Speaking up

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Seonag MacKinnon reports on how pupils from all backgrounds can benefit from formal debates

A professor walking into a lecture room full of students in a Scottish university says "Good morning ladies and gentleman". The English students reply "Good morning", the American students say "Hi", and the Scottish students write it all down. Glasgow teacher Kate Thomson relates this apocryphal anecdote when asked why she is so passionate about encouraging debates in schools.

"If debating can help put an end to pupils being cowed by authority, it's doing a good job," she says. And she should know. She's coach of the debating society at Glasgow High School, which won first prize in this year's national Observer Mace award.

Though few young people in Scotland get involved in debating, they do it surprisingly well. Scotland has never been lower than seventh in the World Schools Debating Championship and only once was it not in the top three. This year in Israel the Scottish team were runners-up to reigning champions Australia - two of the pupils reached the individual finals, where Melanie Marshall of Robert Gordon's College took second place. Scottish schools also have a strong track record in competitions run by English universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, particularly where the subject is given out only 15 minutes in advance. "Traditionally the Scots have more passion and argument than elegant presentation and in a short preparation debate polish counts for less," explains Kate Thomson.

Debating is more commonly a hot pursuit in private schools, though East Ayrshire Council's Grange Academy in Kilmarnock is current holder of the national Bank of Scotland award. "There is talent everywhere," says Pat Slaven, chair of the Scottish Schools International Debating Council which selects youngsters for the Scottish team. "It just depends on where the coaches are, whether you get pupils rising to the top."

Debating is of particular value in giving an outlet; "Room to develop for people who are - misfits isn't quite the right word," says Kate Thomson. "In all children it can encourage wide general knowledge, logical thought and help inculcate conviction and confidence, which makes them good leaders. They have to listen, be articulate and think on their feet."

One word of warning. Mrs Thomson says that debating can make pupils a tad too argumentative in class and be so time-consuming that it affects their studies.

Scottish Schools International Debating Council, tel: 0141 569 7564 English Speaking Union, tel: 0131 229 1528


* Get ideas moving by sitting around 12 pupils in a circle and allocating them a motion and an individual number. Ask the even numbers to think of one argument for and the odd numbers an argument against.

Ask sequentially for their ideas, encouraging them to justify their own points and attack the other side's points. Instil confidence in improvising and interrupting by playing the radio programme Just a Minute in which participants are required to speak for 60 seconds on a subject without hesitating, repeating or deviating.

If the subjects are daft enough and the game is played often enough, junior pupils lose their shyness and clamour to have a go.

* Give pupils practice in putting ideas together logically by having a brainstorming session on a particular topic. Divide the group into two, with a spokesperson for each group. Each half considers either for or against arguments, then conveys them via the spokesperson to the teacher who writes them in two columns on the board.

Invite any member of each group to attack the arguments of the other side and have an open discussion. Encourage speakers to speak slowly and loudly. They must also seek to persuade with passion and conviction * Hold a real debate fixing on a subject which allows scope for both sides to put a reasonable case. Ensure the subject is not always politics, as this turns many people off.

Talk to speakers in advance to make sure they understand what the motion means and what it covers. Direct pupils towards sources of information such as the school library, newspapers, the Internet and books such as Pros and Cons by Michael D Jacobson.

Give a few days to prepare, then see each side separately to help them to divide the material between the partners.

Get the first proposition speaker to define at the outset his or her interpretation of the motion. A debate goes nowhere if each side has a different definition.

Try to discourage pupils from writing out a speech in full. Aim at an audience of about 25 children who are reasonably interested - a whole school audience is terrifying for beginners.

* Stick to rules such as use of "Mr Chairman" and "Miss X said", but don't stop people dead the second the bell rings. As the children become more proficient, consider entering them for any local competitions. The Bank of Scotland-sponsored debates which help meet the travel costs of far-flung teams attract over 100 entries each year. It also runs debating workshops in various parts of Scotland.

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