In this Q&A, Debate it Forward cofounders Joshua Aaronson, a senior at the College graduating in June, and Leah Shapiro, AB ’18, explain how their venture uses debate to teach students that are frequently overlooked by academically rigorous extracurricular programs critical 21st century skills: analytical reasoning, self-advocacy, and respectful disagreement.
Q: How did your team come up with the idea for your startup?
Leah was in the car with her 6-year-old cousin who was throwing a tantrum. In order to distract him and return sanity to the car, she turned to her cousin and said, "We're going to play debate. I'll give you an argument and you'll have to prove me wrong." Leah's cousin was instantly captivated by the opportunity to prove his big cousin wrong, and they ended up playing debate for over an hour with his big sister jumping in as well. Seeing her cousins' enthusiasm as well as their growth in making arguments in that one hour, Leah started thinking, “What if there was a way to make debate programming more accessible and fun? If so, you could bring debate and its cognitive and social benefits to a much broader range of students.” Leah approached Josh with the idea, and Debate it Forward was born.
Q: What problem does your venture work to solve in society? And can you explain the exact services you offer and to whom?
Debate it Forward (DIF) is an education nonprofit that uses its pioneering debate curriculum to increase the empathy, self-efficacy, and critical-thinking skills of students overlooked by traditional debate circuits: young students, students of low income, and students with diagnosed learning or developmental differences. Through hiring and training university students, DIF provides its high-quality, low-cost debate curriculum in both school and after-school activities, as well as summer-camp programming.
DIF sets itself apart from existing debate programs in two ways: by serving students before they enter high school and by embracing a noncompetitive format. Testimonials and feedback from families shows they prefer our collaborative and game-based approach to a competitive forum.
Q: Who will benefit most from your services?
DIF works with multiple different customer segments, each with a customized marketing strategy. These customer segments include: low-income schools, high-income (often private) schools, special-needs schools, as well as juvenile detention centers. We are projected to serve 700 students by the end of the year.
Q: Have you already launched a pilot? What are your short- and long-term goals?