Saturday, September 8, 2012

A great debate

Tripoli solitary confinement Solitary confinement is one of the subjects up for debate in classrooms across the UK. This image shows solitary confinement cells in Souk prison, Tripoli. Photograph: Guardian

What do solitary confinement, chocolate money, alcohol and violent video games have in common? It's not, in fact, my idea of a good weekend's entertainment – although I suppose it could be! These are actually a few of the topics that students around the country have been debating this year both as part of class teaching and after-school clubs.

Thousands of schools enter teams in debating competitions organised by charities like the English-Speaking Union (ESU) or by the big debating universities, but many others use debating as part of everyday teaching, setting topics which are curriculum-linked and holding debates as a way of exploring key issues.

From an activity which used to be the preserve of private schools and ancient universities, debating is now common across all schools and at all ages. The biggest growth in training which we've provided over the last five years has been to primary schools keen to get their students speaking with confidence in all areas of their life.

On a global scale, too, debate is increasingly important. In January of this year 48 countries sent their national schools' teams to South Africa for the World Schools Debating Championship and it only took 43 seconds for registration to be full for the European University Debating Championship hosted in Belgrade in August. That's almost as fast as Glastonbury tickets sell out upon release!

Everyone probably has their own reason why they take part in debating activities, most of us probably agree instinctively that engaging in some kind of debating competition or semi-formal debate in class has a lot to teach us. It can encourage students to do research in advance; it promotes teamwork and cooperation; with a bit of encouragement most people also grow in confidence and it helps students to get better at structuring and backing up their ideas.

The classic speech structure - "I have three points" - is not too dissimilar from a good essay answer or response to an interview question and the ability calmly and confidently to look at a question or an issue and come up with a structured and ideally well-reasoned response is useful for anyone.

Starting at the beginning there are four key skills which debate can be broken down into:

1. Reasoning and evidence

2. Organisation and prioritisation

3. Listening and response

4. Expression and delivery

Effectively combining all of these elements makes a great debater but enhancing any of these skills has wider personal and academic benefits. Having different key areas also helps with building up skills which will probably not be uniform across all of the elements.

So if lots of people are already using debate and they agree that it is worthwhile, why isn't everyone?

Time is one major factor. Setting up a debate club or attending competitions takes time that not everyone has, but the real benefits of debating are not in competitions but come when debate is a tool used in the lesson. Debates can be as long or short as you want - anything from a 30 second quick-fire speech to a full seven minutes of detailed analysis.

Most debating in the classroom, though, isn't full debates on high-brow topics, but debate games which help with skills. Idea bingo is a good ice-breaker for a new topic which lots of teachers connected with the ESU use:

A new topic goes up in the form of a statement – "The Olympics will be good for the UK" – "Medical experiments on animals are justified" - "The Suffragette movement owed more to WW1 than to their own protests". The challenge is then for anyone to put their hand up, stand up and give one idea to support the statement and the next person has to give one idea against it and so on. As more ideas come out students will start to counter the ideas which have gone before (in debate terms this is called rebuttal) and in effect the entire class has a single debate. As well as being a good start to a topic this type of game is a good start to debating more formally. The process of coming up with multiple ideas for or against a statement is the basic preparation for any debate and helps students to start being critical about ideas realising that there is normally a good counter argument.

Over the course of our monthly blog posts, the ESU will be using our expertise to show not only how debating can be used for the benefit of your students but, vitally, how it can contribute to teachers' own professional development. We'll be inviting a host of debate experts, teachers and participants in ESU-led programmes to share their views, experiences and ideas; as well as providing some of our classroom resources for you to use in your own lesson plans. You will also find a copy of the CfBT report into the benefits of debating for students which we hope will be the first of several such reports.

I'll leave you with the words of one of our alumni, who I'll call Michael; "I did debating because I wanted to win arguments with my parents, I never expected that it would get me a job."

Happy debating all.

• Jason Vit is Head of Speech and Debate at the ESU. His team runs competitions and training programmes around the UK and globally helping young people to develop oral communication skills. Jason has been coaching debate and public speaking for more than 10 years.

Find out more about the English-Speaking Union by logging onto their website or follow them on Twitter @theESU.

Read more about the importance of debating and its perceptions in this report commissioned jointly by the ESU and the CfBT.

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