Parliamentary Debate at PHSSL: A Five-Year Critique

By Ben Edwards, Upper St. Clair HS, Pittsburgh

(Click here to download a copy in PDF format)

The Event:

            My major argument against the rules currently used by PHSSL is that as it stands, Parli can easily become Public Forum or Policy debate with three people. The ability to have the scripted resolution in advance is detrimental to the spirit of Parli because it rewards the same skills as the aforementioned events and not the skills Parli should foster like broad background knowledge, logic, speaking well, and convincing argumentation. If the league is looking for an event that can’t be over-researched, speed-read, or impossible for lay judges to evaluate, NPDA (National Parliamentary Debate Association) and CHSSA (California High School Speech Association) rules would be a perfect fit. Here are some highlights of these rules:

 ·         More structure in what to expect

o   `A definition of “This House”, which is the core of any Parli debate and tells you which house of Parliament is housing the debate.

o   The wording of the resolution is an indicator to student and judge of what type of debate they are going to hear (fact= PFD, value=LD, policy=CX).

o   Clarity that the Government (Pro) has the fiat and burden to define the debate, and how the Opposition (Con) has the opportunity to respond to it, and produce an “off case” as well.

·         A ballot that tells judges what to expect and what to look for with a range of points already familiar to debate judges that would not cause extreme swings in student ranking based on said points.

·         Two debaters, which alleviates difficulty of finding a team of three for each tournament. Furthermore, it may encourage more schools to host Parli as an event because they won’t have to purchase as many trophies

·         Clearer method in how to coach the event because of the structural improvements mentioned above.

·         Highlighting the skills mentioned above that are rapidly disappearing from other events.

·         Eliminates a lot of temptation to cheat by not allowing students to write entire cases before tournaments for prepared and impromptu topics


Here is a link to the CHSSA Rules (via the Coast Forensic League)


The Perils of Change:


Here are a few issues I could see arising from a sweeping rules change.

·         Fewer students would be involved in the educational experience: Two instead of three

·         Some novices will have more trouble with the impromptu nature of resolutions (see “Ideas for Adaptation” section)

·         Some coaches and students are used to doing Parli a certain way already, have just gotten used to it, and may not want to change.

·         Students may leave some of the other debate events because Parli takes less formal preparation

·         The LOC (Leader of Opposition Constructive) Speech is challenging because the LO must adapt quickly to the round the PM (Prime Minister) outlined.

·         Some topics I’ve seen have been pretty specific, and more novitiate students may have no idea what to say about them because they don’t have prior knowledge. That said, the way the round is defined can be manipulated to serve the students’ needs easily in this situation.

·         Parli tournaments would take slightly more time, and the event would need to be started earlier (along with Extemp and Policy) to compensate for the absence of prepared rounds (see “Ideas for Adaptation” section)

·         Because of the lack of time in defining resolutions, there may be Topicality and Critique arguments given by the Opposition in cases of abuse or truism (essentially anything which causes the educational level of the debate to deteriorate). This issue exists now in PHSSL Parli.


Changes That Need to be Made:


·         The ballot should have some type of instructions to judges on what to expect, as well as the times of individual speeches.

·         The point structure needs to be given a range familiar to other debates with no breakdown. It takes too long to fill out/add up for most judges, and the wide range of points allows some judges to completely alter the course of a tournament by giving very high or very low points.

·         There should be work done to promote a general understanding of what Parli is, as opposed to PFD/LD/Policy with a focus on the Government having the fiat and burden of defining the resolution, and the Opposition responding.

·         The names of the teams should be changed to Government and Opposition, and the individual speakers to the Prime Minister, Member of Government, Leader of Opposition and the Member of Opposition. Parli is full of decorum, and this change will help separate it from other debate events.

·         It should be made clear that studies, statistics, and other formally cited research may be considered, but logical reasoning and argumentation and clear and well-spoken presentation should be given paramount attention in the evaluation of the round.

·         “This House” needs to be defined by the Government, or else that burden falls to the Opposition, and they can define it however they’d like, as the Government has declined to do so. The same can be said for definitions of key terms.

·         In that same vein, any questioning of definitions by the Opposition is a Topicality argument, and should be considered a separate reason to vote for the Opposition. The only way a Topicality argument should factor into the decision of the judge is if the Opposition has proven their position, as defined by the Government, to be impossible to debate and detrimental to the educational process.

·         The exact wording of resolutions should not be made available, and no coach or competitor should have knowledge of exact wordings of resolutions until they are read at a tournament.

·         Clarification of the importance of wording and definition of resolutions

·         Clarify the three different types of points: Information (essentially a CX question), Clarification (can you please rephrase?), and Order (New information is being brought up in the final speech)

·         Clarify that since there is no prep time, it is appropriate to either pass notes to teammates or whisper quietly during speeches.

·         Clarify that both on and off cases should be presented at a time when they can be rebutted. There were some teams at states last year who each gave a new contention for their case, and the third speaker on the Opposition’s contention could not be refuted until the 3min Reply, which is not enough time to rebut a new contention, overcome 9min of Opposition evidence, and crystallize their own case.


Changes that Should Be Made (but are not absolutely necessary):

·         Number of competitors from 3 to 2. The third speaker essentially

·         Time changes from 66666633 to 777755, which is considerably shorter and allows for more prep time.

·         Introduction of “metaphorical” resolutions that truly exemplify Parli skill in defining the resolution

·         Students should follow the decorum of Parliament and refer to each other by their titles. They should also thank their partners, opponents, and the judge at the beginning of their constructives.


Ideas for Adaptation from NPDA Rules for PHSSL

·         Gradually increase speech times by year and tournament. When I used to run practice rounds, I would use 5s & 4s or even 4s & 3s and work our way up to 7s & 5s. This could be implemented and changed over several years with the goal being better overall Parli debate in the long-run

·         Have two divisions, one for practice with lower time limits and simpler topics, and the other with the full NPDA rules

·         Giving the topics out to students in the Communicator (a la extemp & comm), but not exact resolutions. This would serve to alleviate stress about a round where no one knows anything about the resolution given.

·         Isolate a single type of resolution to prepare for at a given tournament so students would know it would be PF, LD, CX, or Metaphorically focused. This could cut down on confusion in the beginning, and let students grow into the more varied resolutions, especially the CX ones where they have to solve a problem during prep.

·         In the beginning, regulate “This House” to always serve as “this room”, “the US Federal Government”, or “the UN” (which are three common ways to define it). Personally, I think defining TH is the most important thing the Government is responsible for, but I can see this as a benefit from a clarity standpoint if the goal is to make the judge’s job clearer.