Debating is a key skill for schools

In the last few weeks at school we have sent teams to debating competitions, winning through to a regional final so far; had the public speaking competition, where all boys present their view on a topic and sent a group to the Model United Nations weekend: a mix of debating, current affairs and cultural awareness.

So why is it important that debating thrives in a school?

First, to debate an issue you need to know something about it. Looking at a variety of motions over time eventually improves general knowledge and gives pupils a wider range of reference points from which to understand what they see in the world. This cultural and political awareness, understanding that many of the big issues of modern life are not new and may well have been mulled over by Greek philosophers, is an important life lesson. We do come across new areas for deliberation now and again in life, but very often there is no need to reinvent a wheel if you are aware of what has gone before.

Then there is the whole question of being able to construct an argument: understanding a conclusion, seeing how your reasons support that conclusion and assembling evidence and examples to support a view. Critical Thinking had a brief resurgence in schools a decade or so again though it has now died out again in many. This is a shame as we continue to teach those ideas and find that having an awareness of how to think and frame your thoughts into an argument allows the boys to develop useful skills. It is also handy to be able to spot a flawed argument (everyone does it (an appeal to popularity), we’ve always done it (an appeal to history) and many more).

Finally there is the matter of the debate itself. Speaking publicly and thinking quickly are essential life skills that can be developed through debating. It builds confidence in the ability to express a view. It also encourages the ability to debate an issue, rather than disagree with a person. Separating the issue from the person is another key life skill. That is why we can still have friends who think differently from us and voted/did not vote for Brexit.

So my motion, which I hope you support, is that ‘Debating is a great thing for young people and should take place in all schools’


About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.