It Actually Has a Real-Life Function: Debating as a Pedagogical Tool in Singaporean Education Introduction

Huiyi Lu
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Competitive debating is often lauded as a means of promoting critical thinking in students. In the published literature, debate is referred to as having the capacity to act as “an intense learning laboratory” that “is to language arts what calculus is to mathematics” (Hooley 18). It is therefore ironic that debate enjoys limited emphasis in Singaporean education. Besides a minority of schools which prize debating as a niche co-curricular activity, most schools do not see their debating societies as a major part of their branding efforts. Debating is even less visible in the classroom, as national examinations are largely written in nature, and oratorical abilities take a backseat. This article examines the viability of debating as a pedagogical tool for high-schoolers, in the context of the teaching of General Paper (GP) in Singapore. GP, a compulsory ‘A’ Level subject, requires students to craft argumentative essays on real-world topics, and demonstrate comprehension of given passages. I posit that the skilful adaptation of conventional debating formats and strategies can improve the teaching of not just GP, but classroom teaching in general.

Characterising the Singaporean Student: Bridging the Gap between Expectations and Reality
Singapore’s education system aims to help students develop three 21st Century Competencies: “Civic Literacy, Global Awareness and Cross-Cultural Skills; Critical and Inventive Thinking; (and) Communication, Collaboration and Information Skills” (21st Century Competencies). However, the reticence of most Singaporean students means that this expected readiness to engage in intellectual expression does not often materialise in reality. This can be credited to the “monologic, transmission-oriented mode of teaching that has been found to characterise teaching in Singapore” (Teo) which can be resolved by enabling “space for dialogue…to be expanded in classrooms” (Teo), with one form of such dialogue being “dialogue as a debate” (Teo). Indeed, debating, and its ability to promote expressive and cognitive skills, might contribute towards the attainment of these competencies.

Debating and the Teaching of General Paper

Given that GP is meant to “develop…the ability to think critically, to construct cogent arguments and to communicate their ideas” (General Paper), there are definite parallels between the subject and debating. As a GP teacher at Meridian Junior College, I tested out the applicability of debating to the classroom. Most encouragingly, students were generally enthusiastic towards the concept of debating. However, there was little actual knowledge of what debating entails. There was a need to explicitly provide instruction on the smallest details, to prevent the debate from deteriorating into aimless banter.

I attempted a modified British Parliamentary debate in two classes of 21 and 26 students respectively. To render it more manageable, speeches were reduced to 5 minutes, and students could share the speeches, with a maximum of 2 students co-performing one speaker role. Points of information were retained, to promote responsiveness. I considered having students offer quick-fire rebuttals to opponents post-debate instead, but this might become disorganised and rowdy.
In retrospect, a comprehensive debrief would have been valuable, but I could not conduct one due to time constraints. However, I found that the viability of the activity lay in how I could constantly evoke relevant aspects of the debate to better their academic learning. For instance, substantive points paralleled the structure of their essays. Also, the onus on Closing Teams to distinguish themselves from Opening Teams helped students understand how to negotiate the Application Question, a particularly difficult exam component where they were expected to write a short essay in engagement with a passage. Blindly rehashing the author’s original arguments is frowned upon as it does not evidence any value-addition in argumentation. Cross-referencing to the idea of a debate extension allowed students to understand what is meant by value-addition, something many struggle with. The interactive nature of the debate enabled instant recall when I referenced aspects of the debate, even months after.

In addition, I encouraged debate on controversial issues, such as the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen, and to justify their stance. In each discussion, every student was given a green and a red card, with the former indicating agreement and the latter, disagreement with the motion. To allow for open-mindedness, students were allowed to switch stances if they wished, but had to explain why.

Lastly, I sought to link debating strategy to argumentative skills for essay-writing. Students adopted assigned profiles (different ages, genders et cetera) and considered how this would affect their stances on certain government policies. This demonstrated how characterisation of an issue or stakeholder could affect persuasiveness. On another occasion, students debated a hypothetical motion to vary jail terms based on prisoners’ incomes. After an informal debate, groups penned justifications for their positions on the whiteboard. A specific writing format was mandated, with questions like “Why is this the case? What is the outcome?” Finally, a selected speaker would present the answers in a cogent speech. While mirroring the delivery of a substantive point, the writing format assigned also resembled the structured teaching of paragraph-writing that had gone on throughout the term. The debate influence behind the activity made this structure extremely intuitive, because students were thinking in terms of what bases they had to cover to be persuasive, rather than seeing it as a formula to be memorised.

Insights for Classroom Education in General

My takeaways are not unique to Singaporean education. Indeed, given the widely-acknowledged value of critical thinking, classroom debating can be useful across many contexts, and to any discipline that prizes argumentation and diverse views, especially the humanities and social sciences. However, certain considerations are needed for effective implementation.
How do considerations that accompany classroom debating differ, one might ask, from that of competitive debating? For one thing, the participants’ objectives differ. For debaters, debate mastery is an end in itself. However, classroom debating is a means to the end of larger educational and assessment outcomes. Hence, teachers must clearly explain the linkage between the debates and subject learning, rather than expect organic skills transference.
Secondly, teachers work with larger class sizes. My classes ranged in size from 16 to 26 students, as opposed to the Worlds Schools team size of 5 members. Also, unlike large debate clubs, non-speaking students could not be left to watch and track debates independently, because non-speaking students are unused to the length and rigour of full debates and are more likely to tune out. Hence, teachers must consistently play an active facilitative role to prevent disengagement. For example, teachers can give watching students a part to play when the debate is ongoing – the role of Scribe or Questioner can keep students busily engaged during debates. Alternatively, an interactive debrief, where students know they will be questioned on the debate, would incentivise them to focus.

Thirdly, crucial guidelines for classroom debates might be deemed unnecessary, or even excessive in competitive debating. Being strict about debate etiquette is vital. In some debate circuits, such as the Asian varsity scene, the ability to mock an opponent’s case without resorting to personal attacks, or to make witticisms at each other’s expense, can be easily dismissed as stylistic flair or playful banter. In class, however, where public speaking may be stressful for shyer students, explicit boundaries are needed to establish a safe space.

Some other considerations should be taken into account. Tumposky raises reservations about the reductive nature of classroom debating, saying that “by setting up issues as dichotomies, debate…ignores the multiplicity of perspectives inherent in many issues” (Tumposky 53). Furthermore, she suggests “a confrontational classroom environment” (54) would alienate certain participants. She draws on research that shows that “very few women are comfortable with adversarial argument” (54) and that “cultures that value social harmony rather than individualism also are likely to prefer pedagogies that seek harmony” (54), citing “African-American, Latino, Native American and Asian students” as examples. (54).

In response to Tumposky’s critique, I posit that given the importance of learning to process and justify ideas in this complex information age, students, regardless of background, should be trained to consider the logical validity of ideas, rather than avoiding open argumentation simply because argumentation is inherently combative. Also, inclusiveness can be generated if teachers consciously keep the activity from domination by the same few voices. Lastly, students who greatly prefer collaborative learning can undertake research or preparatory roles, and participate without the stress of delivering speeches.

Furthermore, regarding Tumposky’s concern about binary argumentation, debating can actually scaffold, rather than detract from, the attainment of multifaceted thinking. Learning to grapple with two divergent opinions is the first step towards negotiating a greater variety of views. Additionally, pluralism taken to extremes has its downside – individuals may avoid holding definite opinions “in the interest of embracing “difference””, taking the easy way out and “(seeking) refuge from the pluralist storm in that crawlspace provided by the expression “I don’t know” (Fine).

In summary, teachers who attempt to introduce debating into their pedagogy should take four key criteria into account:

    • Do the students feel safe sharing their thoughts?
    • Is this activity inclusive?
    • Can the teacher act as an effective facilitator and moderator, enabling free student-directed exchanges, but also intervening if things get hostile?
    • Is the debate relevant to the demands of the academic subject, and is this linkage visible to students?
    • These criteria would allow the cognitive merits of debating for youths to be incorporated into education, while mitigating obstacles that classroom implementation may result in.