Thursday, September 15, 2005

Debating - Baby Steps

I'm being asked to do more debates with my classes, so I thought I might share some of my thoughts and ideas on the subject with the wider teaching community.

This encapsulates my opinion of debating fairly well:
"At a time when issues to do with war, terrorism and civil liberties are so prominent, it’s essential for people to be able to reflect carefully on their opinions and argue rationally," says Waikato University [NZ] debating society vice-president James Anderson.
I also love the analogy [from Select Readings, OUP] that a Japanese/Korean conversation (and, by association, debate) is like baseball and a US/British conversation is like tennis. In Korea, if a topic is presented for debate, it tends to turn into a slow and disjointed affair where one person gives their general opinion on the topic (often with little tangible details or evidence). Then another person gives their general opinion of the topic, with little if any reference to the person who spoke before - like one batsman after the other taking it in orderly turns. On the other hand, Anglophones tend to play off each other, hitting the ball of the debate back and forth as they agree or disagree directly with their counterparts, having to defend their opinions and backhand volleys.

0. introduction
Perhaps help learners come up with some useful phrases for expressing their opinions - In my opinion/view,... I believe/think/feel,... I've heard/read that...
Also bring up possible expressions for agreeing and disagreeing - I agree; you see, the fact is... That's right, because... I don't agree; I think... I understand what you're saying; however... I can't argue with that, but... (It's the continuation that's vital to keeping the debate going, I feel.)
The range of this vocabulary is not too important at this point as the main focus is on the process of debating - these structures are just there to enable learners to practise this skill.

It can be very helpful to give a simple topic for a practice debate - ie. a topic on which people's views are easily polarised. Depending of course on the class, this could be along the lines of "ghosts exist" or "Korean films are better than US ones" or "dogs are far better than cats" or "prostitution should be legalised here".

Hold the debate. Note down any problems in learners' debating techniques (please don't overlook the positives!) and you might also want to take notes on the language used and how it might be reformulated.

Possible steps for further debates:

1. agree on a topic
Many debates are on current hot topics, so recommend that learners should keep themselves informed on current domestic and international events if they are to take part fully. Or, at least give them time to research the topic for themselves.

2. divide learners into two (or possibly more) teams
Because debating is a team event it is important that the the members of each team work together. One team will try to prove why the topic is true/positive and the other will try to prove why it is false/negative.

3. presentation and rebuttal
Each team presents points in favour of their case, giving examples, relevant facts and evidence (organisation and use of facts is also important); and then criticises the (main/central) arguments presented by the other team. Logical arguments are important - showing WHY the other team's main argument is wrong or does not make sense. This takes quick thinking and a sharp eye to spot the opposition's main argument.

Note also the importance of eye contact, body language and tone of voice.

In my experience, in a classroom environment it is useful to find out who holds what opinions and occasionally ask them to argue the opposite of their views. I reckon it can help to open their eyes to others' views of the world.

For a fuller exploration of the topic, see the link here.

a few transcripts:
The first Bush vs. Kerry debate
(spoof Bush-Kerry debate)
Kenneth Clarke vs. Iain Duncan Smith

And a few topics: The Times Debates

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