The case for student debating in schools (and some ideas)

Written by: Erin Miller | Published:
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Oxford Union-style debating in schools? Erin Miller argues why you should give it a try

I’ve worked in an international school for three years now. One of the most striking differences (trust me, there are many) between the international and UK schools is the emphasis on public speaking.

Every single child in my current school takes part in debating at key stage 3, and a huge proportion pursue debating at key stages 4 and 5. I have come to believe that debating is the single most useful group activity that we can facilitate in our classrooms and in extra-curricular activities. So, why is debating so valuable?

Speaking and listening

As Sarah Barker explained in her recent article in the TES, speaking and listening is a whole-school responsibility because it underpins everything we do in schools. Listening is not a skill that should be taken for granted; it requires practice and refinement in order to select relevant and useful information.

Debating helps students to listen very carefully to information relayed by speakers, so that they can challenge it in a point of information. These quick responses show teachers how well/accurately a student has listened to (and understood) the information.

Although intimidating at first, speaking in front of their peers over time will help students to practise core public speaking skills such as audibility, intelligibility, and the use of rhetoric to engage and convince their audience.

Power of knowledge and curiosity

Perhaps the biggest question in education has always been what should we teach? Of course, we are bound by the curriculum. However, through practising speaking and listening skills, debating opens up a world of knowledge that we would not normally be able to expose our students to. Students are able to “get their teeth” into a plethora of contemporary issues and wider philosophical ideas through the independent research that they carry out in preparation for a debate.

I once adjudicated a debate where the motion was “This house believes that Amazon is a pernicious influence”. At first I wasn’t sure of the appropriateness of the topic, as initially it seemed rather dull. However, I was quickly proved wrong. The students produced erudite speeches based upon in-depth research into the practices of Amazon, learnt a huge amount about the marketplace, author’s rights and so on.

We can never accurately predict when or how such knowledge will be useful for students, but we do know that general knowledge is incredibly useful in all aspects of life.

Debating also sparks students’ curiosity in a wide range of topics, giving them an idea of where their interests lie. My year 7 class recently debated “this house would keep the jury”, and they were absolutely fascinated by the law and how juries work. Many of them left the room convinced that they would choose law at A level in five years’ time!

The ability to evaluate

The word “evaluate” tends to make me recoil somewhat. In my PGCE, I didn’t really understand what it meant. This confusion was compounded by exam board definitions, which seemed to contradict Mr Bloom, and further cloud my own inchoate understanding. However, practising debating has helped me to understand the word.

Debating naturally engages students in the process of evaluating; the students assess the validity of each other’s arguments, and get the opportunity to consider an idea from multiple perspectives in order to reach a conclusion. Basically, they work out which arguments are cogent, and which are flawed; and that’s evaluating. Regardless of whether they are placed on the affirmative or negative team, they will naturally reach their own conclusion in a debate – they just have to play their part accordingly.

An ability to structure arguments

Teaching students to structure their work is notoriously difficult. Debating, however, is a solution. Students select their main points and begin searching for evidence and examples to qualify and justify their arguments.

It’s basically a way to show them how to use PEE (point, evidence, explanation) in a real-life, genuine context. The most cogent and convincing arguments I have witnessed from students have arisen in the debating process.

Motivation and a genuine context

Preparing for a debate provides a genuine context for learning. Students have a real, tangible reason to do something. I facilitated a debate about whether Romeo was genuine, where students had to refer to evidence from the play. Great revision and great motivation.
Education in formality and etiquette

We all have high aspirations for our students, so it is just that we give them the opportunity to engage in highly formal practices. Oxford-style debating ought not to be left to private schools.

Debating is all about style and, in my experience, students have absolutely loved playing the part of the “speaker”. In rejecting a point of information, they relish getting to say “please sit down sir”, or “I really fail to see the relevance of your point” to a classmate.

Understanding how debating is used in Parliament and Oxford gives the students a window into a historical and different way of exploring ideas. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic here, but I do believe that teaching students how to debate formally helps them to acquire the manners required in the world of academia; it helps them to become logical, thoughtful and pragmatic people.

I am not necessarily advocating the formal style, but it is only fair that all students get the opportunity to witness and participate in it, if only to purposefully flout it in the future!


Grouping kids that don’t normally work together is always a valuable exercise and lesson in team-work. The satisfaction and friendship bonds that are formed through working hard at something in a team are evident, and the focus and accountability of each student means that everyone has a clear role within the group, leaving no-one behind, or able to slack off.

Give it a try

If your school doesn’t already use formal debating, I urge you to give it a go. And not just in English, although it is my favourite way to assess speaking and listening. Debating is for everyone – logical, scholarly, fun.


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