Across the country, school teams are getting ready for another year of fierce competition in the Schools’ Mace debating contest. The ESU’s education team are once more busily working on topics, otherwise known as motions, for the participants to engage with and to clash over.
How to come up with motions for debating
You can draw inspiration for debate topics from a whole raft of different sources. Current affairs are often controversial and can make good themes, or you might want to consider key questions from history, philosophy and other fields. You can also draw ideas from literature, whether classical or sci-fi, and everything in between.
Having an idea that can be debated is the starting point, and the ESU team will brainstorm and collect dozens of these (you may have seen our recent call-out on social media for you to submit your own ideas). From there we use a series of questions to refine the idea and ensure it’s suitable for a Schools’ Mace debate.
Sometimes issues turn out to be better suited to another format, like a topic for a persuasive speech, or a prompt for a balloon debate or a discussion group. But the important thing to remember is that there is no bad idea – it’s all about working out the best way to turn that idea into something that works with debating or public speaking.
Question – Is the topic interesting and relevant?
Everyone involved is going to spend a lot of time thinking about this topic, so it should be something that young people are keen to engage with, and which they will find rewarding.
Consider the age and interests of the group the motion is for. Something you personally find fascinating might not interest a diverse group, or be complex enough to maintain engagement over a prolonged period of time. A good topic speaks to lots of different people, and draws on their experiences and perspectives.
What to do:
Try to consult lots of different people (sometimes via a brainstorming process is good); think about what’s being discussed around them already, whether that’s in the corridors or in the media.
Question – Is there enough depth for both sides?
A debate motion needs to give both sides plenty to say – in the Schools’ Mace, enough to fill two seven-minute speeches, and inspire an interesting floor debate. It should give speakers a chance to choose between arguments as well, and decide which they want to focus on and prioritise.
We don’t want a situation where there’s only just enough ‘correct’ arguments to share. The ‘long-prep’ nature of the Mace helps here, as participants have plenty of time to research and find what ideas are out there, but there is still the risk that particularly zeitgeisty topics can prevent rounded debate, or make participants feel uncomfortable defending a point of view that goes strongly against social norms. This is particularly the case today, with social media and ‘cancel culture’ being a real consideration – although that doesn’t mean you can’t engage with complex or potentially challenging topics. Just consider how this might be framed in your particular context and setting, and if your young people would feel comfortable lending their voice to an argument.
What to do:
Spend a bit of time generating arguments and ideas for each side with peers or in small groups. You don’t have to fully develop each idea. If you end up with a good collection on each side, then great! Otherwise you might have to rethink the motion.
Question – Is the motion balanced?
A debate takes two sides and asks the audience or judges to treat the topic from an unbiased, balanced viewpoint and then to decide who does the better job of being persuasive. So, we have to make sure that both sides have a fair shot.
This means making sure that the strength of arguments available seems balanced. If one side has more obvious and more compelling arguments to use, it makes their job much easier.
Consider also that that there’s a balance of depth and that the range of arguments seems balanced (if one side only has economic arguments, and the other has economic, cultural and ethical arguments for example, that’s a bit limiting).
What to do:
Look at the ideas you jotted down when considering the depth of the topic. Are they varied? Are there strong, compelling arguments on both sides?
Question – Is it a debate? (Or is it a pub chat?)
Formal debates are a bit artificial, in that they have clear sides for and against a motion. This brings lots of benefits in creating clear areas of disagreement where participants can hone their persuasive skills in clashing with the other side in a constructive, respectful way. It means not all topics work, though. Can you see how two sides would draw the territory they’re defending? Can they clearly say ‘Our side stands for this, and not that’?
Problems can occur when there are too many possible positions, or where both sides are likely to end up fighting to occupy the grey area in the middle of an argument. Thinking back to conversations you may have had in the pub or while with friends where lots of opinions are aired, but no firm conclusion is reached – these are topics to avoid as it may mean that finding the central path through an argument or arguments is difficult to exploit.
What to do:
This can be a particularly tough one. Doubly so because it can be a problem with your most interesting ideas! Thinking about a few clear lines that would sum up each side is a useful tool. If you can come up with something like ‘On Proposition, we believe x, we would do y and z, and so things would be better because a, b, c’ then you’re on a good track.
Question – Does this contribute to variety?
Last, and mainly relevant to setting lots of topics, we look for variety in our motions.
This means variety of subject matter, of the type of question, of the sort of stakeholders impacted and more. Even if the content is different on one level (sports, arts, healthcare, say) if they are all ‘Should the government do x’ debates they will still become samey.
What to do:
Try for different nouns and different verbs as you set motions. Mix in some fun and light-hearted topics as well to change things up.
By the end of the year, a team that makes it through, or a school debate club that uses our motions as prompts, should have engaged with an interesting, challenging and fun range of debates.
Some of our favourite Schools’ Mace motions of the past few years:
- This House Would weight votes such that the younger the voter, the more powerful their vote
- This House Believes That government economic policy should prioritise the collective happiness and well-being of the population over economic growth
- This House Regrets the romanticisation of motherhood
- This House Would implement an upper rate of income tax of 70 per cent on incomes over £5 million
- This House Believes That film and television studios should significantly increase the number of female villains in their productions
- This House Would introduce a Universal Basic Income