Like many, I watched the September 12th, 2019 presidential debate with interest. Ten leading Democratic candidates vied for the opportunity to run against presumptive Republican nominee President Trump over the course of three hours (with time for breaks).
The recipe for success in these debates is simultaneously simple and elusive: relay answers to the most important and pressing questions in the country (if not the world) in one minute and fifteen seconds, or in a thirty second rebuttal response.
“Winners” in this format are those who are prepared with snappy “sound-bite” answers that get replayed on later news broadcasts. Style and delivery also matters. Candidates should also appear passionate – but not unhinged; aggressive – but not mean; and knowledgeable – but not wonky.
Speaking style should establish a commanding and decisive presence. Any hint of ambiguity or uncertainty undermines the performance. Additional value in the debate format is garnered though humiliating or embarrassing the front-runners – in this case former Vice President Joe Biden, or President Trump.
After reflecting on the debate and reading or watching the analysis from media political pundits, I wonder: is there a better way to do this?
The heart of the problem is that the skills and behaviors necessary to be an effective debater are not necessarily the same as the skills and behaviors necessary to be an effective executive.
Sure, sometimes Presidents are called on to put forth sound bites or take shots at political opponents. But when it comes to the incredible questions with which Presidents wrestle (such as re-designing the nation’s health care system, or responding to a natural disaster, building a coalition to pass the federal budget, or engaging in some military action that puts lives on the line), an entirely different set of skills have to be employed.
In our schools, we seek to recreate learning experiences that mirror the kind of complex work students will do when they graduate. We accomplish this through focusing on a part of the learning process called “task,” which is when the student takes over the learning and does the work.
Quality tasks should align to content standards – meaning they should be rooted in basic and foundational knowledge and facts. But we also want our student tasks to be “authentic,” meaning that they replicate the work and situations students have to do navigate outside of school.
To accomplish this, we ask our teachers to design student tasks that are aligned to the content standards (facts and knowledge), but which also requires the student to solve a meaningful and complex problem, to design or create something new, to persevere and adapt through changing conditions, or to critically evaluate information and make logically sound judgments or inferences.
I wonder if we, as citizens, might have better information by which to vet and select our Presidents if we saw them in action solving an authentic task aligned to the work of that high office?
What if we allowed Presidential contenders to select a team of advisers and then presented them with an real problem that could be rooted in policy, politics, a crisis situation – or all three?
Imagine the contenders (and their teams) being filmed as they worked to navigate an attack on the United States or its interests. Or how they would develop an action plan for an upcoming contentious Congressional vote on making the social security system sustainable and adequate for the long haul. Or how they might negotiate with a rival nation over how to respond to a coup in a country where both sides have mutual interests.
The contenders and their teams would be provided background information on the scenario and might be evaluated by a group of former Presidents and advisers who have been in those very kinds of situations. We might even develop leadership standards and best practices by which to evaluate and “score” the candidates.
In education, we call these kinds of tasks “instructional simulations,” and they are a form of experience-based and “hands on” learning. For teachers, they also provide rich data on student performance across a number of dimensions including teamwork, problem-solving, and communication skills.
One can certainly argue that I am not qualified to suggest such an approach. But I do know something about authentic assessment and I can tell you that the debate process, in my professional judgment, lacks a great deal in providing us useful data on who we (as citizens) should select as our leader.
There has to be a better way.