The Debater's Guide to Using the Elements and Standards of Thought

(PDF) (online interactive version)

Every time we think, 8 elements are involved:

We think within a point of view for a purpose in response to a question using information and concepts based on assumptions to form conclusions which have implications.



Using the Elements to Prepare for a Debate

Element of Thought

Preparation Question




What is the purpose of this debate?  How will proposition and opposition answer this question differently?




What are the key questions each side must answer to fulfill its burdens in this debate?







What kinds of information, data, and evidence do we know / must we find to deeply understand this issue / topic and to support / prove our arguments?




What are the key concepts or big ideas that must surface and predominate in this debate?







What major assumption will each side make that the other side will challenge?  In other words, if we put the word, "because", after the motion, what "precious thing" will each side say is at stake in this debate? (caseline)




What conclusions / arguments / model will each team develop and present?  How will we label, sequence, and connect these?







What positive implications will result from "our" side's case?  Which negative implications will result from "their" case? (Consider SPLEEM elements)




Which points of view do we need to take into account?  Who are the stakeholders?  Which ones do we foreground for each side of this case?  Why?



  • COACHING TIP: Ask your debaters these questions at different stages in their preparation to see where they're at and what they need!

The Standards of Thought

Once I've done my thinking (perhaps in the chart above), how do I tell if it's any good?


Using the Standards of Thought for Construction, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction


Construction and Reconstruction



Have I clearly developed and articulated my ideas?

Does this argument fall because my opponent has failed to clearly develop and articulate it?


Are my assumptions, claims, evidence, and logic accurate?  If not, what kind of research and reasoning do I have to do to make sure that what I say is actually true and current?

Does this argument fall because my opponents have mistakenly treated something false as true?  How can I prove that inaccuracies muddle or invalidate their reasoning?


Have I developed and expressed this idea to the necessary or ideal level of precision?  If not, what do I need to tighten?

Does this argument fall because it is too general or vague to be meaningful in the context of the debate?


Are my definitions relevant to the context or issue the motion points to?  Are my arguments relevant to my burdens and caseline?  Is my evidence / example relevant to my argument?

Does this argument fall because, while interesting or perhaps even significant in another context, it is not applicable or necessary to this motion?


Does my reasoning get to the bottom of this issue?  Do I understand what makes it both complex and urgent?

Does this argument / case fall because the opposition's reasoning is superficial and simplistic?


Have I considered this issue from multiple points of view and contexts?  Have I gathered information and ideas from a sufficient number of sources?

Does this argument fall because the opposition's point of view and/or scope of evidence is too narrow?


Does my reasoning progress logically?  Are the connections between my ideas clear?  Are my lines of cause and effect clear and accurate?

Does this argument fall because it exhibits a logical fallacy?


Have I chosen the most significant concepts, examples, points of view, and implications for this debate?

Does this argument fall because it doesn't have enough weight / value to prove the claim / thesis?


Am I representing different points of view, including my opponent's, fairly - that is, without addition, omission, or distortion?

Does this argument fall because the opposition has unfairly represented others' thinking?


SUGGESTION: Pair Standards of Thought with Elements of Thought, particularly in clash!  Ex: "My opponent's claim fails to meet the standard of logic . . . ; The implications raised by my opponents are too insignificant to warrant policy change . . . . "


The Intellectual Traits: The Big Picture of Debate

According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, human beings tend to think about things in egocentric and sociocentric ways unless they make a conscious effort to do otherwise (by applying the Standards of Thought to the Elements of Thought across the domains of their lives!).  Ecocentric thinking looks something like this:

"IT'S TRUE BECAUSE I BELIEVE IT." Innate egocentrism: I assume that what I believe is true even though I have never questioned the basis for many of my beliefs.


"IT'S TRUE BECAUSE WE BELIEVE IT." Innate sociocentrism: I assume that the dominant beliefs of the groups to which I belong are true even though I have never questioned the basis for those beliefs.


"IT'S TRUE BECAUSE I WANT TO BELIEVE IT." Innate wish fulfillment: I believe in whatever puts me (or the groups to which I belong) in a positive light. I believe what "feels good," what does not require me to change my thinking in any significant way, what does not require me to admit I have been wrong.


"IT'S TRUE BECAUSE I HAVE ALWAYS BELIEVED IT." Innate self-validation: I have a strong desire to maintain beliefs that I have long held, even though I have not seriously considered the extent to which those beliefs are justified by the evidence.


"IT'S TRUE BECAUSE IT IS IN MY SELFISH INTEREST TO BELIEVE IT." Innate selfishness: I believe whatever justifies my getting more power, money, or personal advantage even though these beliefs are not grounded in sound reasoning or evidence.


© 2008 Foundation for Critical Thinking Press 22 The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools


Applying the Standards to the Elements whenever we face a debate allows us to develop the Intellectual Traits that are the foundation of citizenship.  These intellectual traits are distinct from character traits, as they focus on the knower's relationship to knowledge itself.



These are the Valuable Intellectual Traits that debaters develop as they invest in understanding diverse, complex issues from 2 or more points of view:

Intellectual Empathy the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own.


Intellectual Humility Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint.


Intellectual Perseverance the ability to persist in one's inquiry until one is satisfied that one has met the Standards of Thought; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.


Intellectual Courage the ability to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group


Intellectual Integrity to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one's antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one's own thought and action.


COACHING TIP: Try discussions where debaters reflect on the traits a motion or tournament challenged them to practice!

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