Express yourself: Make debates count

Gary Morrison

written by Gary Morrison, Vice President
International Division at Turning Technologies

When did you last feel the prickle of self-doubt, or question whether you’re the best version of yourself? As established educators, we might say rarely. But if I asked you instead to describe yourself and what makes you unique, would you have the answer?

The art of self-expression is crucial to success. How we differentiate ourselves from others is a skill we begin to develop in our early years, and it’s a skill we continue to master in many facets of our lives, from competing for the best jobs and building fulfilling relationships, to voicing our opinions and even our reaction to stress and pressure.

So, how do we help our future mavericks and leaders build the skills and confidence to express themselves authentically? 

Just this month, new research found that more than half of the UK workforce lacks essential digital skills[1], a statistic universities around the UK are working successfully to improve. But are we focusing enough on the “soft skills” our young people must also master? It’s true that many young people may be comfortable in front of a screen, but are they lacking the communication skills to succeed in their careers?

From ethics and politics, to new technologies and business approaches, we need young people with top critical thinking and communication skills leading our future workforces.

How can we adapt our teaching practices to nurture these skills? While the benefits are well documented in higher education, the art of the debate is one of the most powerful ways we can encourage active learning. Even though we’re familiar with the famous “two sides to every coin” analogy, are we applying this skill effectively to improve learning outcomes?

It would be fair to say that my days of passionate debating are behind me, but learning to challenge opinions and create positive change is an invaluable life skill. From ethics and politics, to new technologies and business approaches, we need young people with top critical thinking and communication skills leading our future workforces.

Many universities now encourage debating skills to help support students in adopting a balanced approach to essays and dissertations. Debating is a fresh way to help students prepare a thesis and support it with evidence while acknowledging counter-arguments, and can be applied to many areas of study.

To argue and challenge thinking is human nature and is innate in all of us. If we harness this natural inclination using healthy debate, we can better equip young people with the confidence and superior soft skills to excel.

Here are my top tips to get you going:

Design the rules

Debates naturally bring out strong views, and it is your aim to maintain a respectful and neutral environment throughout. Ensure that students are well-briefed on the rules for participation. Assigning the topic in advance is also vital. No one likes to feel unprepared, and students should be given time to research the issue.

Engage all

Debates can often become a verbal ping-pong trap with a minority of more confident students taking the lead. Groups can often fall into predictable patterns. Assigning roles within each group can help, and so can a clever allocation of position on the debate topic.

The fishbowl approach is also great for engaging even the most reluctant of public speakers. Arrange students in an inner and outer circle. Those in the inner circle are the first to debate as the “talkers,” engaging with their inner circle peers. Those in the outside circle then listen in on the discussion (great for building confidence in less confident students). Participants then swap roles to continue the debate.

Build trust

Get to know your students’ interests and goals. To truly engage them in a debate, you need to understand the issues and topics they are passionate about. Remember, the topic does not necessarily have to be limited to course content. Teaching the value of a concept can be achieved by picking a topic students are genuinely keen to talk about.

Actively listen

As the most knowledgeable about many topics you’re likely to debate, it’s all too easy to commandeer discussion. Try to resist intervening and focus on posing questions that will push students to explore the subject deeper.

Tinker with technology

Handheld and wearable devices are now part of most people’s daily lives. In the classroom, audience response technologies can replicate this experience, making the learning experience more fun and interactive. Integrated live polling software also generates real-time analytics that can be shared or kept as a record of the session. Casting a vote at a poignant moment in the discussion can help clarify the group’s position and liven up the conversation.

Encourage diversity

Students will bring a wide range of personal experiences and perspectives to the discussion. While conflict is critical to debate, it must always be a safe space where opposing opinions are respected. Students should be encouraged to embrace different opinions as a learning opportunity.

And most importantly, have fun with it! Embrace student diversity and challenge their minds, and it’ll help save your voice every now and then!