Empower children with debate skills

In the YouTube and new confrontational television news era, the ancient Socratic art of debate is making a big comeback, particularly in India. For millennial parents who value the skills of communication and leadership, encouraging children to polish their debating skills has become one of the 21st century skillset tick boxes – Jayalakshmi Vaidyanathan

“Jaw jaw is better than war war,” said Winston Churchill (1874-1965), former British prime minister who led the UK to a famous and improbable victory in the Second World War, and a great debater since his days at the elite Harrow School.

In the YouTube and new confrontational television news era, the ancient Socratic art of debate is making a big comeback, particularly in India. Within the country’s progressive schools and colleges, debate is emerging as a popular co-curricular activity which develops children’s reasoning, argumentative, persuasive, conflict resolution and leadership skills. For millennial parents who value the skills of communication and leadership, encouraging children to polish their debating skills has become one of the 21st century skillset tick boxes.

Popularity of the ancient co-curricular activity of ‘reasoning together,’ i.e, debate, is certain to receive a huge boost following the victory of a team of Indian students in the recently concluded premier World Schools Debating Championships 2019 (WSDC, estb.1991) held in Bangkok in July. For the first time in WSDC’s history, a five-member student team from India argued its way through topics ranging from international relations and economics to sports and pop culture, winning the champion’s trophy that was thus far monopolised by native English-speaking countries such as Australia — which has won the maximum titles — followed by England. Proposing the motion “This house regrets the glorification of soldiers as heroes,” Team India defeated Canada with all nine judges unanimously voting for it — a feat that the Chennai-based Indian Schools Debating Society (ISDS), which coached the team, says has not been achieved by any country in the past decade. Tejas Subramaniam, a class XII student of Padma Seshadri Bal Bhavan School, Chennai bagged the ‘Best Speaker of the World’ title.

“Every year, carefully selected teams from over 50 countries compete for the World Schools Debating Championship title. This year, India shattered records by winning every round of the competition. This is no mean achievement as we began participating in the championships only 11 years ago. And as a non-native English speaking country, our team had to not just work on the content but also language fluency and style,” says Dhruva Bhat, a doctoral student at Oxford University, UK who coached this year’s India WSDC team. An alum of Harvard University, USA and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Bhat himself won the best speaker title at WSDC 2012 and 2013.

Bhat believes there is resurgent interest in debates within the parent and students communities countrywide.

“Clued-up contemporary parents are aware that communication skills i.e, the art of putting forward evidence-backed cogent arguments is very important for success not only in the workplace but also in personal relationships.

Moreover, disagreeing and engaging constructively with people with differing views is an essential life skill,” he adds.
The tradition of informed debate is more than two-and-a-half millennia old, originating in ancient Greece where political and philosophical debates were routine and often boisterous. Formal debating societies emerged in the 18th century in London. City squares and pubs provided people of all social backgrounds public platforms and niches for developing and fleshing out new ideas and philosophies.

Simultaneously student debating societies were encouraged in British and US universities centuries ago. The first student debating society in Britain was the St. Andrews Debating Society, established in 1794 as the Literary Society. The Cambridge Union Society was founded in 1815, and claims to be the oldest continually operating debating society worldwide. Princeton University (USA) hosted a number of short-lived student debating societies throughout the 18th century, and the university’s influential American Whig Society was founded in 1769.

Over the next few decades, similar societies emerged at several other prominent universities including the Oxford Union (UK), Yale Political Union (US) and Conference Olivaint (France). In the 21st century, most self-respecting universities and schools worldwide pride themselves upon their debating societies and clubs in which students engage in amicable verbal jousts, banter and put-downs while debating serious political and socio-economic issues of their time.

There’s no dearth of research studies highlighting the academic, cognitive and skilling benefits of debate. According to a recent research study conducted by the University of Bedfordshire, UK, and the English-Speaking Union, learning to debate can improve children’s SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores by six-19 percent in all subjects. Moreover, teachers of secondary school students participating in the London Debate Challenge reported that competitive debates helped “develop students’ skills in gathering evidence and structuring and summing up arguments, with potential ‘knock-on’ benefits for their written work”.

In a research paper titled Debating the Evidence: An International Review of Current Situation and Perceptions (2011), authors Rodie Akerman and Ian Neale, consultants with the London-based education consultancy Edcoms, make a strong case for children participating in not just competitive but also classroom debates. “Debate is a way of promoting active learning. Advocates argue that researching, discussing and defending an issue may well give students a more meaningful experience than merely reading about it in a textbook,” write Akerman and Neale.

According to them, debating improves students’ academic scores, increases student engagement with classroom subjects, develops critical thinking, improves communication, boosts confidence and enhances participants’ cultural awareness and aspirations for higher education.

“Participating in debates has helped boost my self-confidence and developed my research, presentation and conflict resolution skills. The first time I debated at age 11, I was terrified of being opposed and confronted. But over time, I learnt how to present my case with evidence and persuade others to accept my points of view,” says Maanasa Manikandan, a student of Presidency College, Bangalore. “Most importantly, debating has taught me to gracefully accept another person’s conflicting point of view and disagree politely. Debate isn’t about winning or losing but letting the world hear one’s opinions and arguments. Young people should actively participate in debates to ensure the world hears what they have to say,” she adds.

Pruthvi Banwasi, principal consultant of the Bangalore-based Nema Edu Innovations, a K-12 education consultancy, who is often invited to judge debate tournaments, concurs. “I strongly recommend that debate is introduced as a compulsory activity as early as primary school. It will teach children from early age to think critically, analyse, articulate, justify and defend their points of view. Such children will be ready and able to confront conflicts in all spheres of life and resolve them effectively,” he says.

Similarly, Shaan Libby, founder of A to Zee Creativity, a Chennai-based firm which trains students for the World Scholars Cup, an international academic competition for school children staged annually, advises parents to actively encourage children to participate in both competitive and non-competitive debates. “It’s not necessary that all children must participate in competitive debates. Parents should encourage children to participate in classroom debates and even discussions at home. This will help them develop research skills, encourage them to be well-read and of course present arguments cogently,” says Libby, several of whose students have won debating accolades in civic and national tournaments.

Unsurprisingly, several organisations have sprung up countrywide to train students aspiring to win honours and accolades in debating championships at the national and international levels. Among the most popular is the Chennai-based Indian Schools Debating Society (ISDS), a non-profit organisation which selects, trains and sponsors the Indian cohort for the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC). ISDS conducts workshops and city/state competitions through the year.

“ISDS conducts civic tournaments in over ten cities to select the India team for the annual WSDC which is staged in different cities around the world annually. The winners of local competitions are invited to a five-day national selection camp where they are coached by some of India’s best debate exponents to hone their speaking skills, general knowledge and teamwork. Based on their performance in the workshops, quizzes, debates and other activities, five are selected to represent India at WSDC,” says Dhruva Bhat (quoted earlier) who has coached the WSDC India team for the past four years (2017-19). Bhat adds that many ISDS debaters have been admitted into the world’s top-ranked universities such as Oxford and Harvard. “Developing excellent argumentative skills can change a student’s life forever, for the better,” he says.

Ragini Srinivasan, founder of The Bait Debate Club of the CBSE-affiliated Bhavan’s Rajaji Vidyashram, Chennai, and chief programme co-ordinator at ISDS, seconds that. “The art of debate is a valuable skill which every child must develop. It teaches children to analyse, rationalise, put forth comprehensive arguments and disagree politely.

Moreover, it helps children improve academic scores as they learn to research, prioritise and write evidence-based arguments,” says Srinivasan.

Clearly, there is no argument against the numerous beneficial outcomes of learning to reason together. 

Debate vs. slanging match

The slanging matches that are the staple of the infamous Republic Television news channel are not debates, although anchor Arnab Goswami describes them as such, says Deepak Thimaya, founder of Verbattle Foundation, a Bangalore-based NGO which specialises in training children for competitive debates. “There’s no shortage of people who believe that debate is distasteful and anti-social because verbal aggression and belligerence are intrinsic to debate,” says Thimaya. But there’s a world of difference between civilised debate — a pleasurable learning activity — and slanging matches.

• In a slanging match, participants exhibit lack of respect for opponents and are unwilling to hear other viewpoints. In a debate, opponents respect each other and make an earnest attempt to listen and understand contrary opinions.
• In civil debate, participants are good listeners. In verbal spats, nobody wants to listen.
• Civil debate mandates mutual respect.
• Debate has rules — all participants agree to set time limits, instructions and boundaries

Home debating primer

Engaging children in dinner table discussion and debate from early age improves their communication and presentation skills and also promotes family bonding. Most important, debating current topics promotes inner family democracy and encourages a domestic culture where children’s views, ideas and opinions are patiently heard and respected.

Here are some ways you can encourage children to develop the art of debate:

• Start in early age, encouraging children to be expressive and boldly advance their viewpoints without fear of censure.
• Encourage children to research current issues for facts and statistics
• Develop their listening skills by practising empathetic listening yourselves
• Remain engaged in debates
• Respect children’s opinions
• Provide constructive criticism and correct repetition and diversion

Suggested debate topics

Here are some suggested issues that can be the subject of debate at home:

• Are single sex schools more effective than co-ed institutions?
• Should the age for getting a driving licence be lowered?
• Should students be obliged to wear school uniforms?
• Should homework be banned?
• Children should be allowed to make their own rules
• Junk food should be banned from school canteens/tuck shops
• Exams should be abolished
• Mobile phones should not be allowed on school campuses

Popular forms of competitive debating

Oxford Union debates. The Oxford Union Debating Society of Oxford University, UK, follows a competitive debate format. A sharply focused motion (for example, ‘This house has no confidence in her Majesty’s government’) is proposed by one side and opposed by another. The winner is voted by a majority of the House. Oxford Union debates begin with the audience casting a pre-debate vote on the motion that is either for, against or undecided.

Subsequently, each panelist presents a seven-minute opening statement, after which the chair invites questions from the audience with inter-panel challenges. Finally, each panelist delivers a two-minute closing argument, and the house delivers its second (and final) verdict by a show of hands.

Paris debate. This is a format used in France (although the debate could be in any language). Two five-member teams debate a given motion, with one defending the motion and the other opposing it. The debate is judged on the quality of the arguments, rhetoric, charisma of speakers, humour, and teamwork. The French Debating Association organises an annual National Debating Championship.

Parliamentary debate. Parliamentary debate is conducted under rules of the British parliamentary procedure. It features competition between individuals in a multi-person setting. It borrows terms such as ‘government’ and ‘opposition’ from the British parliament. The premier event in the world of parliamentary debate, the World Universities Debating Championship, is conducted in the British parliamentary style.

Mace debate. The Mace debating style is prominent in Britain and Ireland in high schools and universities. Two opposing two-member teams, debate an affirmative motion that one team will propose with the other team opposing.

Each speaker makes a seven-minute speech. After the first minute of each speech, members of the opposing team may request a ‘point of information’. If the speaker accepts, they are permitted to ask a question. After all four debaters have spoken, the debate will be open to the floor for observations and comment. After the floor debate, one speaker from each team (traditionally the first speaker) will sum up for four minutes. In the Mace format, emphasis is typically on analytical skills, entertainment, style and strength of argument.

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