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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Recommended podcast #3 - The Briefing Room

David Aaronovitch, presenter of  BBC Radio 4's The Briefing Room
‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  … Stick to Facts, sir!’
Mr Gradgrind, whose words open Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, does not have good reputation in the education world. He is regularly wheeled out whenever exams are denounced for having too much emphasis on learning stuff and not enough on thinking for yourself. He’s not meant to be sympathetic; there’s a clue in his name.

And yet, he does have a point. Surely not? Not for debaters? Isn’t debating meant to be all about thinking for yourself, not just regurgitating stuff you’ve learnt? Isn’t that what you said in Why debate #1 - It teaches you how to think?

Well, yes. But you have to have something to base your thinking on. Having opinions without any facts to base them on is like trying to drive a car without any petrol in; no matter how skilfully you steer, you won’t get anywhere. Knowledge about the world and what is happening in it right now - sometimes known as current affairs - is absolutely vital for debaters.

Where to get those facts from? There is no shortage of information out there. Mainstream newspapers, radio, TV and even, for the long view, printed books, along with the vast uncharted forest of social media, are all available 24/7, and all promise to tell you what is going on. Navigating your way through them, though, is another matter. Each outlet will have its own bias, its own angle, its own agenda to advance; even if all the information is correct, some aspects will be played up and others played down. Detecting bias in the way information is presented is a vital skill not just for debating, but for life, and one we will cover in later posts.

For now, though, there is one place where you will find facts, lots of facts, about the issues most immediately in the news and most likely to come up in debates. BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room is an opinion-free zone, and all the better for it. Each week the presenter David Aaronovitch invites experts to inform us on the facts behind the issues. They speak clearly and informatively, and he asks the sort of questions we want asked. It is worth searching up, for example, the two episodes broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, one from a Leave voting area, one from Remain. Two and a half years on, they explain the issues behind Brexit better than anything I’ve read or heard recently. 

Aaronovitch’s concern is never to persuade, always to understand. A debater’s job is to persuade; but first, she needs to understand. Listening to The Briefing Room will help you to understand the world better, and will make you a better debater.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

How to debate #6 - rebuttal

The 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny is not perhaps the greatest movie ever made. It does, however, have one memorable scene. The main character, Vinny, is a lawyer, hired to represent his cousin, who has been falsely accused of involvement in an armed robbery. Vinnie isn’t, it’s fair to say, at the top of his profession; he’s failed his law exams six times. However, he is cheap. So cheap that the only hotel he can afford is next to a railway line that keeps him awake all night. As a result, he falls asleep during the prosecution’s opening submission. Prompted by the judge to respond on behalf of his client, Vinny stirs himself, strides confidently towards the bench, and says, ‘Everything that guy just said is garbage.’ (Actually, he doesn’t say, ’garbage’. He says something else. You can see what he really says in the original clip here.) Vinny’s response is a very good example of how not to do rebuttal. Unfortunately, the Vinny technique is still all too common, both in debating and in life.

So, let’s do rebuttal better than poor old Vinny. This week we’re going to learn:

1. What rebuttal is.
2. Why you should do rebuttal.
3. When you should do rebuttal.
4. How you should do rebuttal.

1. What is ‘rebuttal’? 

Rebuttal is when you challenge, criticise or find fault with your opponent’s argument with reason. I’ll say that again: with reason. It is different from simply saying someone is wrong. This is the Vinny approach, which itself is the mirror image of simple assertion of an argument, our Bad Argument #1, covered in an earlier post here. No reason, no rebuttal; but the better your reason or reasons, the better your rebuttal.

2. Why do rebuttal?

Without rebuttal, a debate becomes a series of performances: one free standing speech after another, none of them having any connection with each other. No matter how well composed the speeches are, they might as well have been written down, photocopied and handed out to the audience. In fact, you might as well not even be in the same room. A debate without rebuttal is like someone who behaves as if there is no one else there. Have you ever met anyone like that? They’re not much fun to be with. With rebuttal, however, a debate becomes a conversation; a conversation where people actually listen to each other. It becomes dynamic, unpredictable, unsafe. In other words, it comes to life. A debate with rebuttal is a lot harder, but it’s also a lot more interesting and, ultimately, more fun.

3. When should you do rebuttal?

a. At the beginning of your speech
Unless you are first proposition, you are always speaking just after someone on the other side has spoken. You need to show you have actually listened to that speech by responding to what has been said, and by saying, with reason, why you disagree with it.

b. In points of information
Despite their name, points of information are essentially forms of rebuttal. They are your chance to engage with the other side’s argument in a targeted way and to find fault with it. See more about how to do points of information in our earlier post here.

c. When discussing the point of clash
Once you’ve identified the point of clash, you then have to show you have won the debate by rebutting the other side of the clash. See more about the point of clash in our earlier post here.

4. How do you do rebuttal?

Rebuttal is the work of analysing an argument and finding its weaknesses. It’s really hard work, and it doesn’t get any easier. You just have to keep practising it. The more you practise it, the better you will get at it. This will have benefits not just in debating, but in life, as you are less likely to be fooled by people who look as they’re talking sense but aren’t, really.

There is a whole section of philosophy, called ‘critical thinking’, dedicated to analysing arguments and their strengths and weaknesses. You may have studied it at school. For now, though, here are some very simple tools for understanding how arguments work.

Arguments consist of premises and conclusions. In a strong argument, the premises lead to the conclusion. So, for example:

  • Anna is a person (Premise 1)
  • All people are mortal (Premise 2)
  • Therefore, Anna is mortal (Conclusion)

Or, to put it more like a mathematical formula:
  • A is B
  • All Bs are C
  • Therefore, A is C.

There are three main ways to challenge an argument:

1. One or more of the premises is weak.
2. The premises do not lead to the conclusion.
3. The premises are strong and do lead to the conclusion, but the conclusion is undesirable.

Let’s see how these would work in practice.

We’ll go back to that ever popular debate, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational.’

Someone puts this argument:

‘All schools should be forced to be mixed, because when girls and boys attend the same school, they have to spend time with each other, so they learn to get on with the opposite sex, which is a vital life skill.’

Let’s analyse that argument.

Premise 1: Mixed schools make boys and girls spend time together.
Premise 2: Spending time with people teaches you to get on with them.
Premise 3: Getting on with people is a vital life skill.
Conclusion: Therefore, all schools should be mixed.

Now let’s see how we could rebut it.

Challenging Premise 1

‘Mixed schools don’t make boys and girls spend time together. They spend most of their time ignoring each other. At break time the boys play football, the girls talk. Students at single-sex schools spend much more meaningful time with the opposite sex, because when they do so, they do so out of choice.’

Challenging Premise 2

 ‘Putting boys and girls together doesn’t make them get on with each other. Boys tend to dominate class discussion, intimidating girls into not giving their opinions. This establishes a very unhealthy dynamic for later life, where men make decisions and women listen; not a good way to “get on with each other”. Girls in single-sex schools get the confidence to express their opinions in class much more easily, and are thus better equipped to interact with men on an equal basis in later life.’

Challenging Premise 3

‘Girls consistently achieve better exam results in single-sex schools. Making them sacrifice this achievement by forcing them into mixed schools so they can “learn how to get on with boys” is sending out the message that socialisation is more important than success; or, to put it another way, it’s more important for a girl to be nice than to be clever. Is that how we should be bringing up our daughters?’

Showing that the premises do not lead to the conclusion

 ‘It may be true that boys and girls spending time together at school can teach them how to get on better in later life, but that doesn’t mean all schools should be forced to be mixed. Not all children are the same; some thrive in single-sex environments, and shouldn’t be forced into a “one size fits all” model.’

Questioning the desirability of the conclusion

 ‘Shouldn’t schools be about academic education, not socialisation?’  Or: ‘What business does the government have telling us what sort of education we should choose for our children?’

So, as you can see, there are many different ways you can rebut even a simple argument like the one above. We’ll be covering more lines of attack as we continue with our series on Bad Arguments - how to spot them, and how to challenge them. But with five possible lines of attack (and often there will be more), you have to choose. You can’t say all those things at once. How do you choose? Challenge your opponent where her argument is weakest. Look through the rebuttals above, and decide for yourself which exposes the most weakness in the original argument.

To sum up:

1. Rebuttal is essential for debate
2. Do it at the beginning of your speech; in points of information; and when summing up.
3. Simple denial is never enough.
4. Break your opponent’s argument down to premises and conclusion, and challenge it at its weakest point.

By the way, all the rebuttal arguments above can of course themselves be rebutted. Debating is not about finding a final definitive truth, nor is it an activity suited to people who need there to be one and only one answer to every question. This might be why North Korea have never done very well in the World Debating Competition. But in this respect debating teaches us something very profound, and something that would make the world a much better place if more people understood it. I’ll leave with you with the wise words of John Henry Newman:

 ‘Never stop searching for the truth; never trust anyone who tells you they have found it.’

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Factsheet #2 - how to impeach a president

It’s not controversial to say that Donald Trump is controversial. He has friends; he has enemies. A lot of people would like to see him gone from the White House. But there are only three ways to remove a President of the United States between elections: death, resignation and impeachment. The pros and cons of impeaching Mr Trump have been much debated lately, and will be debated again soon after Half Term in the final round of the London Junior Debating League.
What does ‘impeachment’ actually mean? Pelting him with rotten fruit? In our guest post this week, Neil Singh and Tucker Wilke, students from Hackley School, New York, explain the technicalities behind impeachment - essential to know if you are debating whether or not it is a good idea. 
Our thanks to Neil and Tucker for this post. We are looking forward to welcoming students from Hackley to London for their debate tour in the last week of March (Brexit week … will they get home?)
The American Constitution gives three reasons why a President, or any other official, can be impeached. The first is treason, which is helping an enemy while working against one’s own country. Treason usually consists of either starting a war against the United States, or giving aid and support to its enemies. The second reason listed for impeachment is bribery, which means taking money or gifts in exchange for a political favour. The third reason for impeachment is also the most broad: “high crimes and misdemeanours.” Over time, most calls for impeachment have fallen into this category. Critically, there is no specific definition of what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanours.” It is essentially whatever the legislative branch of government decides it is. 

The process of impeachment includes charges, a trial, and then removal from office. Impeachment begins in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives consists of elected congressmen and women from across the whole United States, and makes laws; rather like the House of Commons in the UK. Any member of the House may bring an impeachment resolution. If this happens, the impeachment charges must be approved by the House Judiciary Committee, which is a group of Representatives who are responsible for overseeing the administration of justice within federal courts and law enforcement agencies. If the Judiciary Committee approves the charges, then the entire House of Representatives will vote. If a majority in the House votes in favour, then the President is officially impeached. However, the President is not immediately removed from his job if he is impeached. Once impeachment is approved by the House of Representatives, the case goes to the Senate. The Senate is the second body of lawmakers in the USA, rather like the House of Lords in the UK, except that they are elected by the people. The Senate holds a trial of the President, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Senators act as a jury while both sides present their case. If more than two thirds of the Senate vote to convict, then the President is officially removed from his/her job.

Friday, February 1, 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