Myth-busting: “debating is only for the most able students”

There is no doubt that debating is a superb activity for stretching the most able students. It allows them to use their higher order thinking skills and challenges them to apply their knowledge and understanding of an issue under pressure. Many able students will experience the much sought after “flow” in a debate and as a result will become hooked. Give them the opportunity to meet other bright students in competitive debates and it can become a passion.

Traditionally these were the only students that debating catered to. Debating societies would thrive in the most selective schools and would be full of those destined for Oxbridge. The first debate outreach programmes run in the UK, by the English-Speaking Union, were organised through the network of gifted and talented coordinators (who could be found in Local Authorities in the Blair years). Teachers who used debate in the classroom would save it as extension for their top sets.
But debating is not only for the most able students. Debating can be a powerful tool in almost any classroom. Students who struggle with writing do not necessarily also struggle with speaking. In essays their thinking skills can be held back by their limitations in writing. Allowing students to explore an issue verbally first gives them the chance to develop their ideas and their reasoning. A student who has taken part in a multi-side debate about what or who is to blame for the deaths in Macbeth is in a better position to tackle an exam question which asks them to consider to what extent one factor is key.
And debating is fun. It feels like a game. Many students like the competitive side and if teachers sense this they can ramp that up to provide the motivation to engage with their learning. Disruptive students often thrive in debating lessons as they are given an audience and a chance to show off. “Back-chat” is know as rebuttal in debating and it is rewarded for showing critical listening and quick thinking!
If you are interested in running debates in your lessons for the first time have a look at one of our curriculum videos and use our resources to guide you through the process. Or to dip a toe in, have a go at one of our shorter debate formats like rebuttal tennis first.

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