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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Beyond the debating chamber #1 - using debate in the classroom

This week's post is aimed at teachers. Students can read it too, though; encourage your teachers to use debates in your lessons!

In one sense, all teachers do debate. It’s a fundamental part of what happens in every classroom. Every time you ask a question which could have more than one answer you are beginning to debate. There is a perception that debate is the domain of humanities subjects: is Shylock a victim or a villain? (English); was Elizabeth 1 a good or a bad queen? (History); is euthanasia ever justified? (Philosophy). But there is a place for it in all subjects. Should patent law apply to medical drugs? (Chemistry); should zoos be banned? (Biology); is nuclear power the answer to our energy needs? (Physics); should the government make decisions based on statistical evidence? (Maths). Thinking through different options, weighing up pros and cons, is what we get our students to do all the time. What debate does is give a formal structure to this process, forcing students to collect evidence, analyse that evidence, structure arguments, and respond to challenges to those arguments; all skills which, it’s easy to see, are eminently transferable to any subject.

So: how do you set one up in your classroom?

1. The motion

The centre of any debate is the motion. 

Debating motions always begin with either ‘This house would …’ or ‘This house believes …’ (The ‘This house …’ formula, modelled on debate in the House of Commons, is a way of saying, ‘We have persuaded a majority of people here present that something should be done / something is the case’). 

If the motion begins with ‘This house would …’ it decides on some kind of action in the real world, and is called a policy debate; if it begins with ‘This house believes …’, it asserts a view, and is called a principle debate. Policy debates tend to be easier for beginning debaters, because they are more concrete and specific, but principle debates tend to be more applicable to academic subjects. The key to picking a successful motion is to find something that can be argued for equally on both sides, to give both sides an equal chance. So, ‘This house believes Hitler was a bad person’, or ‘This house would meet all Britain’s energy needs by recycling cardboard coffee cups’ are unlikely to lead to successful debates.

You need to decide how specific to make the motion. The more specific, the easier it is for the students to define and debate. But if you have a really talented class (or one who are used to debate) making the motion less specific, so they have to do more work, is a good way to stretch and challenge them.

Looking back at the topics we started with, what would good motions look like?

This house believes that Shakespeare presents Shylock as a sympathetic character. (English: challenging, because broad)

This house would not prosecute Shylock for his attempted assault on Antonio. (English: easier, because more specific)

This house believes Elizabeth 1 was a good queen. (History; challenging because so broad)

This house would not have outlawed the Catholic Mass in Elizabethan England. (History: easier, because more specific, though also needing more specific knowledge).

This house would legalise assisted dying. (Philosophy: a good combination of theoretical - is euthanasia moral? - and practical - under what circumstances should it be legal?)

This house would limit patents on medical drugs to five years. (Chemistry / Economics: helpfully specific, though requiring knowledge about patent laws and how they work; at the same time, it deals with big questions about individual freedom vs the common good)

This house would ban nuclear energy. (Physics: helpfully specific and concrete, but also requiring a lot of specific knowledge)

This house would ban zoos. (Biology: also helpfully specific, but will work much better if students are encouraged to research specifics on animal welfare rather than rely on naive anthropomorphical arguments about how cute bears are and you wouldn’t like it if someone could look into your bedroom 24 /7.)

This house would allow people to vote for as many candidates as they like in General Elections. (Maths: very specific, but with a basis in subject knowledge. Apparently there is a mathematical reason why this system might be fairer, but I’m not good enough at Maths to understand it. I’d like to hear the debate to find out.)

2. The format

Once you’ve chosen your motion, you need to choose your format. Probably the best for classroom purposes is the Mace, named after the longstanding competition run by the English Speaking Union, itself named after the jewelled object which represents Parliament.

Mace works like this.

  • Two debaters on each side.

  • First proposition speaks for five minutes (in full Mace it is seven, but I find for classroom debates five is the maximum feasible).

  • First opposition speaks for five minutes.

  • Second proposition speaks for five minutes.

  • Second opposition speaks for five minutes.

  • ‘Points from the floor’, that is anyone in the class can make a brief point.

  • Summary speeches, also five minutes, (the two speakers decide amongst themselves who should do the summary).

You can finish up with a popular vote, or the teacher can adjudicate as to which side made a better case.

The teacher should act as the chair, ensuring that speakers keep to time and speak in the right order.

If you want to include more debaters, you can opt for ‘Extended Mace’, in which the summary speeches are delivered by a third speaker on each side, with points from the floor between the second opposition and the third proposition. 

You can also tweak the time limits for the speeches, making them shorter or longer depending on the capacity of your students.

If you have particularly able students and you want to be more ambitious, you could try the more demanding format of British Parliamentary. Find out how it works in my earlier post here.

3. Points of information

A key feature of debates, and one of the things which makes them most fun, is ‘points of information’. They are modelled on ‘interventions’ in the House of Commons (one good thing to come out of all the recent Brexit chaos is that more people than usual have been watching proceedings in the House of Commons). There is more on how points of information work and how to use them well in my earlier post here, but essentially they work like this:

The first and last minute (or possibly thirty seconds, if you have three minute speeches) of a speech are ‘protected time’. This means that no points of information can be made. The whole of the summary speech in Mace is also ‘protected time’ (though not the last speech in Extended Mace).

Outside of ‘protected time’, though, points of information can be made.

They are made by someone on the side which is not speaking standing up and saying, ‘On a point of information.’ The speaker can then either say, ’No thank you’, in which case the person making the point of information has to sit down, or they can say, ‘Yes please’ in which case the person making the point of information makes a brief point (maximum 15 seconds) engaging with the speaker’s speech in some way, and then sits down. The speaker should briefly respond to the point and carry on with her speech.

Points of information are an essential part of debate. I sometimes compare them to goals in football; no matter how beautiful your passing, you won’t win if you never score any goals. The side listening should make at least three, and the speaker should take at least one. The speaker should not be afraid, however, to say ‘No thank you’ (courteously).

You can find out more about points of information in my earlier post here.

4. Preparation

You have to decide if you’re going to use long preparation (‘long prep’) or short preparation (‘short prep’).

For long prep, you can use a homework, a lesson, or even a whole set of lessons to prepare a topic. This is appropriate if you are using the debate as a focus for extended research into a topic, and that research is a part of the students’ learning. The debate can then function as a culmination of the students’ research, and also a way of assessing that research.

For short prep, 15 minutes is allocated from learning the motion to giving the speech. This is appropriate if students have been studying a topic for a while, and you want to use the debate as a kind of extended plenary.

Long prep is better for teaching research skills. Short prep is better for teaching students to think on their feet, and to process and synthesise information rapidly (useful for exams). 

Interestingly, the debating culture in the USA is biased towards long prep, with students spending an entire year obsessively analysing the pros and cons of the Minnesota electoral system, compiling trolley loads of files in the process, while in the UK short prep is much more commonly used, students being encouraged to speak as if they had dedicated their whole life to a topic they had not even heard of a quarter of an hour ago. What that says about our respective cultures I’ll leave you to work out.

There is much more on how to prepare for a debate effectively in my earlier posts on defining the motion (here), preparing under pressure (here) and signposting (here). In summary, the essential principles of speech preparation (the same for short or long prep) are:

  • Brainstorm arguments.

  • Pick the best three per speech.

  • Anticipate counter-arguments and decide how to rebut them.

  • Never, ever, write out a speech; the fewer notes the better.

5. How to run the lesson

The obvious problem is that, even if you use Extended Mace, only six people are involved in the debate, and most classes have more than six students.

There are various ways round this:

  • Divide the class into groups and have them all prepare a debate, and then pick, either at random or by differentiation, one or two groups to give ‘show debates’. The rest of the class can still join in making points from the floor. This keeps the class focused, and can be a good way to use the debate as a teaching tool; you can refer to the points raised in your plenary.

  • (If you have a lot of time, e.g. at the end of term) as above, only you stagger the debates over several lessons. You can add a little spice to this by making it competitive, awarding a prize to the best debaters at the end.

  • Run several debates simultaneously, enforcing time limits centrally. This obviously makes for a very noisy classroom (it helps if it is also a big classroom) but it does have the advantage that everyone gets a go, and it also makes it easier for students who find public performance difficult. 

  • You can run a variation on the simultaneous debate format by setting up more or less spontaneous mini-debates in pairs (‘We’ve been discussing whether Shakespeare makes Shylock sympathetic or not. Discuss this in pairs: first person says why he’s sympathetic for three minutes; second person says why he isn’t’.’) These can be dropped into a lesson at short notice with very little preparation.

For all except the last example, you need to set up the desks so that students on different sides are facing each other.

6. Why use debate in the classroom?

It teaches:

  • Research skills

  • Team work 

  • How to speak confidently in public

  • How to use evidence well

  • How to build arguments

  • How to analyse arguments

  • An empathetic understanding of different points of view

  • How democracy works 

So, the value of using debate in the classroom is, er …. beyond debate.

Good luck! If you would like any more advice, contact me on

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Factsheet #1 - Taxation

This week we have the first of our factsheets, giving you useful information about common debate topics. It is a guest post on the topic of taxation, written by Tea Chatila, an A-Level Economics student at Godolphin and Latymer. 

Taxation is an important part of the economy, our society, and indeed many debate topics. It can be tricky to understand, so here is a guide as to how tax works, and some potential benefits and costs you could mention in a debate.  

Tax is collected on a regular basis by the government from individuals and firms in order to pay for public services (for example the National Health Service, the police and public libraries).

Tax is also occasionally used as a way to discourage people from buying certain things (for example, cigarettes are unhealthy, so there is a high tax on them, but because they are addictive many people still buy them). 

There are two main types of taxation: direct and indirect.

Direct taxation is tax that we give directly to the government, for example income tax (usually taken away automatically from salaries). Indirect taxation is the opposite: for example, we pay VAT (Value Added Tax) each time we purchase a good or service, and the producer of this good or service transfers this money to the government (i.e. the producer acts as an intermediate step).   

Indirect taxation is the opposite: for example, we pay VAT (Value Added Tax) each time we purchase a good or service, and the producer of this good or service transfers this money to the government (i.e. the producer acts as an intermediate step).   

Here are some important taxes which may come up in a debate:

   1. Income tax

Income tax is deducted from any kind of income and depends on how much you earn. If you earn very little, you pay zero income tax, but after a certain point (around £11,000 per year) the more income you have, the higher percentage of your income you give as tax.  

  2. Corporate tax

Corporate tax is a percentage of profits made by a company, deducted from those profits. It is the same rate regardless of how big or small a business is. Because it is levied as a percentage, companies with higher profits give more money to the government.  

  3. Property tax

Property tax is a percentage of the value of a property, and depends on its location. So those with larger or more expensive properties pay more. Council tax, used to fund local government, is an example of property tax.

4. Value Added Tax (VAT) 

This is 20% in the UK. So, when you buy something (unless it is a product to which VAT does not apply), you also pay the seller an additional 20% of its original value. However, the seller does not get to keep this, but passes it on to the government.  

Progressive taxation vs. flat taxation

Progressive taxation

Income tax in the UK is progressive; that means the more income you earn, the higher percentage of tax you pay. 

This is because there is a strong argument that it would be unfair to make people with a low income pay the same tax as those with higher income, as the standard of living of poorer people would decrease further, whereas those with a higher income would still be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle. It is also considered a duty for those who can to contribute as much to society as possible.      
However, it could also be argued that the richer should not have to pay much more tax, as wealthier people benefit equally (or even less) from the services paid for by taxation. For example, higher-income people currently give more money (indirectly) to the NHS. However, lower-income people tend to use it more, as the wealthier may use private healthcare which is considered of a higher quality, and may use healthcare in general less, as they can afford to buy healthier food (this is just one example).  
Both arguments are of course valid. 

Flat taxation

A flat tax is just one constant percentage tax rate that applies to everyone. This is used in a few countries, for example Estonia.
The main argument against this is that poorer people would be affected by the tax more. Let’s say the tax on something is 60p per product. 60p is a larger percentage of a poorer person’s wealth, as they have less money to spend. This means that poorer people are at a disadvantage as the government is taking more from them (in comparison to what they have already). 

An argument for flat tax, however, is that it would actually make things fairer. If a flat tax were to be applied to income, it would be a much simpler and easier process, which is a good thing in itself. Also, some people hire expert tax advisers, who can find ways to spend less in tax. This evidently only applies to wealthier people, leaving the rest (i.e. the majority) of the population paying relatively higher tax in comparison. This would not be applicable if there was a simple process everyone could understand.  

Follow the link here for more arguments on progressive vs flat taxes.  

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How to debate #5 - preparing under pressure

Silence falls on the room (unusually for debating). Everyone looks up, at one person, who for that moment has absolute power. She reads out a sentence, very, very slowly. She reads it out again. We hear nothing but the scratching of pens. She gives a signal. Everyone runs out of the room.

That’s how it is at short preparation or ‘short prep’ debates, where debaters are given 15 minutes to prepare a motion they have not heard until that moment. It’s a pretty scary prospect, having to speak in front of a room full of people, half of whom will be disagreeing with every word you say, about something you knew nothing about until 15 minutes ago. Even more so when your phone and / or tablet has been surgically removed from you (as is the rule in all debating competitions), and you have nothing to rely on but your naked brains and those of your debating partner. 

Every minute - every second - counts in that prep time. So, how to make the best use of those precious quarter of an hour?

Get to the room as fast as you can (this could easily use up two minutes, depending on how big the building you are competing in is and how good your sense of direction is).

Make sure you have:
  • Paper
  • Several pens or pencils
  • Highlighters
  • Index cards
  • A bottle of water

Now you’re in the room, alone with each other. What to do first?

You should both keep quiet for five minutes. 

Why? Surely we should be discussing, sharing our ideas? Well, yes, but you have to have some ideas to share first. It’s quite possible you will never have thought about the motion topic in your life. Even if the topic is one on which you have both deep knowledge and passionate convictions, you need some time to gather your thoughts. And if you gather your thoughts separately, you’ll have twice as many thoughts by the end of the prep time. So, for five minutes silence should fall again, as you scratch away with your pens.

What are you writing about?

You need to be asking yourself questions; big questions. 

There are seven big questions which apply to every debate motion, which you should always ask.

1. What is the debate about?

2. What do we have to prove?

3. What do they have to prove?

4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?

5. Who are the actors?

6. Who are the stakeholders?

7. What is the mechanism?

Write or type these questions out on a piece of card and bring them to every debate.

(NB these questions only work with what we call ‘policy debates’, that is ones where the motion begins ‘This house would …’ We’ll cover how to prepare for ‘principle debates’, where the motion begins ‘This house believes …’ in a later post.)

How might you answer these questions in practice? 

Let’s take an example; preparing the motion ‘This house would tax meat’, with you proposing. It’s a nice big, broad motion (only four words long) with lots of scope for interpretation.

1. What is the debate about?
This question is asking you to cut through all the practicalities and focus on the essential point of principle. Here, the debate is about whether the state has the right to intervene in the market for the benefit of society as a whole. It’s about which is more important; the individual or the collective.

2. What do we have to prove?
You are proposing a change to the status quo. First you have to prove there is a problem with the status quo; then you have to prove that your proposed change will solve the problem. There will always be both costs and benefits associated with any change, and you have to prove that the benefits of your proposed change will outweigh the benefits. So, you have to prove that: consumption of meat has bad consequences; taxing it is an effective way to lessen those consequences; the benefits of taxing meat will be greater than the costs. 

3. What do they have to prove?
As they’re defending the status quo, they have to prove either that the status quo works and does not need changing, or that it does need changing but that your way of changing it will either not work or that its costs will be greater than its benefits. (They may also choose to propose a better way of dealing with the problem presented by the motion.) So, they have to prove either that the consumption of meat is not a bad thing (or is even a good thing), or that it is a bad thing but that taxing meat is not the way to deal with it, either because it will not work, or because the costs will be greater than the benefits.

4. What will be changed if the motion is passed?
Most debate motions say, ‘The world will be a better place if we take this action.’ So, what will the world look like if your proposed action happens? It’s worth considering both short and long (and sometimes medium) term effects. In the short term, everyone will eat less meat, and the government would have more money. In the long term, climate change will be greatly slowed down now that thousands of acres of land are filled with health giving plants rather than farting cows, and everyone will be slimmer and healthier thanks to their vegetable rich diet; those few who persist in eating meat will be treated for the diseases brought on by their diet in shining new hospitals paid for by the tax on their addiction.

5. Who are the actors?
This means who is going to make the change happen. Here, it is the government, as they are the ones who are going to be setting and collecting the tax.

6. Who are the stakeholders?
This means who is effected by the change. Here, it is the government collecting (and spending) the tax; meat farmers and retailers who are likely to see their income fall; consumers who will see the price of meat rise.

7. What is the mechanism?
This means how will you make the change happen. Here, you get into the nitty gritty. How much tax? 5% of the price? 10%? 25%? Will you add it to the price in shops, or to the price retailers pay to farmers? Which is most likely to achieve the benefits you seek while minimising the costs? Having a high tax rate would be more likely to put people off buying meat; having a low tax rate would make it easier to get popular support for the measure, and would make black market evasion of the tax less likely.

You need to have answers to these questions jotted down in the first two minutes. Yes, two minutes. You have to think fast as a debater. 

Next, you need to take up another sheet of paper and start brainstorming arguments for both sides (still without talking to your debating partner). Do this for three minutes. In this three minutes, you need to switch off the part of your brain that keeps telling you that what you’re doing isn’t very good. Don’t worry whether the arguments are good or not; just get them down, as many of them as possible. Quantity is more important than quality at this stage. Selection comes later. 

The five minutes are up. You look up from your notepads. Your eyes meet. What do you do now?

First, you share your answers to the big questions, and make sure you agree on the answers. If you’re speaking first for the proposition, agree how you’re going to define the motion (see our earlier post here on how to do that). With the big answers clear in your minds, you can proceed to the arguments. Go through the ones for your side of the motion first. Choose the six most persuasive. Then rank them by persuasiveness. The first speaker gets the top three in order of persuasiveness, the second speaker gets the next three in order of persuasiveness. Note, no more than three arguments each. Time to reach for the index cards now. Take one for each of your three arguments. On it, write a headline, which should be no more than a word or at most a phrase, and short points on how you’re going to expand on it. With the motion we’ve picked, one of your cards might look like this:

  • Excessive consumption of meat = major cause of heart disease and diabetes
  • Taxing it discourages consumption, nudges consumers towards healthier choices by making them cheaper
  • Heavy taxation on tobacco = massive reduction in smoking = major health benefits; taxing meat = same.

The smallness of index cards has two advantages: 

1. It makes them easier to handle while you are speaking, ensuring you spend more time making eye contact and less time fumbling with your notes.

2. It ensures your notes are concise and focused. 

Boiling your speech down to three index cards will also help you to signpost it better; see our earlier post here on how to signpost.

I’ll just take a moment here to remind you that you should NEVER, NEVER, NEVER write out a debate speech in full. That isn’t debating; it’s essay writing. You can be good at writing essays and good at debating, and you can learn a lot about how to write essays from doing debating, but they are NOT THE SAME THING. I hope I made that clear.

This sorting out of your own arguments should take another five minutes. Now it’s time to consider the other side’s possible arguments and how to rebut them. Do this by taking turns, one person stating the arguments, the other one rebutting them. As well as working out what you will say in rebuttal, this will both get you into the mind set of the other side (which is vital), while also sharpening up your rebuttal responses. It’s a bit like footballers passing a ball around to warm up just before kick off.

Your final task is to find the point of clash. See our earlier post here on the point of clash. This should be the thing you keep in mind all the way through the debate, your guiding star. You need to keep coming back to it, and keep showing the judge that you are on the winning side of it, particularly if you are speaking last. Very often, it will be the answer to the first question: what is the debate about? Here, the point of clash is the right of the state to intervene to protect the health of the community against the individual’s right to make their own choices. You have to show that the damage that meat eating causes to health and the climate outweighs the loss of freedom entailed by a tax on meat. Say the point of clash to each other a few times, as a kind of mantra, to make sure it is at the front of your mind.

By now, your brain should be singing, and you should be ready to talk for England (literally, if you are representing England in the Worlds Debating Competition). If you’re feeling nervous, embrace it. As every actor, performer and sportsperson knows, that adrenalin rush will sharpen up your performance and make you more focused. Gather up your notes, take a swig of water, and head for the debating chamber. Into battle …