Sniffing out the best argument

5th April 2013 at 01:00

It probably wasn't nice. But placing a white rat on the table of the opposing debating team turned out to be highly effective. The motion was that "students should wear uniforms to school" and Scrabble (rescued from his cage in the school lab) was wearing school colours. But I knew that in our all-girl debate he would almost certainly make our opponents shriek, putting them off their stride so effectively that victory would be ours. And so it transpired.

Such tactics would nowadays be discredited as utterly unfair in the same way that rubbishing the views of another person is rightly considered the behaviour of a bully. But encouraging well-reasoned debate among students is quite another, and far more positive, matter. (Unless you're a woman taking part in a debate at the Glasgow University Union; but that's a very different story).

Experts admit it can be hard to quantify the educational benefits of classroom debates. But an Ofsted review of 44 UK schools found that taking part in such activities rewarded students, who enjoyed the challenge and gained a sense of personal achievement. Other studies in the US have found that a greater proportion of students taking part in school debates went on to enter further education.

Yet teachers can sometimes be intimidated by their own lack of confidence. "If I am not an expert debater," they might reasonably wonder, "how can I impart this skill to others?"

But debating does not have to be daunting. With the right lesson plans and techniques, you can organise an effective session in the classroom. The students, if the debate is well set up, will end up doing most of the work.

And the rewards are manifold: students should become better informed, better communicators and will learn to think critically; a priceless skill for all young people. They will learn to treat others with respect - even while demolishing their arguments.

You should, of course, be stern with anyone who attempts to bring distracting vermin into the classroom - unless the motion is "all's fair in love and war".

Jo Knowsley is acting editor of TESpro @tes.

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