Given the number of recent politically related international and national events, I would be safe in saying that as a British public we are more aware than ever of ‘political policy’ and its impact. Brexit; Presidential elections; general elections – to name but a few – have given rise to a wealth of conversations about politics – and happily – the younger generations are becoming more and more involved in these conversations too. Whether it is due to the advent of social media and therefore their frequent submersion into those conversations or because they feel that they actually have a voice, our young people are much more politically savvy than I certainly was in my teenage years. And with such awareness comes great responsibility (or something similar!). Yet this responsibility lies not necessarily with those young people but with us. Whilst they may have this new found knowledge and potential power, it is perhaps the responsibility of their schools to give them the platform upon which to learn HOW to converse about these news ideas because, of course, it is utterly useless to have all the information but no means of communicating it effectively.
Debating Clubs are not a new initiative – in fact many schools have had them – but sadly it seems to be a dying one. The perennial focus on GCSE success and therefore the ‘extra revision’ sessions has all too often seen the demise of the extra curricular clubs including the debating club. Time for a revivial? Undoubtedly. Young people are debaters. They do it daily, hourly – sometimes minutely – on various social media platforms and they can be really very good at it. They are the authority on the ‘put down’, can spot ‘fake news’ and know how to manipulate their audience in a way that would make even Donald Trump jealous. But in these situations their real audience is limited, the interactions undeveloped and they are often reduced to hurling petty insults. What if they had a platform – and the tools –upon which to develop their skills and share their new knowledge in a more meaningful way? Debating Club could be the answer.
What follows is a simple beginner’s guide for setting up and running a successful Debating Club. It is by no means exhaustive but provides a useful starting point.
- Resourcing: In terms of resourcing, Debating Club requires very little – a room, some topics to debate, and pens and paper. It should ideally be held in the same room at the same time each week to ensure continuity for the students. It needs a dedicated ‘chairman’ (teacher) who will return each session to support and guide the students’ development as debaters. A different teacher each time will not support continuity of support.
- Advertising: Assembly and tutor notices, posters, teasers, prizes -whatever it takes! It is often motivating to have an end goal –perhaps a local competition. It should be a cross-phase audience, sixth formers are often very keen but equally year 7 should be encouraged to attend to build confidence.
- Rules: At the first session rules should be established about the Club. Turn taking, privacy, attendance should all be discussed and procedures agreed upon together. If you do it with them rather than to them, they can support in the management of the Club.
- Warm Ups: It is useful to gather some ‘warm up tasks’. Informal activities that might encourage sharing ideas and working together regardless of age or ability. These could include 3 lies and a truth; speed dating on a topic and desert island items.
- Skills: Ensure that you introduce a ‘skill’ to each session – it might be introducing ‘evidence’ to your argument. Give them some examples (either on paper or on screen), and discuss the successes and areas for development in each of them.
- Practice: Give them plenty of opportunities to share and then debate their opinions on a variety of topics. You could perhaps give them the topic during the session before so they have time to research it. You could ask them to come with a topic to debate.
- Sharing: Once the Club has been set up, it is then about establishing it in the fabric of the school. Demonstrations at assemblies, open evenings, other school events will allow students to share their developing skills and, hopefully, in turn will inspire others to join.
- Rewards: A final prize/reward for attendance, and possibly the students’ participation in a competition, are positive ways of affirming student attendance and performance.
Of course, whilst I have dwelt on the Debating Club’s power in relation to unlocking a political voice amongst our young people, I have said nothing about the other areas Debating Club will unlock in them. I could tell you but perhaps it would be better to set one up and see for yourself…
Rebecca Geoghegan is a secondary English teacher and former whole school Literacy Lead with 15 years experience of teaching KS3, GCSE and A Level. Now a Master in Teaching and Learning, AST, Lead Practitioner and SLE, Rebecca is the Eastern Region Leader for Literacy and English for the UK’s largest academies sponsor. In her current role Rebecca regularly teaches, assesses, moderates and advises primary, secondary and special academies in English and Literacy education. Rebecca has regularly presented courses for the SSAT, Keynote Education, Brook Learning Trust and currently moderates SSAT Lead Practitioner applications.