile, I will have no reason to believe I cannot master anything difficult again – even though I was a university drop-out once.

Yet, too many peop3d human with a red question markle enter debate tournaments not to win, but to “not to lose.” And that’s a shame because they never strive to win and therefore miss out on the cumulative benefits that can make them better. Unfortunately, some people see winning as the only option and can never accept their loss. And that’s a shame too because they don’t understand that losses are an important investment in self-discovery. That’s why we always remember our most humbling losses.

Finally, I learned to ask myself this question: “Does my debating make me a better person?” Being a debater does not mean I have the license to be rude and right all the time. Instead, the practice of debate has only gone to show me how the many months I spent in debate training failed to make me a better person. That’s why my passion for learning to debate better now includes teaching it to others – this makes me feel like a better person and fulfills my sense of accomplishment.

I challenge you to strive for a similar sense of achievement through your own pursuits.


Heather Danforth
Heather Danforth

Guest Blogger: Heather Danforth

Heather, an elementary school teacher in rural Wyoming, is working with The Art of Learning and sharing her classroom experiences…

Lesson Two: Value Process Before Results

This lesson began with a short video of a hermit crab changing shells. The students watched as the hermit crab quickly made the leap from one shell to another, and then we discussed what they had witnessed. Even my youngest students understood the significance of the quick transition; because the hermit crab is most vulnerable when it is outside its shell, it makes these changes quickly to minimize the time that it leaves itself open to attack. Then I posed the question: If leaving its shell makes it vulnerable, why does the hermit crab do this? We discussed the fact that, if the crab were to stay in the same shell, it could never grow.  The hermit crab must make itself vulnerable in order to grow.
Following our hermit crab talk, it was easy to shift the direction of the discussion to the relevance of this metaphor to our ownCIMG2313-742119 lives. I told my students the story of my first ballroom dance class, admitting to them that I felt frightened and embarrassed when, on the first day, I realized that I was easily the worst student in the class. Everyone seemed to master the steps more quickly than I did! When I returned home, I was tempted to drop the class. It would have been easy not to return. I could have gone back to the things that I felt comfortable with, such as reading and writing, and left this art to those that (I supposed) were born with the natural talent to be successful. However, I really wanted to learn this skill, so I didn’t give up. Instead, I found the best dancer in the class and asked him if he would be willing to partner with me – under his tutelage, I often felt clumsy and slow, but I learned. Even if something took me 50 tries to master, while it only took someone else 5 tries, I put in the necessary time and effort. Four years later, after many more classes, I was no longer the worst dancer in the room. In order to grow, I had to make myself vulnerable. There were no shortcuts. Growth only came when I was willing to step outside of my comfort zone and take on someone that was outside my current level of ability.
After I shared my story of feeling like a shell-less hermit crab, my students were eager to share their own stories. Tae kwon do, skiing, ballet, long division, interpreting poetry … they each described times when they had felt as vulnerable as the hermit crab making the jump to a larger shell. We discussed the kind of self-talk that can naturally follow in these experiences: “Wow, I

brainguess I’m not as smart as I thought I was” or “I’m just bad at this, there’s no hope for me.” We brainstormed a list of things we could tell ourselves to change this negative self talk. Class favorites included “I guess I’m changing shells, and that’s a good thing!” or “If I were lifting weights, I’d have to “max out” to make any growth. I guess I’m “maxing out” my brain!” Now, I often remind students that we need to take opportunities to change our shells – stepping out of our comfort zones and going beyond our current abilities in order to grow. Even more powerful, I have noticed students reminding one another of the same thing. Recently, I watched one of my young students start to cry because he was struggling with a difficult math problem. Another student put her arm around him and said, “It’s okay – you’re just a hermit crab changing shells.”

Teaching The Art of Learning In a Rural Wyoming Elementary School (Part Two)

Heather Danforth
Heather Danforth

Guest Blogger: Heather Danforth

Heather, an elementary school teacher in rural Wyoming, is working with The Art of Learning and sharing her classroom experiences…

Lesson One: Two Theories of Intelligence

I introduced my first lesson from The Art of Learning. After a lot of thought, I decided to introduce the principle of incremental vs. entity theories of intelligence first. I felt that this would be a good foundational principle to build upon – unfortunately, many of my students develop an intense fear of making a mistake, or even appearing to work at something, because they wrongly equate intelligence with ease – if they have to work at something, they’d rather not do it, because then people might see them working hard and decide that they’re really not as smart as they originally thought. They end up going into difficult tasks, far too often, with a performance rather than a learning mentality – they want people to see them do well, rather than taking pleasure in the learning of a new skill, which they might not excel at right away. So I set out to teach these two theories of intelligence to my students. I knew that I needed to make this idea fairly concrete. While their abstract thinking skills are advanced for their age, they still need to link abstract ideas with concrete images.

The lesson began with a discussion. I asked students what they told themselves when they did well on a test or assignment, and what they told themselves when they did poorly. My students are familiar with the concept of self-talk – it’s something we discuss regularly. We discussed the different things that you might tell yourself: “I must be really smart!” vs. “I worked hard and it shows!” or “I’m dumb at math.” vs. “I guess I didn’t study very hard for this test. I’ll have to work harder next time.” After our brief discussion, I shared an object lesson with my students, using a wooden dowel to represent fixed intelligence and a ball of Play-Doh to represent malleable, incremental intelligence. PLAYDOH

We discussed the difference between these two items, and then I used them as a metaphor for the two ideas of intelligence. The malleable Play-Doh is like malleable intelligence – it can be shaped and molded into whatever task you need it for. On the other hand, the wooden dowel is fixed – it can’t be changed. And if a person with this fixed idea of intelligence makes a mistake (here I broke the dowel into two pieces) it is difficult to recover from it. It feels like the intelligence that you had before wasn’t real – you just had less intelligence than you thought you had (showing one half of the dowel, while putting the other half to the side). It doesn’t take too long before you’re left with a tiny little piece of “intelligence” (breaking the dowel a few more times), and you don’t feel confident to try anything new. On the other hand (breaking the Play-Doh and then putting in back together, molding it into a new shape) the malleable intelligence can take a hit when you make a mistake or fail at something, and bounce right back. In fact, you can easily add to it (here I took another container of Play-Doh and molded the two together into a bigger ball) if you need to, by working hard at something and learning something new. Interestingly enough, one of my students told me at this point that she thought she had the fixed view of intelligence, but that she could see why the “Play-Doh intelligence” was better, and that she thought she’d work on changing her perspective through some different self-talk.

After the object lesson, I shared a story with my students about something that I was unusually bad at – ballroom dancing – but that I stuck with until, while not about to win any national titles, I am definitely better than the average person. It was something outside of my ability, but that I developed ability for through effort, time, and the willingness to persevere. I invited students to share their own stories of persevering at something difficult. They had a lot to share.

With my older elementary students, I then shared some of the research that shows that students who have an incremental theory of intelligence actually do better in school over the long term, so they could hear about some real-life applications of this theory. I finished up the lesson by giving each student a sheet of paper on which I’d copied a clip-art brainstyle picture of a brain working out with weights. Silly, but I wanted to reinforce the lesson. I told them that the brain, while not a muscle, is like a muscle, and its capacity can be increased by working it, just like our capacity to run fast or lift a heavy weight is increased through physical effort. We discussed ways to increase the brain’s capacity, and I asked each student to think of something that he or she is currently not good at, but would like to become proficient at. They wrote these down on the papers that I gave them, along with a way that they could become good at this thing – increasing their ability in an area where it is currently weak. They put these papers in a place where they would see them regularly to remind themselves of this lesson.