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13 Jan 2017

Searching for the secret politician inside all of us

We're all aware of the virtues of getting young people debating. Debating arguably develops confidence and helps in later life. Whether that means having the nerve to speak out at a meeting, making a case for a refund after you’ve bought a dodgy kettle or giving a presentation in front of your scary SLT team, early exposure to debating really can help!

I only wish I’d had the opportunity to get involved myself when I was in school, but that’s a whole other story…

It’s probably the reason why I’m now so passionate about introducing debating into my classroom.

But there’s a huge problem that I face whenever I run a debate at school and it’s this: it’s always the same few hands that go up when I ask for volunteers to come to the front. 

And, guess what? Those hands tend to belong to more outspoke and confident students who tend to engage regularly in class discussions. I’ve consistently found that running a formal debating society only goes so far, in that it attracts the already converted and leaves the ones who perhaps need it most in terms of building self-esteem, out in the cold and disengaged.

So, experience has led me to running a rather different type of debate.

What seems to work is to get young people chatting in a more informal setting about something that’s in the news, trending on twitter, featuring on Facebook and buzzing on Buzzfeed. The more engaging the topic, the more the students forget the embarrassment of speaking out, lose the self-consciousness and just dive in.

If it’s a question of whether zero size models have a place on the catwalk or if parents should be allowed to drop off their children at school wearing pyjamas, it’s amazing how quickly that reluctance to speak out melts away.

Another advantage of brining in a more informal style of debate is that the quality of the ideas and expression improves. Far too often, when reluctant debaters confront formal, ‘old-chestnut’ topics, I’ve noticed a marked tendency for students to start sounding like a young Margaret Thatcher, using an overly formal register that ends up sounding stilted and stops the natural flow of ideas. I think it’s because of a combination of nervousness and a tendency to try to find “the right debate argument” to make, instead of just expressing themselves in an authentic, clear, fluent way.

My advice to students is always just to imagine you’re trying to convince a friend in an argument, speaking in a neutral, natural tone, and drop the overly formal register that nervous debaters frequently reach for.

The other big plus of choosing a topic that is relevant, fresh and newsy is that, never mind the pupils, you’ll also find yourself absorbed in the debate. It’s genuinely fascinating to hear what my students feel about the latest news story. I’m often staggered by the sophistication and open-mindedness of young people: Brexit, the sugar tax, celebrities tweeting about politics? Bring it on!

Sitting through yet another debate “For or Against Capital Punishment”, “Should Euthanasia be legalised?” can, I’m afraid, be a real chore and, unless you’re a professional actor, can so easily be communicated to the class.

Debates based on the news agenda just feel more relevant, fresh and engaging…for the teacher as well as the pupil!

So on to some deeply practical bits. However fresh and relevant the debate topic may be, there are some tried-and-tested rules that have stood the test of time (even if the debate topics haven’t!)

In my experience, the first key to success is to bring in a few good old-fashioned ‘rules’. However engaging the issue is, if students can’t hear each other, and follow through the arguments, what’s the point?

A good way to approach rule-setting is to encourage the students themselves to agree a clear set of rules, rather than imposing some on them. This should also help the students to properly think through the elements of a debate. As I mentioned last week with school councils, giving students elevated responsibility in the school and classroom is shown to help them become engaged learners*.

Having said that, it’s always a good idea to have the ‘end game’ of where you want to end up in mind, so that you can ‘facilitate’ the discussion and gently encourage the students towards a desirable outcome. So here are a few ideas:


  • Agree as a class that we’ll always listen to each other

  • Agree that we will always respect other people’s views

  • Set an expectation of always entering the debate with a really open, clear mind, ready to change our view if the evidence indicates

  • Make a group commitment to leaving behind preconceptions and received ideas about how a particular student will think and feel about an issue before actually hearing what it is they have to say

  • Set a rule where we all agree not to use offensive language

  • Make sure that everyone understands that it is not acceptable to express extreme views specifically designed to shock and cause offense


So now that we’ve got a newsy topic, an engaged set of students and a clearly articulated set of rules for them to stick to, agreed and endorsed by them, we’re ready to go.

Or are we? One of the biggest challenges to introducing debating in schools is finding a suitable time slot in the unremittingly busy school day to fit in a debate. With the ever-increasing imposition of targets, goals, metrics and a burgeoning list of Government curriculum requirements, with the best will in the world, it’s a tough call.

Relegating debating to an after-school activity raises that same issue of self-selection, with only the very keenest, most engaged students willing to give up free time for this.

Ideally, there would be time during a Citizenship or SMSC lesson, but I know from hard-learnt experience this isn’t always possible. To get round this, I’d suggest you use that tricky-to-fill slot of Tutor time to fit in a speedy, punchy debate. We’ve all struggled to fill this time practically, usefully and meangfully so running a speedy debate can be perfect!

It does mean that you have to be fairly structured in your approach, with only fifteen minutes available, but with a good set of resources and pre-agreed rules of engagement, it can work beautifully, making a positive benefit of this time and really fostering a positive group experience where everyone gets to know each other better in a relaxed framework.

If you can persuade SLT (using your finely tuned debating skills!), try introducing the topic during an assembly. When I’ve done this, there’s a buzz and excitement around the school which can then be picked up and acted on by individual Tutors.

So, newsy topic, clear set of rules, suitable time slot in which to deliver. Is that it?

Well, no. I’m saving my very best, tried-and-tested tip till last.

And it’s a simple one: add on a vote to follow the debate. Knowing they will be asked to formalising their views into a vote, can make for more thoughtful engagement from the students, a clearer sense of purpose, an increased focus on the key issues and an heightened sense of ownership

With the option to then act on the result of the vote wherever possible (a yes vote for mixed-gender football teams? Persuade the sports department to set one up; Yes to the sugar-tax? Put a 20% surcharge on chocolate bars).

Debating newsy topics with whole-class involvement, combined with a vote? I’ve listened to the arguments with an objective, open mind, weighed up the pros and the cons, reflected thoughtfully on the issues…and it’s a definite, big yes.

References

*Leila Walker, Ann Logan, NFER Future Lab 2008, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/FUTL80/FUTL80.pdf

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