Too Long on Mute – Debate Wins for Learning Recovery

We need to get young people talking again. If there is one thing we have learnt about the importance of teachers in this pandemic it is that we are the facilitators of intelligent conversation and lively debate. Young people can do quizzes online. They can watch good explanations. No online tool can replicate the classroom as a cauldron for participation; if anything, they have been on the much poorer diet of social media controversy and echo chambers. I noticed that even Oak National Academy couldn’t really find the best way to deliver persuasive writing online for English Language. I could be wrong but this was probably because the key ingredient of class discussion just couldn’t be replicated.

Our students have now spent weeks as muted black squares and recovering their voices should be a top priority for teachers moving back into the classroom. Here are my top five tips.

  1. Don’t stumble on the discussion

Too often, the best moments in lessons are the rich and lively conversations we didn’t mean to have. Make a conscious effort to plan for these discussions and know what they will help you to assess or thought processes they will likely extend.

2. Choose rich problems

Good discussions have to be well framed. Like a bad closed question, a bad discussion starts with an obvious answer.

Of the above steps in a good discussion, the first is the one I see go wrong most often. By simply adjusting our class discussions with modifiers that intensify the problem or bring in thornier questions around intent, choice, consent etc, we can boost participation. In the left hand column I have demonstrated some rich problems and on the right are some weak versions of the same ones.

Lady Macbeth is the only character that cares about Macbeth’s future.Think-Pair-Share: does Lady Macbeth care about Macbeth’s future?
We should force all adults to take the COVID vaccine.What are the challenges and problems for vaccine uptake in the UK?
The government should redirect all resources towards adapting to climate change instead of fighting it.Discuss the benefits of adaptation to climate change over prevention of it.

3. Model curiosity: show them both sides of the debate

I wouldn’t normally do this but… I think after two school closures and fewer adults to engage with, our students will be less familiar with generating ideas, listening and responding to others. Instead of relying on think-pair-share and open questions to get ideas up on the board, kick it off by providing arguments and asking the class to evaluate them. Ideally, you should be the lawyer before you take on the role of judge- and this aggressive kind of modelling is perhaps even over-scaffolding- but I think a debate and a blank slate might feel daunting in the first few weeks back.

I also worry that a young people have relied on social media caves for opinions and viewpoints at this time. If you have chosen a genuinely rich problem, you need to be open to both sides of the argument; show them you are and they might be more open too. You can do this by mapping out the different responses and making each side persuasive. Here is an example for International Women’s Day:

There are also links to the Oxford Union debate of a similar title in the downloadable PPT.

4. Be relevant

This will annoy a certain section of the education sector but I think the key to engaging young people in intelligent discussion is framing it around something they know but taking it to somewhere they need to be.

This does not mean your debates should focus on the most recent Tik Tok trends but the point about much of our curriculum, especially in Humanities, Social Sciences and Literature is that the core questions surrounding the human condition have endured. When we fail to convincingly draw those links, I can’t help but feel that is a failure of our imagination, not of the academic potential or intellectual curiosity of our students. A class discussion about whether or not Scrooge would have been banned on Twitter for his threatening statements about the poor isn’t about Twitter- it is about the nature of public discourse, the limits of government interference and the power of private institutions in politics.

5. Choose a winner

Whether it is a class discussion, a full debate, a think-pair-share, I’m a big believer in fusing competition, deliberation and decision-making. A simple vote- or as in a pre-pandemic “You Can Go to the Party” exercise, they get permission to attend a fictitious event with their friends after they have contributed- gives an outcome to all the points that have been raised. It clarifies the purpose of what has happened and brings the discussion to a conclusion. I hate it when it just filters out into “right and so now write about…” This is the democratic aspect- we need to remember that the broader aim is to prepare them to be citizens where we have to see decisions being made as a result of respectful dialogue. I don’t do this every time but I build something like this in wherever appropriate:

“I’m not sure what I will think about this tomorrow but today I’ve been convinced by those of you in the room who thought __________ because of your argument that ___________.”

Notice how you need to place this in the present; you are demonstrating that a decision can go either way based on the quality of what has been said. Yes, there’s a conceptual framework that underpins this which you might disagree with around rational discourse and power dynamics… but either way I think it is healthy for students to see something go the other way in a low stakes environment. As Waldron argued, without overcoming genuine disagreement to reach a point of collective, democracy doesn’t feel like an achievement. We need to be showing students that in the classroom as much as possible.

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