Debating and learning
Debating in upper secondary schools in Finland is gaining popularity and is relatively well-known among those in the teaching profession. However, it has been a format somewhat hard to sell. The Finnish word ‘väittely’ has connotations that suggest disagreement and controversy, not at all the balanced, polite exchange of views that the word denotes in English. Finland also lacks a tradition of debating.
Perhaps it would become easier to sell the idea of debating for teachers and students if the focus were shifted from formal debating to a more spontaneous exchange of ideas and the skills of public speaking. When adopting this approach, winning a competition is not a priority – learning takes that place.
Debating should also be seen in a broader context of learning: an individual learns in collaboration with others by analyzing complex issues, by looking at them critically, and by doing research into these issues (involving ICT); thus constructing new meanings and structures in his mind. In short, debating activities support modern views of learning. As I see it, debating is an outstanding method of instruction that neatly fits the concept of inquiry-based learning, where students as independent thinkers research a phenomenon, collect data and draw conclusions.
The education system in Finland is now at a stage where the national curriculum is getting close to an overhaul. The need for a new curriculum arises from the changes in our 21st-century world. In the background, there are the key competences for education and lifelong learning drawn up by the Council of Europe and the government’s five-year development plan for education and research. A central idea is 21st-century skills for today’s citizen. These include the ability to process information and analyze it critically, awareness of one’s own learning, the ability to learn together, and the ability to see connections and build patterns. This is called high-quality learning, and it should continue over a person’s entire lifetime. In this framework, debating as an
instructional method falls perfectly into place.
Future trends for the debating competition
The federation has long – for roughly fifteen years – been promoting debating in Finnish upper secondary schools, perceiving the vital skills learned through this activity. Debating is also manifest in English textbooks for foreign language teaching, a fact which reflects the wish of the education authorities.
The debating competition format has remained unchanged for a long time. Teams of two have debated a motion for and against with four-minute speeches, with an intervening audience debate, called the floor debate. To liven up the debates, Points of Information have been added to the format. Points of Information are short comments or questions made by members of the other team to the debater who is speaking. To be able to answer these points, the debater must be able to react promptly, answer the question, stay organized and return to the planned speech.
Last autumn, the debating organizers at the Federation took a leap into the unknown and, at rather short notice, collected a national team and took them to debate at the EurOpen Debating Competition in Stuttgart in November. The experience of taking part in this international event was momentous, and the starting point for taking the debating competition in Finland to a new level. The competitors in Stuttgart came from all over the world and not everyone had English as their first language. The winning team came from Turkey. All this made the Finnish organizers realize that our students are fully competent to enter the international debating arena.
With this in mind, the debating competition will be reorganized during the coming year.
The decision to take part in this international event requires the adoption of a new debating format: teams of three debaters giving eight-minute speeches. Asking and taking Points of Information is also a requirement.
Promoting debating in schools
Debating teaches many skills. Debaters must be able to construct logical arguments and structure them into a speech. They must also be able to deliver the speech in a way that will convince the audience, using various rhetorical strategies. Moreover, they must have the ability to react to the flow of the debate, to rebut arguments made by the rival team, concede where apt, and summarize. The abilities enabling them to do all this call for lateral thinking skills, which brings us back to the key competences of the 21st-century citizen and the usefulness of debating as a method of instruction. In a world that relies increasingly on interpersonal skills, someone who possesses confidence in their abilities to creatively negotiate any situation will most probably be successful in both private and public life. School should teach these kind of skills.
The debating competition will spread and flourish only if there is a continuity of debating activities in schools. It is of crucial importance to recruit new debaters from each year-grade and to spread debating to new schools. An incentive for any start-up debater is the overall
usefulness of debating skills: debating enhances high-quality learning, and provides an opportunity to acquire English in authentic communicative situations. Debating improves problem-solving
skills. And, equally importantly, it promotes discussion and performance skills.