Debating for adults: why it’s never too late to learn

Today’s guest blogger is Tony Koutsoumbos, the founder and Director of the Great Debaters Club, the UK’s only membership organisation and debate training programme for adults. Aimed at newcomers who never had the chance to join a club at school or university, the programme helps them to advance their personal and professional development through monthly training workshops and public debates.

A theme of one of the many interesting blog posts that came before this one was the stigma attached to debating, such as being seen as accessible only to gifted elites. As a debate trainer who works almost exclusively with adults, I frequently encounter another stigma – or rather a common preconception: that debating is just for school pupils and university students. In this brief post, I’d like to explain why that’s no longer true, why it is just as important (if not more so) for adults to take up debating too, and where you can go to learn.

It used to be too late for adults – but it’s not any more

You could be easily forgiven for thinking it was too late to learn how to debate as an adult about 10 years ago. I certainly did. Back in 2009, three years after graduating from university, where I had enjoyed chairing our debating society’s weekly public meetings and being a judge or a speaker in the odd tournament or two, I began searching for debate clubs that weren’t exclusive to students to keep myself sharp while also searching for a new job.

My fruitless search ended after three months with the realisation that if I wanted to join a debate club without forging a student ID, I would have to create it myself. The problem was that there were lots of places I could go if I wanted to improve my ability to deliver a speech or hear new and interesting arguments at a panel discussion, but nowhere I could go to practice my own ability to deliver a speech and make an argument, then receive feedback on it.

Today, I’m delighted to say that is no longer the case. If I carried out the same search now, I’d find courses in debating for adults being offered by City Lit, Debate Mate, and Intelligence Squared. I’d find the first Toastmasters Club in the entire of Europe devoted to debating, based not far from me in Victoria, and unveil the hidden gem that was there all along: the Sylvans Debating Society, based in Fleet Street and founded in 1866 by luminaries of the day that included Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, no less.

I would of course also find my own attempt to fill this void: the Great Debaters Club, which remains the UK’s only year-round training programme and membership organisation for adults learning to debate.

How debating for adults differs from debating for young people

Perhaps an obvious question to ask if you’re only just discovering debating for adults is whether the format is the same as debating in schools and universities – just aimed at a difference audience. The answer to that question is no. There is definitely a difference and that’s because the reasons adults seek out debate training and debate clubs is slightly different from younger people.

In schools and universities, the metrics of success in debating are primarily academic performance, character building, employability, and social mobility. As a result, debates are normally contested in front of ‘debate judges’ who offer objective feedback on each speaker’s ability to argue a point, which is more relevant to achieving those goals than the comparatively subjective measure of how persuasive other people found that particular argument to be.

The reverse tends to be true for adults learning to debate for the first time – certainly among the members of my own training programme, who range from teachers, lawyers, and journalists, to entrepreneurs, civil servants and even directors of multi-national companies. In the club’s most recent survey, they listed ‘making decisions’ and ‘justifying trade-offs [to other decision-makers]’ as the most frequent and important applications of their training. As a result, all of our debates are contested in front of live audiences, so that speakers learn not to just how to argue a point, but how to deal with the biases that make some people – including themselves – harder to convince than others.

Why it’s important to spread the word that debating is for adults too

If the mere fact that it is much easier to do this now than before was not a good enough reason by itself, here are a few more:

  1. It shines a light on the under-investment in life-long adult learning. One of the courses I have enjoyed running the most since becoming a full-time debate trainer was teaching a group of mature learners who had never received a full education how to apply debating skills to improve their employability. This involved showing them how to structure an argument in a cover letter, answer questions in an interview, and make sense of workplace legislation, such as anti-discrimination laws.
  2. It makes lessons more interactive if teachers are able to debate with their students. This was one of the most interesting findings from the two spells I spent supporting a youth advocacy charity in Rwanda to deliver the country’s first national debate training programme. Students, who had previously been disengaged and passive learners reported a surge of enthusiasm when their teachers encouraged them to question what they were learning and debate the content of their textbooks with each other, instead of simply assimilating it in preparation for exams.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, it sets an example for the next generation – especially in the polarised political climate we live in today – of how to hold ourselves to a higher standard when making decisions that affect other people’s lives.

Where can you go if you’re an adult who wants to learn how to debate

In addition to all the organisations listed in this post, you are always welcome to attend a public meeting at the Great Debaters Club in Vauxhall. They are free to attend and open to anyone, and a great opportunity to meet some of our members and find out more about the training workshops we run.

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