In my current school, students are trained in formal debating from Year 7. In terms of group work, I believe that it is the single most powerful activity that we can facilitate for our students.
How does it work?
We loosely follow the rules set out by the Oxford Union, which can be found at uked.chat/oxfdebate.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of UKEdChat Magazine. Click here to view.
The first thing you need is a motion. A motion looks like this: THW ban animal testing. (THW = This House Would)
Students are split into ‘affirmative’ and ‘negative’ teams. Each team has 3 speakers, and sometimes one extra person to research. The researcher does not take part in the debate. Having a researcher is sometimes useful for easing students in when they lack confidence; however, students do also claim this role when they can’t be bothered, so you have to watch out for that!
Affirmative speaks first, then negative, then back to affirmative etc. Each speech is 3 minutes long, and after 30 seconds, the opposing team can raise ‘points of information’, which should challenge the speaker. The speaker can choose to accept or reject points of information. In their speeches, the students must discuss their ideas, and attempt to rebut the arguments posed by the other team.
Debates can be ‘open house’, where the whole class can offer ‘points of information’, or ‘closed house’, where only the opposing team are permitted to raise ‘points of information’.
Download a score sheet that the adjudicator can use via uked.chat/debatingscore. I often create a panel of adjudicators, including myself, as this is a valuable opportunity for peer assessment of speaking and listening skills.
Why is debating so valuable?
1. Speaking and listening.
Listening is not a skill that should be taken for granted, it requires practice and refinement in order to select relevant and useful information.
Debating helps students to listen very carefully to the information relayed by speakers, so that they can challenge it in a point of information. These quick responses show teachers how well/accurately a student has listened to, and understood information. Although intimidating at first, speaking in front of their peers over time will help students to practice core public speaking skills such as audibility, intelligibility, and the use of rhetoric to engage and intrigue the audience.
2. The power of knowledge and curiosity.
Perhaps the biggest question in education today is what should we teach? Of course, we are bound by the National Curriculum; however, through practising speaking and listening skills, debating opens up a world of knowledge that we would not normally be able to expose to our students. Students are able to ‘get their teeth’ into a plethora of contemporary issues and wider philosophical ideas through the independent research that they carry out in preparation for a debate.
I once adjudicated a debate where the motion was ‘THBT Amazon is a pernicious influence’. At first I wasn’t sure of the appropriateness of the topic, as initially it seemed rather dull. However, I was quickly proved wrong. The students produced erudite speeches based upon in-depth research into the practices of Amazon, learnt a huge amount about the marketplace, author’s rights and so on. We can never accurately predict when, or how such knowledge will be useful for students, but we do know that general knowledge is incredibly useful in all aspects of life. Debating also sparks student’s curiosity in a wide range of topics, giving them an idea of where their interests lie. My Year 7 class recently debated THW keep the jury, and they were absolutely fascinated by the law and how juries work. Many of them left the room convinced that they would choose law at A-level in 5 years’ time!
3. The ability to evaluate
The word ‘evaluate’ tends to make me recoil somewhat. In my PGCE, I didn’t really understand what it meant. This confusion was compounded by exam board definitions, which seemed to contradict Mr Bloom, and my further cloud my own inchoate understanding. However, practising debating has helped me to understand the word.
Debating naturally engages students in the process of evaluating; the students assess the validity of each other’s arguments, and get the opportunity to consider an idea from multiple perspectives in order to reach a conclusion. Regardless of whether they are placed on the affirmative or negative team, they will naturally reach their own conclusion in a debate – they just have to play their part accordingly.
4. The ability to structure arguments
Teaching students to structure their work is notoriously difficult. Debating, however, is a solution. Students select their main points, and begin searching for evidence and examples for which to qualify their arguments. It’s basically a way to show them how to use PEE in a real life, genuine context. The most cogent and convincing arguments I have witnessed from students have arisen in the debating process.
5. Providing motivation and a genuine context for learning
That’s another great thing: preparing for a debate provides a genuine context for learning. Students have a real, tangible reason to do something. I facilitated a debate about whether Romeo was genuine (THBT Romeo’s affections are sincere), where students had to refer to evidence from the play. Great revision and great motivation.
6. Education in formality and etiquette
We all have high aspirations for our students, so it is just that we give them the opportunity to engage in highly formal practices. Oxford style debating ought not to be left to private schools.
Debating is all about style and, in my experience, students have absolutely loved playing the part of the ‘speaker’. In rejecting a point of information, they relish getting to say ‘please sit down sir’, or ‘I really fail to see the relevance of your point’ to a classmate. Understanding how debating is used in Parliament and Oxford gives the students a window into a historical and different way of exploring ideas. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic here, but I do believe that teaching students how to debate formally helps them to acquire the manners required in the world of academia; it helps them to become logical, thoughtful and pragmatic people. I’m not necessarily advocating the formal style, but it is only fair that all students get the opportunity to witness and participate in it, if only to purposefully flout it in the future!
Yep – that’s lovely too. Grouping kids that don’t normally work together. The satisfaction and friendship bonds that are formed through working hard at something in a team. I don’t need to explain this one.
Give it a try!
If your school doesn’t already use formal debating, I would urge you to give it a go! And not just in English, although it is my favourite way to assess speaking and listening. Debating is for everyone – logical, scholarly, fun.
Erin @Miss_E_Miller is an English Teacher in an international school and coordinator of @lit_chat.Read her blog at mrsmillercoast.wordpress.com.