Discover more from Victory Briefs
Walk and Talk: Some Thoughts About Thinking About Debate Camp by Lawrence Zhou
Lawrence Zhou is a graduate assistant at the University of Wyoming, head coach of Team Wyoming, and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Victory Briefs.
The health and cognitive benefits of exercise are often discussed but rarely applied in the context of debate education. In this post, Lawrence reviews some of the research on the benefits of walking and movement and how we can incorporate these findings into both online and in-person debate camp curriculum.
I remember while reading Thinking, Fast and Slow being struck by how many of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s most interesting thoughts and discoveries seemed to happen while they were out for a stroll. In the book, Kahneman would describe the many walks the incredible pair (basically responsible for pioneering the field of behavioral economics) would have outside of the office and how those walks often produced some of the most interesting discoveries about their research topics at the time. Kahneman would talk about how the walks weren’t just to get a change of scenery from the lab, but how they were strategic uses of time that yielded tangible benefits including stimulating mental activity.
At first, I didn’t think much of this. It just seemed like another point in favor of the fact that exercise is, in fact, good (a message that’s been drilled into me from watching too many Matt D’Avella videos). It’s good for both physical and mental health, boosts productivity, and improves cognition. But almost everyone knows that, even if not everyone actually exercises. Blah blah blah, sleep more, exercise more, stay healthy, I’d heard it all a million times before.
But by thinking of walking as just another form of exercise, I was actually missing out on something important. It’s not just that walking is exercise and exercise produces generally keener minds in the long run, it’s that there is something valuable about walking itself and how it shapes the way we think in the short run. We often think of the benefits of exercise as coming later down the road, but there’s also something immediately beneficial about just taking a nice walk.
I didn’t revisit the importance of walking until I listened to Annie Murphy Paul’s excellent interview on the Ezra Klein Show where Paul was explaining some of the key messages of her new book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (you can find the full transcript of the episode here). The thrust of the episode focused on critiquing the metaphor of the mind as a computer where intelligence is solely isolated within the brain, arguing that the human mind is instead contextual. She argues that we should think of our bodies, social networks, and surroundings as “extra-neural” inputs that have a “profound influence on cognition.” Drawing from the work of philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers who pioneered the extended mind thesis (EMT) in their 1998 paper also entitled “The Extended Mind,” Paul argues that not only have we been thinking about thinking wrong, but we have also been thinking about how to set up society wrong.
While I’m not sure if I fully agree with all of Paul’s criticism, I’m pretty persuaded by many of Paul’s points, especially the ones she makes about embodied cognition (the idea that thought is shaped by bodily experience). In Chapter 2 “Thinking with Movement,” Paul advances many practical ideas forward, but the one I want to focus on is walking.
The Importance of Walking
The reason I rediscovered this idea of walking is because in Chapter 2 of The Extended Mind, Paul details the power of walks to Kahneman and Tversky’s (the economists I mentioned in the introduction) creative process. She writes:
Kahneman spends a few months each year in Berkeley, California, and on most days he takes a four-mile walk on a marked path in the hills, with a view of San Francisco Bay. Ever the scientist, Kahneman has subjected the experience to close analysis. “I usually keep track of my time and have learned a fair amount about effort from doing so,” he writes. “I have found a speed, about 17 minutes for a mile, which I experience as a stroll. I certainly exert physical effort and burn more calories at that speed than if I sat in a recliner, but I experience no strain, no conflict, and no need to push myself. I am also able to think and work while walking at that rate. Indeed, I suspect that the mild physical arousal of the walk may spill over into greater mental alertness.”
But it’s not just the story of a brilliant pair of researchers that led me to believe that maybe there was something special about walking. It’s because that story lines up with some of the best empirical research on the power of walking. Paul continues:
Kahneman’s careful self-observations are backed up by empirical research. Moderate-intensity exercise, practiced for a moderate length of time, improves our ability to think both during and immediately after the activity. The positive changes documented by scientists include an increase in the capacity to focus attention and resist distraction; greater verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility; enhanced problem-solving and decision-making abilities; and increased working memory, as well as more durable long-term memory for what is learned. The proposed mechanisms by which these changes occur include heightened arousal (as Kahneman speculated), increased blood flow to the brain, and the release of a number of neurochemicals, which increase the efficiency of information transmission in the brain and which promote the growth of neurons, or brain cells. The beneficial mental effects of moderately intense activity have been shown to last for as long as two hours after exercise ends.
The evidence for these claims is quite strong and now fairly widely accepted. Walking has been shown to have a myriad of health benefits, from being a low-impact form of exercise with substantial health benefits to a useful tool to counteract mild cognitive impairments. But, as Paul notes, it also has substantial cognitive benefits. As Susan Hrach observes in her book Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning, the body must first be interacting with the world before the mind is opened up and engaged for learning.
Dr. Jeff Fidler, a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic, used to regularly review tens of thousands of images a day sitting down. Nowadays, Fidler does so while walking on a “walking workstation,” which is just a treadmill in front of a large screen that displays his radiological slides (you may have seen treadmill and standing desks being advertised as WFH was becoming more popular). Curious to test out whether walking while working impaired performance, Fidler and his colleagues set up a simple study to see if walking while working was worth it. While the stated objective of the study was to help “reduce sedentary work environments” to “help reduce obesity,” the results of the study suggested another important benefit—physicians who were walking while reviewing radiological images detected more irregularities present in the images than physicians who were sitting while reviewing the images. In other words, walking improved the cognition and performance of the radiologists.
The power of walking and moving is increasingly recognized in education as well. For example, researchers Christine Langhanns and Hermann Müller found in a 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Research that students who were told to sit still performed worse at solving math problems compared to students who were moving around. Reed A. Omary is a professor of radiology and Vanderbilt University and he often hosts meetings while walking around campus. He says it helps put participants at ease, encourages physical exercise, and stimulates creative thinking. Daniel Schwartz, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, often encourages doctoral students to walk with him as they brainstorm about their dissertations and has published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition showing that walks improve creative thinking.
As Marily Oppezzo, a behavioral and learning scientist with a doctorate in Educational Psychology from Stanford, and Daniel Schwartz conclude in their study, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas.” Oppezzo has even given a TEDx talk on this subject (a very easy listen and one that I recommend you give a listen to if you don’t want to read the whole study) where she very simply outlines the case for walking and thinking.
The power of walking is often overlooked, both in terms of its health but especially its cognitive benefits. And the importance of movement on cognition has never seriously entered the conversation in debate camp curriculum. In the next section, I offer some suggestions for how to incorporate walking and movement into debate camp instruction, both online and in-person.
Implications for Debate Camp
In the vein of some of the old “Curriculum Corner” posts that Marshall Bierson (then Thompson), Sunhee Simon, and I wrote a few years ago, I conclude with recommendations on how these findings could potentially be employed at debate camp, both online and in-person.
While some camps are making the transition back to in-person for the summer, some camps will remain online for cost, safety, and convenience reasons. It’s no secret that online educational experiences are worse by many metrics. Students have a harder time focusing and this translates to noticeable learning loss and learning delays, worse academic performance especially for students with ADHD, and negative health impacts. While there are many steps online camps can take to improve the quality of online instruction (I found the recommendations by Barbara Oakley, Beth Rogowsky, and Terrence Sejnowski in their book Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn to be especially helpful), one important step should be to encourage students to move.
Several studies have shown that online education is, not surprisingly, associated with decreased physical activity. While many online debate camps have built in “time away” from computers into their schedules to reduce Zoom fatigue, it’s clear that many students are not leaving their computers (whether because they are doing more debate work, socializing online, just watching YouTube videos, or something else) and that is not only is that harmful from a health standpoint (e.g., contributing to increased eye strain), but it’s also harmful from a learning standpoint. As the evidence cited earlier shows, it is important to encourage physical movement amongst students.
There are a few ways to potentially encourage such healthy behavior. There is already good research to show the importance of breaks generally and in educational settings, as it is important to help students focus and develop creativity and social skills. It’s especially important to take breaks in online settings. Camp instructors should consider mandating breaks with suggestions for physical movement and lead by example. For example, encourage students to take a walk, go outside and get some fresh air, or do a few jumping jacks. Oppezzo suggests in her TEDx talk giving people a topic to brainstorm before going on a walk. Lab leaders can also encourage walking outside by assigning students to listen to a podcast as they walk, create competitions to share nature photos that students take by going outside, or even lead a mini-dance competition during the break. I have even seen suggestions to use tools like the pedometers in Apple Watches, Fitbits, or in most phones to have step count competitions as happened in the UK.
Lab leaders can also do things to encourage movement during lab sessions. For example, lab leaders can have students give speeches while standing. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, suggests that people should think about using the whole room they’re videoconferencing from, including having people speak while far away from their camera and move around while they speak. Lab leaders can also encourage students to position their camera so that the audience can see the speaker’s gestures which not only helps for understanding, speaking, and learning, but also encourages physical movement (and even burns a few calories, although not very many). It’s also fine to encourage pacing during lab just like those people who pace while on phone calls. I personally found it very helpful to teach from a standing desk while teaching my online course as I found it to help me focus if I paced around while I spoke. Instructors can also encourage movement-based learning as attaching gestures to concepts helps students learn. Finally, instructors can host class outside, so students can see nature in the background, and encourage students to also go outside during lab (recognizing that it will not be feasible for every student to go outside during lab).
In my opinion, the key is to make physical movement the norm. Debate, and many academic activities, has a bad problem of glorifying some unhealthy habits like the lack of sleep or exercise. Lab leaders have a responsibility to their students to encourage behaviors and habits that help them become better students and people. Leading by example by talking about the health and cognitive benefits of going on walks and moving around can set the tone for lab early on and promote healthy behavior among students.
While online camp does pose many problems for learning and none of the suggestions here are a silver bullet, I think that adopting some of the suggestions mentioned above can do a little to make online debate camp a more healthy and educational experience.
As camps like Victory Briefs are returning in-person, now is a good time to think about how to take advantage of all the benefits that in-person camp can offer beyond the social opportunities (not to understate the importance of socializing). In particular, I think now that we have the time to appreciate the benefits of in-person debate and camp, we also have the time to rethink camp’s relationship to movement and cognition.
One thing that Victory Briefs does is run an inter-lab competition known as Omegathon, a series of competitive events that range from trivia competitions (Pub Quiz!) to games of ninja. I am often known as a camp grouch that hates fun and so I rarely participate in Omegathon, but I think it’s important to have physical activities at camp like tag or scavenger hunts that encourage students to move. I think all camps should consider incorporating some physical activity into the schedule (similar to recess) to encourage more healthy behavior among students and staff alike. Remember, many of the short-term cognitive benefits of exercise can be enjoyed for hours after the exercise ends.
Lab settings should also consider employing more physical movement into their lesson planning. Using tools like four corner discussions (where students move to corners of the room based on opinions on subjects or their assignments by lab leaders) or mutual discussions (where students move around the room to find partners to discuss new concepts with) can help get students out of their seats and make them move around more. Students should be encouraged to stand more often, including while delivering speeches. Breaks should be employed frequently, with suggestions to move around during those breaks. Labs can also be held outside, especially when the weather outside is nice, which encourages movement and exposes students to a change of scenery and fresh air (and also helps bring people closer with nature, a benefit that Henry David Thoreau extolls in his 1862 essay aptly titled “Walking”). Making movement a part of classroom culture will go a long way to improving students’ mental and physical health.
Finally, I think the “walk and talk” should be used more often at camp. Back when VBI introduced Dine with a Mind and Dine with Two Minds, the rationale was that being a part of more informal conversations between instructors would be invaluable to students. The same can be said of a “walk and talk,” another tool that can add immense value to both students and instructors while taking advantage of something we already do naturally and similar to what many academics are already doing with their students.
Many of us already implicitly recognize the value of walking and talking. You often find clusters of students, staff, or both, walking to and from activities together, sometimes breaking into spontaneous conversations about debate that would otherwise not occur during formal instructional time. There are a few ways to make walking and talking more common at camp. Mentors (or any other one-on-one meeting session) can encourage walk and talks for some of the sessions (for instance, the ones that don’t involve a drill). Lab leaders can also sign up (individually or in pairs) to walk from the dorms to the cafeteria or from the lab buildings to the electives together and students can join them from the walk. These walks encourage more student bonding and also provide a valuable opportunity for students to learn from the staff. And there can be built in time at the end of the day for instructors to lead short walks across the campus that students can join instructors on.
Again, I think the important thing is to make physical movement part of the culture, a norm. Instructors should recognize the importance of embodied cognition and avoid trying to make students sit still and focus on cutting cards for hours on end with no break. People learn better when they move and we should encourage more movement, especially when there’s no good reason to be sitting still and not moving.
While many camp curriculum pages will discuss research about the importance of one-on-one instruction, the importance of retrieval practice, or ideas from Bloom’s taxonomy, one thing that is rarely ever discussed is the importance of movement to both health and learning. Even if no camp adopts a single one of the recommendations I’ve listed here, I think it’s important to at least get the conversation rolling about how we can incorporate movement into learning at debate camp and I think a "walk and talk" is a great place to start.