How Debate Can Help Students Find Their Voice

Today’s guest blogger is Min Moultrie, a member of the Customer Support team at Tassomai. Tassomai is an intelligent learning program that helps students achieve outstanding results. Here she discusses her experience of judging at this year’s Up For Debate competition. 

Public speaking is not something that we are taught how to do in school, and often we are expected to be able do it naturally. As someone who was told “she’s bright but needs to speak up more in lessons”, but at the same time wasn’t taught how, I understand the frustration of students who feel held back by their perceived “shyness”.

This lack of a safe space within schools (and state schools in particular) to practice speaking extemporaneously is something that PiXL Edge and The Noisy Classroom have teamed up to address with their ‘Up For Debate’ programme. It consists of two ‘parts’: the programme taught within schools and the competition- which is where I was involved.

The Programme

The programme introduces KS3 students to the idea of debate with a richly-resourced scheme of work with two thought-provoking and challenging motions. Teachers are given the resources to help students learn how to debate and how to debate well, as well as material to support the encouragement of lunchtime or after-school clubs, community programmes, or getting involved in the UK-wide competitive debate community.

It’s up to teachers how they go about getting students on board. It may be that they have students jumping at the chance, or perhaps they need a little more convincing. Either way, the idea of the programme is to be inclusive and welcoming to anyone who wants to get involved.

This learning culminates in the competition, where I recently had my first experience of the programme. The opportunity to be one of the ‘community judges’ was offered to me and my colleagues at Tassomai, so I volunteered for the regional championships in Bristol (my hometown) and booked my train from Paddington.

Competition Day

True to my ‘bright but shy’ school student nature, I made sure I was prepared and spent a while learning all about the rules of debate. Words and phrases such as ‘rebuttal’ and ‘point of interest’ were new to me but I turned up on the day, a fountain of debate knowledge, and armed with the judge’s guide that I had printed and stapled myself. I needn’t have bothered as this guide was provided- a backup for those judges who had once been students with more of a I’ll do it on the night attitude.

The day was organised brilliantly by Alice from Noisy Classroom, who used to debate for England and now runs the programme, exclaiming “I love debate so much I made it my job!”. Her passion was infectious and made the students feel that they were in a space where it was safe, perhaps even cool, to care. There were varying emotions – some students were visibly nervous and others seemed to just be making the most of a day outside of school. But every single student I watched debate took it seriously once they were in the classroom. They were so professional and knowledgeable that watching them run around carelessly in the breaks, I felt like debating was their secret super power.

The first two debates were on topics that the students were prepared for, but the final two rounds were both unknown, with students having only 20 minutes to prepare. It was not only their knowledge of how to debate that was impressive, but their knowledge on the topics and the thoughtful way in which they discussed them. The students that I enjoyed watching the most were the ones that had so obviously gained confidence through this opportunity, that they might not have had without the Up For Debate programme. Within schools it is often the responsibility of the performing arts to build confidence, but debating is a very different form of public speaking and may attract a very different sort of student, who would otherwise not have a platform to develop their skills. With so much emphasis in schools being put on exams and grades, it’s important to remember the importance of oracy. Some people are naturally great at speaking aloud, but it’s also something you learn how to do, and I think this doesn’t get emphasised enough.

The final debate was on “This house would legalise Cannabis” and was very impressive. The winning team went on to the Up For Debate Nationals which will take place at Oxford University.

A version of this blog post first appeared on Tassomai’s website.

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