Catrin RichardsDiscover Debating Mentor

Mentoring: three surprising things I've learnt in three weeks

Friday 27 Oct 2017

In honour of National Mentoring Day, our Discover Debating Mentor shares some of the most surprising things that her young debaters have taught her so far

“Is debating like boxing?” one of my Year Six students asked me. “I’m not sure”, I say, “how do you mean?”, “well, it’s a big fight, but you have rules, don’t you?”

After I double checked that the pupil understood that she wouldn’t be expected to throw any punches in debating club, I thought about what she’d said. It was a bit odd, but it also made a lot of sense.

There have been a few surprising moments like this during my first 3 weeks as a Discover Debating Mentor and below I’ve summarised my key learnings so far;

1. Children are just as good at debating as adults.

Most adults have had no debating or public speaking training, so when it comes to how much practice they’ve had, children are not at much of a disadvantage.

As any parent, teacher or babysitter will know, children are also often very well-practiced at asking “why?” to almost everything they hear! This habit is a very helpful one when it comes to debating. Questioning everything often leads to well developed arguments because it means you understand that you have to back up your opinions with evidence.

As a result, many of the children in debating clubs are more than capable of taking on debaters twice their age because they’ve had just as much experience as anyone else, and, due to their unwavering dedication to asking difficult questions!

2. Learning to answer back can make children behave better.

For most children, having the opportunity to tell an adult “I think you’re wrong” without getting in trouble is unusual. It seems to have a calming effect on many of the louder children and can have the opposite effect on the quieter ones, bringing them out of their shell.

My favourite moments in the classroom always start with “Catrin, I think you’re wrong because…”

That’s because learning how to be assertive but polite at the same time, is a tricky balancing act for most adults. Children on the other hand, seem to be managing it well and are learning how to speak up for themselves in the right way. If children use the skills they have learnt correctly, they shouldn’t need to misbehave in the first place because they can use them to make their voice heard.

3. Preparation is important, but there are some things you can never prepare for.

The most difficult things to prepare for as a mentor aren’t bad behaviour or shy students. Those things might be tricky, but the occasional child getting tongue-tied shouldn’t come as a surprise. The thing I’ve found most challenging is having to tackle questions that you don’t really have an answer for! For example:

“Have you ever seen the Houses of Parliament? Sometimes they [politicians] laugh at each other and they always shout! If that's against the rules of debating, why do they do it?”

“Don’t you think Jackie Chan should be the Queen because he’s really good at fighting and could save our country from war?”

Every session, I am asked hundreds of questions, and whilst most of them are slightly surreal, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Being a mentor has been brilliant and challenging. In the words of one of my Year Five students, “I was so excited about debating club last night that I felt sick and I couldn’t sleep!”

Me too.

Find out more about becoming an ESU mentor here