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Home > News and views > How to teach debating in schools: six tips and principles

How to teach debating in schools: six tips and principles

Group of secondary school students sitting in the classroom and looking at the teacher

Coaching a school’s debating team can be one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences in a teacher’s career. Far beyond academic results, there’s something inherently worthwhile in watching students gain confidence and the ability to articulate their understanding of real-world issues. But where to begin? At first sight, schools debating can be a minefield of incomprehensible acronyms, rules and formats. If you’re wondering how to teach debating schools, these are the tips that I’ve found handy.

How to teach debating in schools

1. Start with a Purpose

Debating is an incredibly broad church and it can accomplish a huge range of fantastic outcomes for your students. At the risk of burning yourself and your students out, it’s a good idea to pin down what you’d like to achieve before setting up any kind of club. A few suggestions might include:

      • Embedding oracy into the broader curriculum
      • Establishing regular public debates on contemporary issues hosted in your school – whether they’re open to the whole student body, year groups or key stages
      • Having a public speaking club where rhetoric is taught and practiced
      • Founding a political discussion group
      • Training students to debate in tournaments like the English-Speaking Union’s Schools’ Mace competition

2. Get everyone involved

Whilst the archetype of school debating may once have been the extroverted, bombastic student shouting down their peers, the truth is that the most introverted and quiet students can make accomplished debaters. How to draw out this talent requires some thought.

The structure of competitive debating is mostly such that students are given a dedicated five to seven-minute window to make their speech and can only be interrupted at designated times with ‘points of information’ which can be politely refused. This allows students who otherwise may have been cowed by their more confident peers to showcase their skills, often resulting in some phenomenal performances from those you may not have expected.

Specific tasks can help bring these voices to the fore. An exercise we do early on is ‘Silent Debates’: motions are written on big pieces of paper and students can only engage with them by walking around the room and writing their ideas and responses to others’ views. Alternatively, divide your club into two, give a motion and some time to prepare and then let students give their views – the caveat is once any individual has spoken, they can’t speak again. While more confident students may dominate at first, quieter voices will find their space.

3. Choose relevant topics

Whatever format your club is taking, make sure you choose debating motions which are genuinely engaging to the age range. Those who turn up to debating clubs are, in my experience, savvy students who won’t be satiated by a motion on banning school uniforms. Keep topics relevant and stimulating. There are plenty of websites with debating motions on them.*

*Editor’s note – take a look at the ESU’s article on how to write debate motions, with some of our favourites listed.

4. Build a Network

Once your group has met a few times, it’s a good idea to reach out to other schools and see if they’re willing to meet for competitions or one-off debates. There is a phenomenally supportive community of debating coaches who are very willing to answer questions and set up friendly competitions. Covid has led to many debating events happening online, which has made informal get-togethers much more accessible among schools which otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet. Alternatively, any schools in multi-academy trusts can strengthen ties through debating tournaments.

5. Try out competitions

Entering competitive debating may not be for every school but I strongly recommend giving it a go. There’s a huge range of events targeted at various age groups and experience levels. Here are a few terms to watch out for when researching competitions:

Long-prep(aration): Motions are released well in advance of the event, sometimes over a month ahead. (The ESU’s Schools’ Mace is an example of this kind of competition).

Short-prep: Motions are announced on the day, usually 15 minutes before the debate (most university-run competitions are short-prep, Oxford and Cambridge Schools being the most famous examples). Some competitions are a hybrid where the first motion of the day is pre-released and the rest are released on the day. Research using digital devices is generally not allowed at short-prep competitions.

Novice: Some competitions are specifically targeted at students who are new to debating. These will often contain more straightforward motions.

Age-specific competitions: Some tournaments are targeted at specific ages or key stages. The International College of Young Debaters (ICYD) event is an example of this and is only open to students in years 10 and below.

Many competitions, especially the more established, offer online or in-person workshops in advance of the day itself. These can be incredibly valuable, especially if the format is one your school hasn’t entered before.

6. Fuel the Passion

For those students who take to debating, give them as much ownership of their progress and how your club is run as possible. It may be that you and your colleagues only have capacity to facilitate training sessions with students at KS4 and 5; why not suggest your more experienced speakers start sessions with Key Stage 3?

There are numerous online resources available to help students improve their debating. Videos of the final debates from schools’ tournaments (or even university tournaments) should be pushed to these students for their independent learning. Speak with your librarian and see if you can make a dedicated ‘Debating Shelf’ where books on social issues and political philosophy can be found.

This article was written by Ed Noel, the Deputy IB Diploma Coordinator at Tonbridge Grammar School, where he leads on debating. The TGS team won the ESU’s Mace Competition in 2022, and were recently highlighted in the ESUs webinar exploring the Schools’ Mace. Ed is also a senior examiner for Theory of Knowledge for the International Baccalaureate.

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