Give them Gumption! 5 Top Tips for Starting a School Debate Society

“Done right, a talk is more powerful than anything in written form. Done right, a talk can electrify a room and transform an audience’s world view. When we peer into a speaker’s eyes; listen to the tone of her voice; sense her vulnerability, her intelligence, her passions, we are tapping into unconscious skills that have been fine-tuned over hundreds of thousands of years. Skills that can galvanise, empower, inspire” 

(Anderson, 2016)

Wouldn’t that be wonderful? A class full of thinkers who are able to voice an opinion, accurately challenge an injustice or are able to tell a captivating story? In my view, extra-curricular clubs focusing on debate/ public speaking can go a long way in giving students the tools to question the world around them.

When I joined my current school, I hadn’t had any real experience of debating- I had dabbled, teaching a few lessons using Socratic circles or whole class ‘Agree- Build- Challenge’ discussions but had never really organised a full debate properly. When I found myself in charge of the debate club, it was an opportunity to make it something. 

After a short time, it became apparent that the key was identifying and creating some procedures and systems for the club. It needed direction and leadership- but not from me.  I started by appointing students in leadership positions, namely a president, vice president and secretary. I wanted to give students some experience in applying for a role (and selling themselves!) so sent out an invitation to apply, followed by these job descriptions. 

Feel free to use and abuse ( you can download the full debate handbook at the end of this post). 

A section, taken from the Debate Handbook

Once the leadership team was in place, we met to discuss priorities and the direction of the society. We made a simple action plan and we were good to go! 

The president branded the club and advertised around the school. We had a few interested parties. 

How do I arrange the motions?

I learnt (from my trusty 2nd in Department)it is better to pre-release the debates and to allow students to sign up online for ones they were interested in. You could decide the debate titles with your debate committee or decide them yourself. Having an online sign-up really helped as it means you can see which motions are getting the most interest. This sign-up sheet was put onto the group’s Google Classroom.

For our debates during lunch breaks, we have two speakers per team, a chairperson and a timer. This covers around 30 minutes or so. 

In terms of deciding the motions, you may have come across things in the news that are interesting to debate (or on Twitter). 

Here are a few excellent websites to support with setting motions. Obviously consider the nature/ potential content of the debates and the ages of the students debating: 

  5. ( there’s some additional information on this one to support with structures of debates, too). 

If we are one person short, I usually step in to help (which isn’t what they want!) but it is quite useful for them to see you debating in order to model what effective debating looks like. If you don’t feel confident enough to do that, there are plenty of videos online (especially of ESU MACE debate finals) which can help to model good debating- it’s a useful way to spend time early on to show what you expect and provide clear models for the students to follow. 

Recently, I’ve put together this script of guidance for students, which helps them frame their debates more successfully. 

How do you make sure they come back?

In order to encourage loyalty to the club, we started a very simple loyalty scheme, where students get a card stamped and so many stamps entitles them to a little gift/ prize. I made a few keyrings, getting the blank key rings from ebay and added an inspirational quote, which the students seemed to like. If students have gained 100% attendance to the club throughout the year, they are awarded the debate ‘Seal of Approval’ which is a gift and a certificate signed by the Headmistress. 

What next? 

After a year of honing some of these systems, I’m pleased that attendance to the club has grown significantly and there’s a real buzz surrounding debate. There are around 25 students who attend regularly. We are now in the process of planning an evening that celebrates the spoken word, where students will deliver TED-style speeches on a topic of their choice. Watch this space!  If you’re in Birmingham and would be interested in coming along to watch, please get in touch via Twitter or this website. The event, called ‘Future Voices’ will be taking place in January 2020.

Some top tips, in summary: 

  1. Have clear systems for signing up to debates and pre-release the motions so that students can sign up
  2. Don’t take this on all by yourself- give students responsibility and a sense of ownership over their club
  3. Provide clear models and examples for students to aspire to, either through using older pupils (perhaps those who’ve got excellent marks in their Spoken Language or more experienced speakers) or by modelling yourself (the students love a teacher versus student debate!)
  4. Take your time! It takes time for a club to grow to what you would like it to be. Consider if doing all of it at once is sustainable.
  5. Enter competitions, even if you have no chance of winning- you learn huge amounts from watching other schools in competitions. It’s good for you and for the students. 

If you’re running a debate club and would like to share any useful strategies, please get in touch- I’d love to keep adding useful tips to this post! 

Enjoy the challenge 😀

Anderson, C. (2016). TED Talks- The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. London: Nicholas Brealey, p.xi.

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