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Home > News and views > The Learning Science of Debating

The Learning Science of Debating

Recent findings suggest that debating is an ideal way to develop deep understanding in students

One of the best books on education that I have read recently is Understanding How We Learn by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli.

This ‘visual guide’ takes the reader through some recent findings from cognitive psychology and explains clearly how these can be applied in the classroom in order to improve learning. What makes it even more special are Oliver Caviglioli’s graphics which beautifully summarise the concepts being explained (some of which are pictured above).

I particularly enjoyed the section on ‘Development of Understanding’, not least because the principles laid out in the chapter resonate with our use of debating as a pedagogy and the benefits we believe that it brings to students.

Classroom debates can be used across the curriculum; we usually recommend using them towards the end of a unit of work, when core knowledge has been covered and students are ready to develop their understanding further.

The authors of Understanding How We Learn state: ‘As teachers, we hope that our students will learn material in a meaningful manner – that is, that they will understand it. Understanding occurs when students elaborate a memory by adding details to it and integrating it with existing knowledge and can be enhanced by several effective strategies.’ They then go on to outline these strategies, some of which are central to the process of planning for and then participating in a debate.

1. ‘Elaboration describes the process of adding features to one’s memories, and understanding can be increased through strategies that promote elaboration

One such strategy is ‘elaborative interrogation’, where students ask themselves questions about how and why things are and then produce the answers to these questions. Preparation for a debate, usually involves a great deal of elaborative interrogation. For example, preparation for a debate on a second Brexit referendum could involve students posing and answering such questions as: Who will be affected by Brexit, and how? When should referenda be used in an otherwise indirect democracy?

2. ‘Concrete examples help illustrate abstract ideas and make them easier to understand; it is important to use multiple concrete examples.’

Within different debates certain abstract ideas and concepts often reoccur. For example, many debates centre on different conceptions of freedom, justice and equality, the role of the state and how to balance conflicting rights. Debates as seemingly diverse as whether we should ban zoos, whether a ‘surveillance state’ is justified and how minority language acquisition should be supported all require students to use and apply contested conceptions of freedom.

3. ‘Pictures relevant to target concepts accompanying written material help develop understanding and provide memory cues’

Mindful of the power of ‘dual coding’, as this is known, we are increasing the use of infographics, diagrams, mind maps etc. in our debate resources. There’s still much more for us to do in this area (maybe Oliver Caviglioli can help us out!) but we are committed to following the evidence when engaging in reflection and continual improvement of all our work.


To find out more about the range of programmes and resources we offer to support schools in using debate to impact positively on student outcomes, email the Debating Programmes Team: DPT@esu.org. Our Impact and Resources Team will be able to provide you with more information about the pedagogy of our programmes: ImpactandResources@esu.org

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