When I was asked to run the school debating team, I had no idea the opportunities this would open for me as a teacher, not only in working with such a talented group of students but also in how the learning I would take away from the experience would inform my daily teaching practice.
In order to help me set up the debate team, I sought some CPD and enrolled on a Connecting Classrooms course on using critical thinking to support pupil progress. This course was exactly what I had been looking for, supportive and encouraging, a project I could take back and implement in school. It was a two-day course; day one was setting up the project and the second day – held 10 weeks later – was dedicated to discussing the impact of our project. I was proud to tell my colleagues about the influence the project had had on my teaching, and how it had led to me delivering advice to students and staff across our multi-academy trust on how to implement debating skills across the curriculum.
The first day of the course focused on what we knew about critical thinking and the science behind how it can be used effectively with students. We were a group of nine, all from a variety of schools including special educational needs schools and pupil-referral units, so each had different opinions and experiences to bring to discussions. We discussed the different activities we might use to promote critical thinking, such as creating a visual stimulus on the board that students could respond to or discuss what they believed was happening in the image. We also explored why students often felt intimidated by activities that required them to think; they were afraid to fail so would not attempt an activity in the first place. Our trainer discussed the idea of "failing" as an acronym for First Attempt in Learning (FAIL), something that is on my wall at the front of the class. From these activities we were given the afternoon to think about and plan our project that we would take back to school. Mine was to set up and run the debating team for the school. The discussions we had as a group were incredibly supportive, all offering each other ideas and feedback. We left excited and ready to fulfil our projects.
Yet it didn’t start to dwindle after that. We all kept in contact with our facilitator, who frequently asked how we were doing, and was very supportive. Many of the activities we used on the day I still use in my lessons, asking students questions, waiting for them to think and respond, giving them different stimuli to generate thoughts and ideas. This has led to a very successful key stage 3 curriculum, highlighted in the numbers now opting to do GCSE religious studies, my subject specialism.
Rediscovering the joy of learning
In between the two courses, I had six weeks to prepare the debating team for their first regional competition, using all I had learned. I looked at the break of sessions, how I was going to support the students in deciding on their key points and then developing them into coherent points worthy of debating. I now use this model in all of my lessons. My students are encouraged to think in a critical manner, considering different viewpoints and concluding using their opinions. This is a crucial GCSE skill that they are enthusiastic about using. Results have improved in RS and English as students have started to realise the benefits of analysing and evaluation. My lessons have been consistently observed as outstanding, yet my workload has not increased. The students just have a reignited love of learning as they have more ownership using their ideas.
During the second day of the course, ten weeks later, we all reconvened to discuss critical thinking in more depth: how we can use it to differentiate and how it can support SEND and EAL students in our own contexts. Everybody gave feedback on their projects, each one successful in its own way. I was able to tell my colleagues how well my students had done in their first debating competition, six weeks' training using critical thinking being the key to their confidence and success. It was from this that I was invited to apply for a grant to a partner school, through the British Council, and had the opportunity to travel to our partner school in Sri Lanka to work with staff and students on critical thinking and debating.
I am currently developing our whole-school international links, incorporating many of the discussions we had as a group while in Sri Lanka involving the planning of an international debate between the two schools over Skype. The debating team have delivered workshops to their peers across the MAT, developing their love for the skills they will be able to take forward in their careers. We have successfully run an academy-wide debating competition, designed to get more students involved in debating, encouraging them to think about the world around them. This will be an annual activity getting students involved in developing their listening skills and working as a team. It is also a terrific way of building their confidence, not only in public speaking but also in their opinions and ideas and their ability to communicate these articulately.
I’ve run Insets for the whole school demonstrating how critical thinking can be included throughout the curriculum in all subjects. Staff have been working on developing resources that link critical thinking to their subjects, allowing students to use these skills across the school. As a teacher, I have developed a better understanding of how to support my students in the skills they will need to be successful now and in the future – empathy, team-work, resilience, and, of course, critical thinking. My lessons contain at least one of these skills daily, encouraging students to think and express themselves, sharing their opinions while listening to others. The debate team has grown and become more successful, recently coming second in the regional final.
Fundamentally, my teaching has improved, as I am more humble, appreciative of the opportunities I have and grateful for what I have learned about encouraging critical thinking and the opportunities my students and I have benefited from. I never knew a course could have such a profound influence on my professional and personal development but it has certainly made me a better teacher and person. The Connecting Classrooms project has demonstrated how important and valuable critical thinking is to the development of students regardless of their circumstance or ability.
Gemma Papworth is a teacher of religious studies and the debating team co-ordinator at The Beacon School in Banstead, Surrey