Intercollege web debate

15th November 2002 at 00:00
The idea that you can simply take a class to a computer suite and get them to "do research on the internet" is now justly discredited. A few years ago one of my pupils wanting information on evacuation was disgusted when her search resulted in graphic pictures of bowel disorders and adverts for laxatives! Good ICT lessons require just as much planning as any other and it all takes time. That's why sharing good practice makes a lot of sense.

Farnborough Sixth Form College and Esher College, Surrey, decided to dedicate a morning to a history ICT swapshop and invited local schools and colleges to bring an idea, demonstrate it, and provide it on disk for others to take away. Hosted by Diana Laffin, it was one of the most practical and cheapest in-service training sessions ever and led not only to demonstration of ideas but to their development and improvement as well. Jane Facey provided one of the main activities of the morning: explaining how to set up an intercollegiate debate.

The idea is essentially simple yet versatile - use a discussion group website and get groups of students debating with each other. A database of users was created and then a secure discussion web was made using a mixture of Microsoft FrontPage, ASP and Macromedia Fireworks for graphics.

Farnborough and Esher colleges subsequently collaborated on setting up a site hosted and managed by David Lloyd, Esher's ICT director. We decided to add an extra competitive element for students: a debate between our two colleges.

Farnborough and Esher history departments teach the same AS unit on "The Triumph of Bolshevism? Russia 1918-1929", so we posed the question: "Was the Red victory in the Civil War more due to practicalities than popularity?". Farnborough students would agree and argue for "practicalities"; Esher would disagree and argue for "popularity". In the first round, the groups researched and prepared their arguments and posted them on the website. We reminded them that a good historical debate is "focused and relevant; supported by appropriate evidence; clearly and fully argued and explained". They then got down to researching their arguments and building up their cases on the site, exploiting a variety of learning sources, including websites and books: that was round one of the debate.

The very act of selecting the information most relevant and useful to their side of the debate involved students in historical interpretation. The use of ICT encouraged the weaker students to contribute, and the rules of the debate stretched the more able, as points made were backed up with evidence and citation. The classroom was transformed as keen students clustered round computers and gathered round towers of books. Some even stayed on into the break to complete their entries.

Round two required counter-argument and students were introduced to the joys of (polite) historical criticism of their counterparts. Round three consisted of final replies and conclusions. Between them, the students now had at their disposal a well-balanced and carefully argued causal account of Red success in the Russian Civil War - a key examination question on this unit. They had also gained valuable historical skills they would take with them into A2. Some students have since confirmed that they found the whole exercise supportive in preparing them for their exams.

Our focus was on AS and A-level history teaching, but the ideas produced can be applied at many different levels and often in other subject areas.

For more intercollegiate debates information contact David Lloyd Email:

Jane Facey is history teacher at Esher College. Diana Laffin is curriculum manager for history at Farnborough Sixth Form College

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