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Doing public forum debate in high school

Updated on March 5, 2013

"PoFo" or Public Forum debate

I have coached and judged public forum debate in a high school setting. Public Forum is a form of two person versus two person debate that is primarily done in high school. Out of the three major types of debate (Policy, Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum), public forum (aka “Pofo”) is the least intense, most like debates on TV and requires the least amount of preparation. It is also called “Crossfire” debate because of the way that teams question each other and make points of contention.

The time controls – the order of speakers for the debate – are as follows:

Team A: First Speaker: Constructive Speech

4 minutes

Team B: First Speaker: Constructive Speech

4 minutes

Crossfire (between first speakers)

3 minutes

Team A: Second Speaker: Rebuttal

4 minutes

Team B: Second Speaker: Rebuttal

4 minutes

Crossfire (between second speakers)

3 minutes

Team A: First Speaker: Summary

2 minutes

Team B: First Speaker: Summary

2 minute

Grand Crossfire (All speakers)

3 minutes

Team A: Second Speaker: Final Focus/Last Shot

2 minute

Team B: Second Speaker: Final Focus/Last Shot

2 minute

Each team has 2 minutes of preparation time to be used anytime during the debate.

The topic, or “resolution” to be debated changes every month. The most recent resolution is April 2013, below:

April 2013: Resolved: The continuation of current U.S. anti-drug policies in Latin America will do more harm than good.

PoFo debate is a lively form of debate where debaters question each other during the “Crossfire” rounds. In that sense, it is not so different from presidential debates we see on television during an election year. This type of debate requires you to be quick on your feet, have prepared for all possible arguments on the topic, and also requires a level of decorum or respect for one’s own partner as well as the opposing side.

PoFo debate does require preparation. For example, for the April 2013 topic, debaters would need to develop arguments to debate both the affirmative and negative side of the US anti-drug policies in Latin America. The resolution is typically set up in terms of “will do more harm than good” implying a certain balance to the topic. Students will argue that the current policies are harmful, or beneficial, and come up with reasons why.

Debates at competitions are typically six rounds – 3 on the affirmative and 3 on the negative. If a team does well, they advance to elimination rounds where they compete until they lose a debate. Depending on the number of teams that register for the tournament, the portion of teams in the upper 1/3 usually advance to elimination rounds. Elimination rounds are the more prestigious and award giving rounds.

If you or your student is considering doing debate in high school, I recommend Public Forum to them. If they like to argue, and like the idea of speaking well, this is suited for them. However, other types of debate also exist. Lincoln-Douglas debate is one person versus one person debate and is more value or philosophical in nature. Policy debate is about different public policy options the US government should adopt. Policy is very intense and evidence oriented. It requires a lot of preparation and has very little to do with real world public speaking. Public Forum is best suited to students who like debating but don’t want it to consume their life so much that they don’t do other types of extra-curricular activities. This is distinct from policy debate where the time required to prepare and compete is so large that it makes it difficult to do other activities.


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