Classroom practice - This house believes in debating

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
There's a great case for using competitive argument to boost students' curiosity and poise

I have enjoyed 12 years of state schooling. That's 456 weeks, 6,840 lessons, 11,400 hours of classroom time, 3,500 pieces of homework and 2,280 bus rides home. And I can say with absolute confidence that the most important time of my school career has not been spent in a classroom.

In expanding my knowledge, improving the way I approach problems and allowing me to be a more confident person, my single most significant decision has been the one I made to become a member of the school debating society.

Others are likely to feel the same: more and more evidence suggests that debating in the classroom is a great way to get students thinking.

Central to this research is the work of Joe Bellon, senior lecturer in communication and director of the debate programme at Georgia State University in the US. In a paper espousing the myriad benefits of competitive argument (bit.lyCompetitiveArgument), he says debate can boost pupils' performance in two key ways.

First, his research shows that successful classrooms are interactive - that pupils learn less when "urged into passive roles or practices". Most teachers allow for this in their lesson planning, but Bellon argues that debating is better than other forms of interactive teaching because it promotes judgement and adaptation - the ability to regulate speech when arguing, choosing relevant points and becoming more analytical.

In his words, this means that "there is a powerful incentive for students to become flexible arguers. In any given debate, they may be called upon to affirm or negate a particular political perspective."

Second, Bellon's research shows that debating social issues gives students huge intellectual capital. Because debates are often about policy decisions or moral quandaries, they require pupils to think more broadly about current affairs or the contextual events surrounding a motion.

It is this that Justine Brian, national coordinator of Debating Matters - a debating competition run by the Institute of Ideas and part-funded by the Wellcome Trust - cites as a key benefit of debating. She says that ethical and technical motions such as "the UK ban on using assisted reproductive technology for sex-selection should be lifted" force students to think "beyond current levels of experience" under "adult pressure".

A bold argument

Despite the benefits, debate is often feared by teachers. With difficult classes, it can be particularly challenging in terms of behaviour management, and things can go just as wrong if your class is a reticent one. Yet success can be possible even with challenging students if you choose the right topic and present it in the right way.

Stefano Imbriano is a former programme director of Debate Mate, a charity that brings debating to inner-city schools by training Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates to teach students the art of argument. He says you have to use debate to bring life to curriculum material by providing kinaesthetic learning that makes children "curious and passionate" about their subjects.

"I think what debating does is bring back the feeling that all children start out with: an excitement and interest in learning itself, asking questions and finding out more," he says.

Imbriano's advice to teachers wanting to set up a lesson using debating is to "start with something kids are excited about. Once they pick it up, they'll get the bug; it's infectious."

When I suggest that less confident students could perhaps be "crowded out" by those who are loud or opinionated, he says the opposite is true. "Every good debate allows each person an equal say, and once they gain confidence, they're fine," he says. "Over a 16-week debate programme, we see confidence grow."

Rosie Unwin, a primary teacher and debater, agrees. "Formal debating can be helpful because it prompts people to speak within set parameters, where they can't be overruled," she says.

Unwin argues that the "other roles" of debating are also useful because they can be given to less confident students. "I can make one student the `questioner', and they just have to come up with one question for a speaker," she says.

She adds that it also helps to differentiate between arguing in the playground and reasoning in the classroom: it allows people to use logic to solve disputes about issues rather than becoming caught up in slanging matches.

The benefits, then, are multiple. Debating can improve teaching, learning and behaviour. Proponents even claim it increases social mobility. Don't agree? Well, as we debaters like to say, now there's a good argument for debating.

Tony Diver is a sixth-form student in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. He is going to study history and politics at university later this year

What else?

Get your students to prepare and perform a formal debate. bit.lyDebateResources

A comprehensive guide to speech techniques and rhetorical devices. bit.lySpeechTechniques

Start a debate with this lesson plan and resources. bit.lyDebateLessonPlan


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