by Luan Hanratty
“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
Is this quote any more applicable than in the language classroom? Of all the activities I have used and enjoyed, debating has to be one of the most active and beneficial. Setting up a debate creates a dynamic and spontaneous atmosphere which provides substantial results not just in students’ language proficiency but in their understanding of a topic.
The ultimate paradigm shifter
Debates are the ultimate paradigm shifter. Students come into the room at the start of class maybe not knowing much about the subject and being heavily inclined to sit on the fence. But by the end of the class the vast majority will have considered, listened and argued enough to augment their own schema and form their own assured opinions.
The one drawback is that people below an intermediate level tend to get left out because they lack the fluency to string clauses together and the vocabulary to make their point. This is difficult but it is something encouragingly positive for lower level learners to aim for.
The other problem for many teachers is that they may not be very confrontational themselves or they simply may have no interest in political matters. This is a perfectly normal attitude in most contexts but not in educational one. Avoiding debates and socio-political issues in the classroom is the equivalent of sticking not just your own head in the sand but those of the students too.
We live in a society of other people and it is a human necessity to discuss topical events which are wider than just what is happening in pop culture. Debate gets people thinking and it connects us to the community. It makes us a meaningful person in the world we live in. Debate is a healthy human activity and just like drama and games, it is part of life itself. We find it everywhere we find civilization and, as such, newspapers are a very good place to start.
Debate makes us mature
No child, no matter what nationality, should be sheltered from exposure to political and philosophical ideas. As long as there is an educational and objective purpose there is no harm done by it, but a host of good. Debate makes us mature. It gives us an important grasp of concepts because it forces us to see things from the opposite perspective.
Every argument has two sides and this is no more a function of simplicity than the natural tendency of human society to organize itself along diametric lines. This really started with the ancient Athenians, for whom Oligos were the party of the ruling elite and patricians. Eventually though, Demos arose in opposition to represent the many, [the] hoi polloi. And so it was that the art of debate was developed and enshrined and passed down, and today as modern teachers, we ought to keep that flame alive.
Taboos are there to be broken
The taboos are there to be broken – and that is where the best arguments and indeed the best ideas come from. The Romans knew it and you can see it in online to day. The best arguments are the ones that disagree with the many but stick to these five principles: logic, reason, facts, humour and politeness. If you follow them, it gives you license to communicate any point you wish and to brook controversial ideas. So I believe it is good to break the taboo of political and philosophical discussion with learners. Argument is not a dirty word and it doesn’t have to be offensive. After all it’s just talk and that is what we, more than anyone else, are in the business of.
Luan Hanratty blogs at teflideas.com has authored several books including the recently released Great Debates – 24 of the Most Important Questions in Modern Society for Teachers of ESL and EAP.