It has been said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. In my experience as a teacher, debating has proven to be one of the powerful ways to spark that fire into life, and has provided the oxygen needed to keep it burning. As Gifted and Talented Coordinator in a Controlled Post Primary School in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to start a debating club. The journey leading up to and since has been a learning curve for me and for my students – a most rewarding one. I’d like to share our story.
On a personal note, I should say that I trace at least some of my passion for discussion and debate to a couple of inspirational, even eccentric, teachers I had in sixth form, back in the 1980s. One of them, in particular, was a true curriculum innovator. In a weekly hour, that he had somehow managed to commandeer in our timetable, Mr Stevenson gathered thirty of us into a room and gave us the chance to voice views, opinions, musings, questions and rants on a whole series of wide ranging, and often controversial, ethical, political and moral conundrums. He was as cool as a cucumber, listened quietly and occasionally he asked questions. Growing up as we were amidst the complexities of “The Troubles”, our discussions were sometimes a little heated. We weren’t asked to opt in or out of Mr Stevenson’s “big issues” class; it just happened every Thursday. I remember a distinct sense of revelation, as one by one we found the confidence to open up our inner worlds and listen to others with respect, despite our, at times, opposing views about the world, the universe and everything. At the end of the year he took a group of us to visit his old alma mater, the United World College of the Atlantic in South Wales. Located in an imposing castle on the marvellous Welsh coast, this international school was some distance beyond our comfort zone. Here too he encouraged us to discuss and to debate, this time with students from very different backgrounds and nationalities.
My contemporaries in the “big issues” classes moved on to a wide range of professions. We are surely indebted to him. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, debating every perceivable aspect of every perceivable argument – and defending your corner with carefully selected evidence — became for me an assumed and daily matter of course. Mr Stevenson’s weekly sessions had prepared me well. Choosing a career in education was a natural step; it seemed to go hand in hand with the love of discussion and questioning that my own education had nurtured. I carried my passion for debate into the classroom where it infused my teaching from day one.
In 2010 I was privileged to hear Professor Carole Dweck of Stanford University speak at a conference in Birmingham. I was convinced that her ideas about Fixed and Growth Mindsets made sense. In her book, Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Professor Dweck argues that in a Fixed Mindset, intelligence is regarded as static. Learners with a Fixed Mindset tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, ignore useful feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. In a Growth Mindset, however, intelligence is seen as dynamic. A Growth Mindset learner will embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result, their levels of achievement are higher. Challenging all learners, including the more able, and encouraging them to develop a Growth Mindset, became my primary objectives as a teacher, and particularly in my role as Gifted and Talented Coordinator. I also found Joseph Renzulli’s work influential, and as a school we were keen to enrich learning across the curriculum.
As part of this vision, Critical Thinking classes were scheduled for a group of able learners in the sixth form, with a decision not to have the learning externally assessed. We set about developing a scheme of work. It seemed a perfect opportunity to give space and time in the curriculum to deepen the students’ engagement with the subjects they were studying at A level, to make connections between different areas of learning and to venture beyond the curriculum they were following.
As there was no examination and therefore no qualification on offer, some students didn’t see the point and preferred to spend the time doing extra private study. A core group of students remained. We talked about books, films, newspapers and current affairs. We read Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. We had a heyday researching ancient Greek philosophers. We explored the value of art, the relationship between science and theology, the definition of personal identity, and personal freedom in the digital age. The students researched independently and in groups, and there was always scope for discussion and debate.
At the end of the year I was informed that the classes were to be withdrawn. The same week, though, I received an email the same week: a most fortuitous turn of events. Debating Matters, part of the Institute of Ideas, was inviting schools to participate in their annual national sixth form debating competition. The Debating Matters website describes its brand of debating: