Is Debating for Primary School Students?

People often consider debating as a high school activity – or perhaps the domain of politicians! Rise & Shine debating however, is about introducing students to the skills of debating in a way that is appropriate for their age and stage of development.

When teaching debating to primary school students, we don’t expect a high school level of thinking or performance. We also take the emphasis off competition, so that rather than worry about who wins a debate, students are free to focus on learning and growing. Rise & Shine debating is about providing support for students so that they can achieve at their current level. Teachers and mentors are encouraged to work with students with offer them as much help as they need to be able to participate fully in the process of preparing and presenting their debate.

This may mean allowing them to use pictures instead of a lot of writing or helping scribe for them where necessary so that they could get their ideas out onto paper. Often, we have found students whose minds were bursting with ideas but their ability to write didn’t match their thinking speed and without support, they would become frustrated. Rise & Shine also provides a template to beginning debaters that makes it easier for children to follow a step-by-step guide. Working together in teams and with a little help to do some research, students can use the template to produce a competent debate – something that always boosts confidence and has students feeling so proud of their accomplishments. In debating with young students, we start with enthusiasm. Children’s brains and ability to think logically and to understand abstract concepts are still developing, even at age 11 or 12. We focus on allowing students to share their ideas and have their say on a topic that is of interest to them, and as they gain experience, their ability to think critically and apply logic to their arguments also develops.

The Rise & Shine approach to debating is designed to be practical rather than theoretical. To explain the rules of debating in-depth and at length before beginning is a very dry exercise and almost guaranteed to turn off a class of students as easily as switching off a light bulb.

We start from a simple premise that there are two sides to every argument. The opposing teams of a debate naturally then take one side or another and the object is to come up with the most convincing points whilst anticipating to some extent what the opposing team will argue and refuting their points. The rules and techniques for researching, compiling and presenting their arguments and evidence are taught and practiced as the process is worked through.

All students are supported to participate at their own level and rather than competing against each other they are measuring themselves through their own development. As the debating teacher or coach, it is important to recognise the different talents each student has (gift of the gab, comedic sensibility, passion for the subject, research skills, leadership and so on) and encourage them to own, explore and develop that talent through that medium.

Allowing students to work on topics that are meaningful to them or that they are passionate about is another way that debating makes learning engaging for students.

For example, we once had a student who was wildly keen on sport and felt strongly that many sporting personalities were being bad role models and behaving poorly these days. We allowed him to work on a debate for that topic and he was so involved with sharing his ideas and working on a debate that would convince people of his view that he quite forgot about all the literacy that was naturally taking place. The learning became something meaningful rather than another abstract schoolroom exercise and he participated with great enthusiasm. We also find that taking a light-hearted approach to debating works wonders too. We don’t treat debating like a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs exercise as that really isn’t motivating to most young people, but rather a chance to enjoy working in teams, finding ways to be persuasive and being creative about communicating their ideas. We enjoy being playful and having some fun in our debating classes - and we find students enjoy that too!

When you take an age-appropriate, fun and learning-oriented (rather than competition-oriented) approach to debating, we find that debating is definitely something that students from Year 5 and up can enjoy and benefit greatly from.