Debate training and competitive debating can play an invaluable role in pupils’ development. Beyond public speaking and personal communication, it is important to highlight the impact debating can have on improving confidence, independence and critical thinking – all crucial skills with far-reaching benefits for the everyday aspect of a pupil’s life.
Considering the Unexplored
Primarily, debating is important for pupils because it gives them a chance to think critically about things they wouldn’t necessarily get to discuss in lessons. Whatever topic is being debated, whether it’s the situation in North Korea or if school classes should be set according to ability, debating allows pupils to discuss and explore subjects at a very mature level, where they aren’t told if they are right or wrong. Frequently, pupils propose the motions themselves, which has led to some of our most interesting and closely-fought debates, as pupils are able to dive into topics that truly excite or interest them.
Debating gives pupils the opportunity to follow their own ideas; to consider them, present them, express them and have them judged for their own value. Whether the debate focuses on current affairs, elements of their own education, moral or philosophical questions, it’s a very open and engaging forum that encourages free-flowing critical thinking.
Considering the Information
Debating is also about critical engagement, particularly engagement with information. Our pupils are living in an age of unprecedented access to information, which brings invaluable learning opportunities but plenty of pitfalls too. Debating is extremely helpful in teaching pupils to engage with sources of information critically: testing them to detect bias, spin and even outright falsehoods.
This process of critical engagement with information helps them create a reasonable, balanced view of the subject they’re exploring, while also strengthening the argument they bring to the debate. If facts are not checked or a source seems wildly inaccurate or unbelievable, that will become a weakness in the argument for the opposing team to challenge and exploit. Ultimately, debating encourages pupils to look at a range of information sources covering the same subject matter and identify for themselves what they believe is trustworthy and what isn’t.
Considering Your Point of View
When preparing for a debate, pupils are often forced to look at topics from a completely different perspective. By arguing a position contrary to their own beliefs, pupils constantly and carefully examine the reasons for holding such beliefs. Just as importantly, to present the best argument, they must consider the perspectives of the opposing side and find the reasoning behind those perspectives.
By thinking from unfamiliar angles, pupils are encouraged, even forced, to deconstruct pre-formulated opinions about the topics they debate. This is important because critical thinking requires an open and unbiased mentality with the capability of taking on new ideas and information and judging them for their inherent worth.
Considering the Opposition
Debating is a formalized environment with set rules and, admittedly, pupils sometimes take time to get used to the mechanics of it. Not speaking out of turn, not laughing or making dismissive actions when points and rebuttals are being delivered, listening respectfully and patiently waiting for their turn to respond are all essential elements of debating. Of course, it also takes great courage to argue a case to an audience of their peers and teachers.
Being respectful and considerate of other views is both an important life skill and a helpful approach to debating. A key skill that the best debaters have – and one which is not intrinsically obvious – is the ability to listen. Debating is not just about coming up with the best argument, it’s also about engaging with your opponent, probing their argument before picking it apart. To achieve this, pupils must listen so that they have a clear understanding of what their argument is. This means that pupils are taking a step back and reviewing the value of their beliefs, which will help them develop a more understanding, empathetic sense of character.
Considering the Future
As well as refining different skills and encouraging the positive personality traits already discussed, debating is also an excellent testing ground for many of the tough challenges pupils are likely to face later in life. It is the best form of preparation for interviews, whether for employment or higher education opportunities. It’s a great way for pupils to learn how to think on their feet and respond intelligently and assertively to whatever is being thrown at them.
When preparing for a debate, pupils can (and should) try to anticipate what the questions and key points of discussion will be, but it’s very likely that something will catch them off guard, requiring them to quickly form a viable response. It’s an incredibly valuable lesson for pupils to learn how important preparation is; it will help in almost any situation encountered and contribute to developing skills to instinctively react to what’s put in front of them. If they can deliver intelligent, confident and considered responses to questions under pressure during a debate, they’ll be in a great position to tackle university and job interviews further down the line.
James Beadle, Mathematics teacher and Senior School debating lead at Wellington College International Shanghai, competed in European, world and domestic debating championships, ranking within the top 10 percent of debaters internationally, while studying at Saint Andrew’s in Scotland.
Darren Simpson, History teacher and upper Prep debating lead at Wellington College International Shanghai, worked in the financial and legal sectors before gaining his qualifications and teaching in the UK for a number of years prior to joining Wellington.