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Monday, September 30, 2019

How to debate #10 - building a proposition case

Debating is about changing the world.

Actually, it isn’t, most of the time, unless it’s a debate in parliament which results in a law being passed. However, policy motions, the most commonly used motions (see How to debate #1 - defining the motion) are about changing the way things are. Understanding this will help you, if you are the proposition, to build an effective case.

A useful way to think of building the case for change is to think in terms of NOW, THEN and ACTION.

NOW is the situation as it is.

THEN is where you want to get to.

ACTION is what gets you from NOW to THEN

The ACTION is what is at the centre of the motion; it’s what comes after ‘This house would …’

In order to make a case for the proposition, you need to prove that:

1. NOW is bad. 

2. THEN would be better.

3. The ACTION will get us to THEN.

You need to answer the following questions:

1. What’s the NOW?
2. What’s wrong with NOW?
3. What will THEN look like?
4. Why will THEN be better?
5. How will the ACTION get us to THEN?

So, how would you do this in practice?

Let’s take a very concrete policy motion: ‘This house would make it compulsory for all 18 year olds to do a year of community service.’

1.What’s the NOW?

18 year olds can do what they want when they leave school; go to university, get further training, get a job, or do nothing all day.

2. What’s wrong with NOW?

  • Young people think only of their own future, without any sense of the needs of others less fortunate than themselves.
  • As a result, society is very fragmented and lacking in solidarity.
  • Young people only learn a narrow set of skills.
  • Young people have little experience of the lives of people who are not like them.
  • Many young people, who do not have places at uni / jobs with prospects, lack a sense of direction and purpose.
  • Charities and voluntary organisations helping less fortunate people are understaffed.

3. What will THEN look like?

  • Every 18 year old would spend a year, before beginning study or work, helping people less fortunate than themselves.

4. Why will THEN be better?

  • Society will be more open minded, as people would grow up with a broader experience of life.
  • Society will be more united, as people would have a shared experience at a formative age.
  • Society will be more compassionate, as people would have been confronted with people less fortunate than themselves.
  • All 19 year olds will be equipped with basic, transferrable skills.
  • Charitable / voluntary projects will never be understaffed.

5. How will the ACTION get us to THEN?

  • By making the year of community service universal, with very few exceptions, this law would ensure all the benefits listed above.

Thinking in terms of NOW, THEN and ACTION is a very helpful way to break down, and then build up, a proposition case. It is also, by the way, a very useful skill to have in life, whenever you want to persuade people to embrace a change you think is desirable, whether that’s being loaned money to launch a new business; radically changing our way of life to cut carbon emissions; or being allowed to move into your sister’s bedroom now she’s gone to uni.

Monday, September 23, 2019

How to debate #9 - stakeholder impact analysis

In our post on the mechanism we said that policy debates are about making things happen in the real world. Those things happen to people. 

The people are called stakeholders

What happens to them is called impact.

Understanding the impact that the action proposed by the motion will have on various groups of people will help you to define and defend your case more effectively if you are the proposition, and to attack it more successfully if you are the opposition. 

This process is called stakeholder impact analysis.

How does stakeholder impact analysis work?

Let’s take the popular motion ‘This house would make all schools co-educational.’ 

The first question to consider is: whose lives would be changed if this motion was enacted? In other words, who are the stakeholders?

Here’s a list:

  • School students
  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • Employers 
  • The government

The next task is to work out what impact the proposed change would have on each of these groups.  In other words, what impact would the change have?

A good approach is to draw up a table like this:


School students
They would all have to attend co-educational schools.

They would no longer have the choice of sending their children to single-sex schools.

Those who had only worked in single-sex schools (or preferred working in single-sex schools) would have to learn the different skills required for teaching both boys and girls.

The government
Changing single-sex schools to mixed schools would take up a great deal of the Department for Education’s time and money.

Eventually, everyone in the country would have attended a co-educational school. Would this make them better or worse at their jobs?

Now, once you’ve decided stakeholders and impact, place the stakeholders in rank order as to how important you consider their interests to be. There isn’t a right answer to this exercise, but how your ranking comes out reveals how you will approach the debate.

Suppose you choose this rank order:

1. Students
2. Parents
3. Government 
4. Teachers
5. Employers

The assumption this ranking reveals is that schools are there to meet the needs of the children who attend them. If you are the proposition, this will lead you to argue for the benefits co-education will bring to school students, e.g. the greater ease they will feel with the opposite gender. If you are the opposition, it will lead you to argue for the costs it will bring to school students, e.g. worse grades for girls. The point of clash will then be social benefits vs academic benefits, but it will be focused around how those benefits impact students personally.

What, though, if you came up with this order?

1. Employers
2. The government
3. Teachers
4. Parents
5. School students

This would imply a very different approach to education. This suggests a world in which children’s needs are seen as less important than the needs of society as a whole. The purpose of education in this order of priorities is to fit children for the world of work. So, the proposition might argue that co-educational schools prepare children better for the world of work because they teach them to collaborate better with the opposite gender as they will have to in the workplace; the opposition might argue that single-sex schools are more likely to produce women engineers and scientists, and that this is what the economy needs. The point of clash will still be social benefits vs academic benefits, but those benefits will be entirely from the point of view of employers, and to a lesser extent the government. The question the debate will have to answer is: which type of schools will bring more benefit to the national economy?

Or suppose another rank order:

1. Parents
2. Teachers
3. School students
4. Employers
5. The government

This ranking implies a libertarian approach. Libertarianism means maximising people’s freedom of choice. If parents are the most important people when it comes to their children’s education, they should be allowed to choose how their children are educated; it is not the government’s business to tell them what to do. Similarly, teachers should be able to choose what sort of school they want to work in, and students should be able to choose what sort of school they attend. If employers or the government don’t like those choices, bad luck. This approach only really works for the proposition for this motion. The point of clash will be individual freedom vs. collective benefit. If you are the opposition facing this kind of proposition, you have to find arguments that change the rank order such that employers and government move further up, thus tilting the debate away from freedom and back towards collective benefit.

So, when preparing for a debate:

  • Work out who will be affected by the proposed change.
  • Work out what impact it will have on them.
  • Decide which group of people you think is most important.
  • Frame your argument accordingly.

Monday, September 16, 2019

How debating works #3 - choosing a motion

It’s easy for debaters to feel passive about motions. They’re just what you get given; you have to get on with proposing or opposing them, whether you like it or not. It’s important, though, to think actively about motions. You should think about how motions are constructed; what different types of motion demand from debaters; and what challenges and opportunities different motions present. 

What makes a successful motion?
  • A successful motion must be balanced. That is, it must be possible to make more or less equally strong arguments on both sides of the case, without stretching either evidence, reality or morality to unacceptable limits for either side. 

‘This house believes that climate change is a problem’ stretches the use of evidence to unacceptable limits for the opposition.

 ‘This house would make the use of jet-packs compulsory for all journeys within cities’ stretches reality to unacceptable limits for the proposition.

‘This house would introduce compulsory euthanasia for disabled people’ stretches morality to unacceptable limits for the proposition.

  • A successful motion must be narrow enough in scope to be discussed within a five minute speech, but also broad enough in scope to sustain a full debate.

‘This house would do more to stop climate change’ is too broad.

‘This house would stop Year 10s buying water in plastic bottles from Tesco's on the way to school when they could bring in their own bottles and fill them up from the water fountain outside the gym instead’ is too narrow, however well intentioned. 

  • A successful motion must be appropriate to the cultural, academic and age context of the debaters it is allocated to.

‘This house would respond to an economic recession by deploying a Keynesian model of deficit spending’ is probably not the ideal motion for the first session of the Year Seven debating club, though it could be a great exercise in an A-Level Economics class (see How To Use Debating in the Classroom).

‘This house thinks dogs make better pets than cats’ might come across as seriously patronising if used in the final of a sixth form debating competition, but is ideal for introducing Years Five and Six to debating.

‘This house would introduce stricter gun control laws’ will spark lively and impassioned discussions in the US, but doesn’t make much sense in the UK, where gun control laws are already very strict.

‘This house would abolish Christmas’ is a great one for a fun debate at the end of term in December in a church school, but doesn’t work so well in a Muslim school in May.

Be sensitive also to the way in which debate topics which may touch on personal issues for students. ‘This house believes that the fashion and beauty industry helps cause eating disorders’ is not the best choice if you have a student in the debating club who has, or is recovering from, an eating disorder. ‘This house would introduce automatic prison sentences for anyone carrying a knife’ might be best postponed if you have a student in the club close to someone who has recently been a victim of knife crime.

What different types of motion are there?

Policy vs principle

The most basic distinction is between policy motions and ideas motions; that is, motions which begin ‘This house would …’ and motions which begin ‘This house believes …’ (See How to define the motion)

In general, policy motions are easier to tackle, and are therefore more appropriate for novices, because it is easier to focus on specific and concrete measures. Ideas motions are harder to define and pin down, so are more challenging, but can also lead to very interesting discussions.

So, ‘This house would ban mobile phones from schools’ is very specific and concrete, and therefore relatively straightforward.

‘This house believes money does not bring happiness’ is much more vague and general, and needs very careful definition to pin it down, while at the same time opening up really big and fascinating questions about the true nature of happiness.

Familiar vs unfamiliar

Familiar motions deal with issues all students have direct experience of, usually to do with school. They’re great for novice debaters. 

Classic familiar motions are:
  • This house would make all schools co-educational.
  • This house would abolish school uniform.
  • This house would abolish homework.
  • This house would make school voluntary.
  • This house would abolish exams.

Unfamiliar motions deal with issues beyond students’ experience, and may require very specific knowledge to make sense of them. Students debating these motions have to extend themselves by doing some research / using their general knowledge. (See the factsheets on the British Constitutiontaxation and impeaching President Trump). These motions can work particularly well for long prep debates, or within lessons.

Examples of unfamiliar motions are:

  • This house would introduce proportional representation in General Elections.
  • This house believes nuclear power is the answer to our energy needs.
  • This house would introduce term limits for Prime Ministers.
  • This house would ban genetically modified food.
  • This house believes globalisation is a force for good.
Drawing up your own list of motions is a very worthwhile exercise. A good stock of motions is an invaluable resource for a school debating club, providing material for practice in training sessions, and also to use in any internal competitions you run. The more motions you have, the more you understand how motions work, and also the more you understand how to analyse motions when you are preparing for a debate. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

How debating works #2 - Mace

Mace is one of the two most common debating formats used in the UK, along with British Parliamentary. It takes its name from the large ornamental silver club which rests on a table in the centre of the House of Commons. The Mace is the symbol of royal authority, and if it is not there the House of Commons cannot meet or pass laws. Given that debating is what the House of Commons does (as we have seen in the last few days ...), it is an appropriate name for a debating format.

How does Mace work?

  •  There are two speakers on each side.

  • It is long prep; speakers are usually given the motion several days in advance to prepare.

  • They speak for seven minutes each, alternating between proposition and opposition.

  • The first and last minute in each speech is ‘protected’ (meaning no one is allowed to make points of information during that time).

  • When all four debaters have spoken, speeches from the floor (i.e. short points from the audience) are heard.

  • One debater from each side then gives a summary speech, lasting four minutes, with the opposition speaking first. In this speech, they should not introduce any new material, but should instead respond to speeches from the floor, rebut their opponents' case, and summarise their own case.

  • Marks are awarded for both content of speeches and speaking style.

A variant on the basic Mace format is Extended Mace.

  • In Extended Mace, there are three speakers on each side.

  • The first two speakers on each side speak for seven minutes, alternating between proposition and opposition, with the first and last minute protected.

  • Speeches from the floor are then heard.

  • Finally, four minute summary speeches are given by the third speaker on each side, on the same basis as for regular Mace, with the opposition going first. 

The timing of speeches may be altered if there is less time available (for example in a lunchtime club in a school, or if speakers are less experienced).

Mace is a good format for beginning debaters, as the long prep and the more structured, less free flowing format than British Parliamentary can help them to feel more confident. It is also a good format to use in a school debating club, as it allows the audience to get more involved.

The major Mace competition in the UK is the Schools' Mace competition run by the English Speaking Union. It is the oldest and largest schools' debating competition, regularly attracting over 300 schools.

Monday, September 2, 2019

How to set up a debating club in your school

So, you want to set up a debating club at your school.


If you want to set up a cricket club, you need:

  • A large open space of land
  • Ground staff to look after it and to cultivate and roll the pitch in the middle
  • White trousers and shirts
  • Bats
  • Pads
  • Helmets
  • Balls
  • A scorebook
  • Good weather
  • If possible, a pavilion and a scoreboard

If you want to stage a musical you need:

  • A theatre
  • An orchestra
  • Costumes 
  • Props
  • Make up
  • Someone to design, print and distribute the posters
  • Someone to sell the tickets
  • Refreshments for the interval

If you want to set up a rowing club you need:

  • A boat
  • A boathouse to keep it in
  • A river or other large open stretch of water

If you want to set up a debating club you need:

  • A classroom, containing chairs and tables
  • Paper
  • Pencils

See what I mean? 

One of the great strengths of debating is that it requires very few resources to run; debating is, as it were, a cheap date. The one resource it does require, however, is teachers' time which, as anyone who has ever worked in a school knows, is by far the most scarce resource. (A friend of mine recently retrained in mid life as an English teacher after years as a freelance journalist and composer. I asked him what the most important thing was he'd learnt in his first year. 'How to make a cup of tea faster,' he said.)

I hope you believe that it is worth investing that time in debating. You should be able to ask for (and count on) support from senior leadership, perhaps even in granting you extra time. Debating is an increasingly valued activity in schools. It has always been popular in the independent sector; a very welcome development in recent years has been its growth in the maintained sector. It aligns very well with the mandatory promotion in schools of British Values, particularly democracy and respect for the beliefs of others.

So, how to run your debating club?

Have an initial meeting where you test the level of interest, so that you can scope what you can offer. Ideally, you should have different clubs for different age levels. As a minimum, you should have one for Years 7 - 9 and one for Years 10 - 13; if you have capacity for more divisions, even better! Of course, this means more investment of precious staff time. If you can, recruit a colleague to run one of the clubs. 

Alternatively (and in many ways better), delegate the running of the Year 7 - 9 club to one or more Year 12 or 13 students. In my own school, I have for many years had a formal role of 'Debating Captains',  a team of Year 12 and 13 students appointed to train younger students, along with other duties. In my experience, older students are flattered and highly motivated by being given this responsibility, which gives them valuable leadership experience (and looks great on UCAS ...). I have also found that older students are far more effective role models than teachers; when I am interviewing applicants to be Debating Captain and ask them how they came to be interested in debating, they invariably mention the inspirational impact of the Year 12 or 13 student who mentored them when they were younger.

Then, you need to book a room and a time. Make sure you have a regular time and venue that can be identified with debating. The lunch break is the traditional time for extra-curricular activities. It does ensure that students are all on site, though the time can also be quite pinched; you will be lucky to get more than half an hour. Scheduling the club for after school will give you more time, though may also make it harder to get students to stay. Some schools have particular periods of the week ring fenced for extension / enrichment activities, and you may be able to bag one of these slots. Whenever you schedule it, make sure it happens every week; once you lose the momentum, it can be hard to regain. Be prepared for a certain amount of horse trading in the staff room over clashes with sports, music and drama. As in any negotiation (particularly with people you have to see every day), you need to be willing to make some compromises; however, don't be afraid to stand your ground when you think it is important.  

What to do in that time?

I would suggest alternating instruction and practice. You do need to do some instruction. No matter how keen they are, students are not going to just know how to do debating (it is not simply a matter of having an argument) and they need to be taken through both the rules and the skills and techniques. You can use some of the posts on this blog, particularly the 'How To ...' posts, and develop your own ways of teaching the techniques covered in them.

However, as every teacher knows, the best way to learn how to do something is by doing it. As soon as possible, get the students debating. Also as soon as possible, set up some kind of competitive structure. 

Students are highly motivated by competition, and it gives them much more investment in the activity. If the club runs at lunchtime, the best format for a competition is likely to be Mace - see here for how Mace works. If necessary, use shorter speeches than the traditional seven minutes, say five or even three minutes, with two minutes for summary, to save time. If you have a whole hour, for example with an after school slot, British Parliamentary can work well, though students do need to be quite confident to tackle this more demanding format. For either of these formats, you will need teams of two. Get students to choose their own teams (unless there are particularly difficult social dynamics in the group); they will work better with people they have chosen. 

Set up a leader board, with teams ranked according to their performance over the year: two points for a win, one for a tie; if they tie on points, position determined by total number of speaker points. Start a page for the club on Google Classroom (or whichever social media your school uses) and post the leader board on it, along with teaching materials and reminders about meetings. The advantage of the leader board system is that it is dynamic and constantly shifting. Teams have something invested in it until the end of the season, and are motivated to act on the feedback you give them and improve. To ensure a fair outcome, have a fixed number of debates scheduled for the year, with each team having the same number of debates (ideally each team debating against each other team at least once) and then award a trophy to the team which is top of the leader board at the end of the season.

Use the school’s reward system - commendations, merits, house points, whatever you have - to recognise the contribution and commitment of debaters. If your school has a ‘colours’ system for recognising achievement in sport, negotiate to have it extended to debating.

Some schools focus exclusively on an elite half dozen debaters, drilling them ruthlessly to win competitions and fill the trophy cabinet with silverware. That has never been my approach; while debating is a competitive activity, and should be approached competitively, I believe in inclusivity, and measure success by the number of students taking part. 

That said, it is often the case that debating clubs tend to attract the more ambitious students, often in the gifted and talented stream. The debating club can be an invaluable way for such students to meet and make friends with like minded students. In some cases, if they are in a school, or a social group within the school, where it isn’t cool to be clever, the club can provide a kind of refuge. If your school is one where sporting success is highly valued, debating can provide students who do not enjoy sport an opportunity to shine at a competitive activity. 

Do whatever you can to build an espirit de corps in the club. Organise a cake rota for meetings. Get hoodies or T shirts printed, with a debating club logo. Have a club outing to the local pizza restaurant at the end of the year.

If you can, take the competition outside the club to the wider school. Work within the school’s existing structures as far as possible. Many schools have a house system, which is used for sports, drama and music competitions. Add debating to the list of competitions, preferably with a competition for each age group. This will greatly increase the interest in and visibility of debating. House leaders and members of the house will encourage students to take part, and will turn up to debates to support their house. 

If your school doesn’t have a house system, or similar pastoral divisions, encourage a wide range of students to enter a school wide competition as self-chosen teams. Work towards a high profile final for each competition. Ideally, run a leader board system (see above) in order to sustain interest throughout the year, and stage the final between the top two teams. If you don’t have time for this, run a ‘knock-out’ system. In this system, teams are drawn at random to compete against each other in rounds. After each round, the losing teams are eliminated, reducing the number of teams by half. Then another round is set up and run, eliminating another half of the teams, and so on until you have just two teams left, who compete in the final, the winning team being awarded the trophy.

Keep as high a profile as you can for debating within your school. If you can negotiate it, have a whole year group, or even Key Stage, off timetable to watch the debating finals. Invest in trophies for all the competitions, and get winners’ names engraved on them. Have them presented in Assembly. Take photos and post them in your school newsletter, on the school website, on the school social media feed, even in the local press. Senior leadership will appreciate the raising of the school’s profile in this way, and will be minded to support debating more. 

One of the best ways of all to motivate students is to involve them in external competitions against other schools. I'll be covering what competitions are available in a later post. For now, though, in this fresh, clean, hopeful first week of September, get started with debating ...