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Monday, May 4, 2020

Debating in lockdown #3 - how to run an online debating club

Lockdown has, if anything, increased the hunger in students for debating, as they yearn for the personal interaction it offers. The good news is that while schools, sports stadiums, theatres, cinemas, cafes, pubs and restaurants have all fallen silent, voices can still be raised in the cut and thrust of debate. Here are some ideas on how teachers can run an online debating club.

How to set it up

Each school has its own online platform, the most popular being Google Meets, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Obviously the first thing to do is to work out the technicalities of how to set up a multiperson online meeting on your school’s platform. Most schools I know of tend to discourage this format for online lessons, other than in a few cases such as small sixth form classes. I think debating can reasonably claim to be one of those cases. Each school also has its own safeguarding procedures for online contact, particularly when involving video; make sure you are familiar with these, and follow them. 

Personally, I would strongly encourage a set up where everyone can see everyone else’s faces as coming as close as possible to the interactive experience of face to face debating. However, you may feel uncomfortable with having students seeing into your personal space / seeing into theirs (and your school’s safeguarding policy may forbid it). There are also the practical problems of a student’s impassioned orations being interrupted by annoying little brothers / parents telling them it’s time for lunch / they need the computer for an important work call NOW, not to mention a teacher’s wise judgements being punctuated by a small child’s questions about dinosaurs / demands for another biscuit. Follow your own judgement, and be sure to do nothing which could put you in a difficult position professionally.

How to schedule it

My own school has a policy of keeping to the established timetable for lessons online on the grounds that it provides students with a much needed sense of structure and continuity, and debating club meetings have similarly stayed in their regular lunchtime slots. Remote learning does mean it is much easier for students to get to the ‘room’ on time in a lunchtime slot; the disadvantage for students (and for teachers …) is that the hurly and burly of the lunch queue has been replaced by the arguably more challenging problem of actually having to make your own lunch, or depend on someone else to make it for you. Keep to existing timings, but be reasonably tolerant of latecomers. Running the club ‘after school’ removes some of these problems.

How to publicise it

Many schools have online newsletters / bulletins in which to announce clubs and events; use these. A direct mailshot to relevant year groups can also be very effective. In my experience, numbers attending debating online have actually gone up, as students isolated at home are eager for any kind of personal connection. Parents are generally very supportive, glad for their children to have any kind of structured engagement.

What to do in the club sessions

Normally, you would want to make the most of having students together in a room by having as much interaction as possible, for example having them brainstorm ideas for motions in pairs / groups. This can be more problematic online. Some platforms have an option for breakout rooms, and if yours does (and if your school’s safeguarding policy permits it) these can be used to put students in pairs / groups to prepare a motion before staging a debate. Alternatively, students could set up their own phone calls / Face Time / Zoom call to prepare together; however, some schools’ policies do not allow this during school-led sessions.

If breakout rooms / students collaborating independently aren’t possible, the best option may be to make each session a more formal, long preparation debate. (See her for how to prepare for a debate.) Mace is the better format for shorter lunchtime slots (you may have to shorten the timings of speeches depending on how long you have), and has the advantage of being traditionally associated with long prep, and of allowing other attenders to join in via the floor debate. British Parliamentary (BP) tends to be favoured by more experienced debaters who relish the higher level of challenge it offers, but it is more time consuming and does depend on eight debaters being guaranteed to turn up. It is also traditionally a short prep format. If you have the means to set up breakout rooms / students to collaborate individually (and are allowed to do so), you can run a normal BP debate online, though you will need to allow at least an hour for it. If this isn’t possible, you can still run a BP debate with long prep; this has the advantage of taking less time in the session itself.

Although I normally favour encouraging students to engage with current affairs, I think at the moment best to avoid motions which have, or could have, anything to do with Covid-19. Students may well be feeling very anxious about the situation, or may have family members who are at risk or seriously unwell. 

As with a normal face to face debate, the teacher should take notes during the debate and give feedback and a result at the end of it.

How to debate against other schools

Many popular competitions had to be abruptly cancelled or curtailed in mid-March, to much disappointment. The good news is that inter school debating is still possible online. I have already had much interest from schools in debating with my school, and will be glad to hear from more; contact me via the contact form on this blog.

I would recommend starting by competing against just one other school. Once contact has been established (or resumed) with the other school, you will need to set aside some time for a call with your opposite number to negotiate the practicalities of which platform to use, how to mesh your schools’ safeguarding policies to both schools’ satisfaction, what format to use, and timings.

When all this is set up, recruit your team. If you are using a long prep format, give them plenty of time to prepare the motion together. Students are generationally very comfortable with connecting with each other remotely to do this, and may relish the opportunity for more interaction.

On the appointed day, start by making sure everyone is present online, and can see / be seen / hear / be heard. Remind participants that they should not be using internet during the debate. Obviously, you cannot supervise this as closely as you would in a face to face debate, and will have to rely on a degree of trust; hopefully the exceptional circumstances and the friendly nature of the debate will encourage students to approach the contest in the right spirit.

If you can, recruit older students to judge; now freed from public exams, they will have more time on their hands and may be glad to get involved. If you have one from each school, neutrality can reasonably be claimed. Set them up in breakout rooms to discuss the debate once it is over, supervised by you if safeguarding policies demand it; or, if you are allowed to, have them phone / Face Time / Zoom each other independently. They can then return to the shared room to deliver feedback and verdict. If you are unable to recruit older students, or are running a sixth form debate, repeat this procedure using yourself and your counterpart teacher.

If these one on one debates go well, you might feel brave enough to stage a tournament with several schools. Here is a post by Neil Singh from Hackley School in New York with detailed and practical advice on how to run an online debating tournament.

The advantages

While these are dark times we are living through, there are upsides. For debating these include, particularly for inter school debates:

  • No need to book rooms

  • No need to book sandwiches

  • No need to book transport

  • No need to send letters home

  • No need to do risk assessments

  • No need to travel

  • The opportunity to debate against any school, anywhere in the world


The future

The future is very uncertain. We do not know when we will be back in school. When we are, we may well face significant restrictions which may continue to make face to face debating (particularly between schools) difficult. So it is a good idea to get as expert as possible with online debating, and to try to see it as an opportunity to be developed rather than a reluctantly accepted necessity. Like so much in this current moment, online debating is a work in progress. I hope to post updates as we develop it further, and will be glad to hear from schools about their experiences online.

For now, stay well, and stay connected.