What does debating offer students?

Tara Sallis was on the England Schools Debating Team in 2017 and is an undergraduate at Oxford University. On this guest blog she discusses the ways in which debating has helped her. 


Debating is often seen as an extra curricular activity, something superfluous that can be added into a student’s education if they find it fun. However, looking back to my experience of debating at school, it taught me essential lessons, both academic and otherwise, that were fundamental to my progress and still are. I started debating in Sixth Form, and was very lucky to have the chance to compete for Team England when I was in Year 13. Obviously, this meant that debating became a big chunk of my life, but even before I did Team England, debating had already been formative to my education.

The most obvious thing debating gives students are academic skills. There are the obvious analytical tools and ability to structure thoughts on the spot, but also the less obvious ones like the ability to stick with learning something new. Learning to debate is hard, often you are under time pressure and especially when you begin things regularly don’t go to plan. If you can stick with debating, you learn how to fail, and you learn how to listen to feedback and take it on, rather than just looking at the result and deciding that it is or isn’t good enough. It is this tenacity that sees you through your education as it becomes increasingly challenging and independent. Debating teaches you to think strategically about the way you approach things. It showed me that just knowing the most stuff wouldn’t get me far unless I could deliver it in the right way, a lesson which I apply to exams, interviews and countless other situations I come across now.

Still now, even though I do not debate competitively in the way I did at school, I try and stay on top of global current affairs in as much depth as time allows. This is a habit that I, and many of my friends who debated at school, picked up to try and get the competitive edge over each other. Debating was the incentive we needed to start reading more, something which I never really set aside the time to do as a more scientifically inclined senior school student.

Having a positive experience debating, even if that is simply at the level of standing up to do a few minutes of speaking at an after school club, gives you a type of self-belief that other things in standard education simply do not. You are learning to present yourself and your ideas well and to debate you have to put yourself out there. Not only is public speaking in itself a hugely sought after skill on the job market, but the broader confidence you acquire feeds your ambition and going to debating competition gives you a seat at a table that traditionally has been reserved for only the most elite. Just the experience of being on a debating team where we all really wanted to win competitions was very powerful. We had to motivate each other and learn to keep up moral, we learned how to move on quickly when things didn’t go so well, we learned not to be intimidated even when we came up against high performing teams, all things that I am incredibly grateful to have experienced.

In real terms, debating at school is something that I credit with getting me a place at Oxford University, the interviews and tests for which are quite adversarial and intimidating in a similar way to debating. I also believe that getting the grades needed to meet the offer was fueled by the intellectual skills I learned debating. Meeting students from other schools not only made me many good friends, but also lots of contacts that have opened doors for me now I am at university.

Debating is something that I feel has potential benefits for everyone, no matter the level at which they engage in the activity. The academic tools, soft skills, and character that it builds are difficult to replicate in other ways. Debating at school is a stand out experience for so many people who have the chance to do it and debating has the power to colour the opportunities and successes of its participants both in school and beyond it.

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