fall 2017

Sharing Insights as a Debate Educator

by Simona Mazilu

Teaching debate to both students and teachers, and training debate trainers was to become an essential part of my life, adding new and challenging dimensions to my career as an educator. This article offers insights into debating from the standpoint of an experienced educator, trainer and coach who works in both the European and World Schools circuits.

By Simona Mazilu • Romania

This article offers insights into debating from the standpoint of an experienced educator, trainer and coach who works in both the European and World Schools circuits.

My Debate Background or How It All Started

I have been involved in debate since 1994: as a debate coach, judge and teacher-trainer; as a classroom teacher using debate as a tool for teaching, as well as an associate or representative of NGOs: for example, as a member of ARDOR/The Romanian Association of Debate, Oratory and Rhetoric – our national debate organization – and ARGO/The Romanian Association of Thinking and Oratory – the first academic debate club for high school students in Romania, which I founded 22 years ago and which has continued uninterrupted till now.

As a coach and/or judge, I have participated in several competitions, championships and tournaments every year: locally, regionally, nationally, internationally, and even globally starting from the 2004 WSDC. I think I have been involved in more than 100 competitions, given the fact that next year I will have been involved in debating for 23 years. For more than 20 years, I have been doing debate training for high school students – 14 to 18 year olds – as well as adults.

This incredible adventure started with a letter I received in my regular mailbox. It informed me about a contest initiated by the Soros Foundation for three scholarships aimed at enabling the winners to participate in an international training session targeted at introducing attendees from various Eastern European countries (former communist states) to debate. This event was to take place in Budapest, in March 1994, and I was one of the three Romanians.

At first, it was not my own decision to embark upon teaching debate: I was supposed to share what I had learned in Budapest with my students and peers back home. In other words, I had been assigned the task of piloting the debate program I had been newly acquainted with in my own country, starting with my school community, and continuing at a national level with teachers of different specialties, who were to become debate instructors for the students in their schools. But teaching debate to both students and teachers, and training debate trainers was to become an essential part of my life, adding new and challenging dimensions to my career as an educator.

Ways of Teaching Debate in and out of the Classroom

Debating in or out of the classroom can take many forms. Though not an all-inclusive list, the following debate methods offer a range of opportunities to increase student understanding and active involvement in the activity: the four-corner debate; the role-play, the balloon debates, and variations of balloon debates; the fishbowl; the think-pair-share; the meeting house.

The four corner debate starts with a question or statement, such as: “We should buy locally produced food.” Students are then afforded time to personally consider the statement and their view based on the topic. The four corners of the classroom are labeled “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” After personal consideration, the students move to the corner that most represents their position on the issue. The groups in each corner of the classroom then work together to come up with the best arguments for their assigned position on the issue. After a specified time for group discussion, each group presents their strongest arguments to the other groups. This can be made in presentation form or through a more directed debate where the professor or assigned students can moderate and direct time for each group to present and rebut. After the debate, students are permitted to switch sides if their personal views changed. This form of debate directly challenges the dualism of the argument, showing there are more than two-sides to an issue, and often, variations of the sides.

Role-play debates, balloon debates and variations of balloon debates also help to avoid dualistic debate models by assigning students to argue on behalf of different characters in a given situation. For instance, when debating the topic of national health care, students could be assigned to various roles, such as doctor, patient, a wealthy person, a poor person, a lawyer, a judge, an insurance company, the president, and so on. Through debating the issue from various points of view, the students can broaden their understanding of the issue and its complexity.

The fish bowl debates can take several different forms, but usually involve grouping chairs in a circle pattern. Several chairs are then placed inside the circle for teams representing the different positions of the debate. Chairs can also be added for several students representing the audience. To bolster attention among those outside the fishbowl, an empty chair can be added, which is free game, allowing someone from the outside to enter the fishbowl to ask a question or make an argument.

Think-pair-share debates require students to think and make notes alone about the issue. After personal reflection is completed, pairs are formed. The pairs then work together, comparing their notes and creating lists to support both sides of the issue. Once complete, each original pair of students is combined with another pair. The newly formed groups of four then discuss the issue, choose a position, and edit their list down to their best arguments. Finally, the groups of four present their position and reasons to the class.

In a meeting house debate, each team makes an opening argument. The class is then given the opportunity to question each side. The teacher/debate instructor serves as a moderator, ensuring each side gets an equal amount of time to argue. In order to encourage more class participation and prevent certain students from dominating the questioning, the moderator could assign cards to each student. After each question, the questioner gives up one card. Once a student runs out of cards, he or she cannot ask another question until all other students run out of cards. Alternatively, if three cards are assigned, a questioner that has two cards remaining may be prevented from asking another question until everyone else in the class has only two cards.

The contexts in which I teach debate are wide-ranging: the classroom, both in my specialty classes as a teacher of English, and in the so-called “advisory” or “homeroom classes” – which consist of diverse educational activities conducted by a teacher – in and out of school – with the class they have been specifically assigned to take care of for a four-year period (i.e. for the entire duration of high school), which makes them very different from similar classes in other systems of education, such as the American one, for example. For more hands-on practice, I do debate training outside the regular classroom, in a debate club. I also teach debate at various training platforms: for other schools/institutions in my town and in the country; for the British Council in Bucharest; for the teaching staff in my town and the Prahova County Board of Education, etc; at various national and international events – as a teacher of English and/or debate trainer: the RATE (Romanian English Teachers’ Association) Conferences, the Macmillan Romania Conferences, the UniScan (an Express Publishing representative in Romania) Conferences etc; the TESOL/TEACHERS OF ENGLISH TO SPEAKERS OF OTHER LANGUAGES MACEDONIA-Thrace Conventions, in Greece; the IDEA/INTERNATIONAL DEBATE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION Youth Forums, the WSDA/WORLD SCHOOLS DEBATE ACADEMY in Slovenia, etc.

On a smaller scale, there is a cornucopia of exercise types that can be utilized to teach debating. For practical reasons, given the physical limits of this piece, from the perspective of their goals and objectives, here are just a few: speaking skills exercises; motion type exercises; argumentation exercises; proposition/opposition case-building exercises; points of information exercises; find-the-principle exercises; refutation and rebuttal exercises, etc.

Debate camps, lectures, workshops, competitions are valuable ways of advancing debate skills, in one way or another, to a higher or smaller degree. Nevertheless, from the perspective of debaters themselves, the best way is the one that weds theory and practice, with an emphasis on the latter. In my view, learning by doing is the most powerful way of developing one’s debating skills. Just like one learns to read by reading, to write by writing, to speak by speaking, one will learn to debate and improve their skills and abilities by debating. Therefore, debate camps and competitions should come first; workshops next, and lectures last – in terms of practicality and effectiveness or efficiency.

Challenges for the Debate Educator

Over these many years, the organizational obstacles I have faced in teaching debate have turned out to be mainly pedagogical ones, especially in large classes where there is a much greater variety of students attending the course. This is because the proportion of students who feel anonymous, invisible, and isolated is significantly higher, and thus getting students to engage with the course material proves particularly difficult. Also, there is a wide variation in student abilities, motivations, and learning styles given the large variety of factors that influence how well a student performs in a class, not to mention that we generally have little or no control over most of them. Nonetheless, there are things we can always do to increase the likelihood that all our students, and not just those who are academically gifted, perform up to their potential as a result of their successful involvement in types of activities that facilitate learning complex ideas and intellectual skills.

In my view, there are two major types of difficulties encountered in working with debaters:

1. Motivation-based difficulties.

Students are generally full of enthusiasm when they are first introduced to debate, when things are lighter and more relaxed, and therefore less stressful and time-consuming. As the debate training becomes more complex and challenging, it requires more effort, time, and dedication. At this point, some students begin to feel overwhelmed by the double work load as they have to deal with both school and debate assignments concurrently. All this makes their lives hectic and complicated, causing them to lose their motivation for debating and eventually give up.

2. The ego-based ones.

Such difficulties are the hardest to deal with, since they are part of a person’s values and are harder to change. More often than not, the more competent debaters get, the higher the likelihood of their egos becoming domineering and overbearing.

There have been no negative responses from NGO’s or national organisations. For example, our national organization, ARDOR/The Romanian Association for Debate, Oratory and Rhetoric has always been supportive and cooperative, while also creating or being engaged in projects, programs, events, etc. that involve a number of other Romanian NGO’s as well, including Save the Children; ANITP/The National Association Against Human Trafficking; as well as The Association For Social Engagement, Education And Culture.
The teaching community at large has generally been favourable to debate activity. Teachers are open to learning how to use debate in their own classes. There have been only sporadic instances of teachers rejecting debate activities on the grounds that they are disruptive and time-consuming. Some teachers have also been concerned that debate could pose a serious threat to their authority in the class.

Student Profile and Response When Introduced to Debate

I work with high school students, aged 14-18. What distinguishes this group of students is their ambition to excel in something that is less common among their peers, something which makes them stand out from the crowd.

Ambitious students are more than positive about the opportunity to debate
The type of students involved in debating belong to lower and middle classes, with different political orientations (social democratic, liberal, democratic-liberal), and their parents come from all walks of life. Some of the most commonly held values by students involved in debate include: ambition, individuality, integrity, responsibility, respect, dedication, loyalty, honesty, justice, excellence, accountability, dignity, empathy, self-accomplishment, courage, independence, compassion, friendliness, persistence, perseverance, optimism, dependability and flexibility.
By and large, the most daunting obstacle students face when they embark upon debating is peer pressure. This is because when students start debating at 14-15, they tend to spend most of the time with their friends and colleagues, and parental resistance may develop due to the deep-rooted conviction that debate as an extra-curricular activity takes up too much valuable time that should otherwise be directed towards mainstream learning.

Outcomes of Teaching Debate

In the process of learning to debate, students become active listeners, engaged in and committed to a contest of ideas. They become accustomed to developing their argumentation on multiple levels; they acquire the skills of close textual reading and critical thinking, excelling in rigorous intellectual activities with positive effects on all aspects of their liv. Students start thinking in terms of long-term goals and can begin to discuss controversial issues in a peaceful and rational manner. Students also become self-confident and able to express their views openly: they gradually develop a sense of excellence that, in turn, enhances their leadership skills and encourages them to constantly test their own limits. Debate helps students become effective communicators who are sensitive to the many problems confronting their community and society at large, which stimulates and improves their social interaction.

Human Rights Education and Active Citizenship

Debate significantly contributes to human rights education since it allows students to become more and better informed about a multitude of issues so as to be able to debate them in various contexts: inside and outside the classroom, at their debate clubs, and, most importantly, in debate camps and tournaments at national and international levels. In sharp contrast with non-debaters in the same class or school, students who have been actively engaged in debate for a year or two manifest a higher degree of tolerance concerning contentious socio-political matters and a deeper understanding of the complexity of civic and political issues.

Introducing Debate through NGOs and/or through the Ministry of Education

In Romania, the introduction of debate was led mainly by ARDOR – our national NGO – starting from around 1997. In 1999, the first Academic Debate Handbook was issued in Romania. The Handbook was the fruit of the collaborative work of a group of teachers who were passionately involved in spreading debate at the time, myself included.

The debate movement in our country continued to evolve solely under the umbrella of ARDOR until 2010, when the Young People Debating Contest first took place, at the initiative of Romania’s Ministry of Education in partnership with ARDOR. In 2011, the Romanian Ministry of Education further added an elective module called ‘Debate, Oratory and Rhetoric’ to the Romanian school-decision national curriculum as a complement to the Young People Debating Contest. With the firm support of ARDOR, The Teacher’s Guide for the module on ‘Debate, Oratory and Rhetoric’ was then released. It was the joint effort of an accomplished team of debate educators and trainers, including former ARGO debaters: Serban Pitic and Nicolae Sovaiala-Ionescu, as well as myself.

The Young People Debating Contest has been held every year since 2010 and has seen increasing involvement and dedication from coaches and educators. In fact, it has become the biggest high school debate championship in Romania at present.

I am inclined to believe that NGOs should definitely be consulted in generating the national curriculum. Debate clubs at various educational levels – middle school, high school and university – can be highly cooperative and productive partners in establishing the guidelines of the debate curriculum. Debate clubs can do this by exchanging their philosophies and views on diverse issues in order to reach a consensus for the common good of all actors involved.

Author Bio

Simona-Anca Mazilu is a teacher of English, past Fulbright exchange teacher in Minnesota, USA , debate coach, adjudicator, teacher-trainer and founder of ARGO – the first academic debate club for high school students in Romania – in 1994.

She was the coach of the national team for Romania’s first two participations in the Worlds Schools Debating Championship: in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2004, and in Calgary, Canada, in 2005 – when Romania won 2nd place in the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) ranking.