Let kids talk back! Why we need debate in schools now more than ever

I’ve brought this up countless times on a lot of issues, with varying results of (no) success. It’s as though people have completely forgotten that freedom of speech infers that there will inevitably be people that you don’t agree with. Rather than being a mood-killer, I’ve befriended people who I’ve sat on the other end of the spectrum on, at least in their minds.

A person I spoke to referred to debate as something which implies a fact, is possibly wrong. No-one’s arguing that the calibre of some debates don’t have facts which vary between cast-iron, and as flimsy as pound shop shelves. A debate isn’t somehow objectively an admission that a fact is either entirely true or utterly false, that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding which isn’t helping matters.

A Debate is at once an incredible expression of freedom of speech, while also a classic British pastime. Coffee shops in the 18th century would host individuals up and down the economic spectrum, well, those that gained literacy. What it represents is the ability to research, construct and attack or defend ideas, policies and theories, allowing those on either side to walk away with a newfound perspective of an alternative viewpoint.

Illustration of a 17th century London coffeehouse 

What we are encountering more with advocates behind political factions and of particular ideas. In my experience, this has been more the left wing than the right, is an almost cemented attachment to them. This is sometimes to the point of irrational argument and naked hostility. This is referred to as ‘Political Emotion‘, now while it’s endearing to see the emotional investment people have towards politics, it’s wrecking our system at the moment.

This, and the following is why Debate is needed in Schools:

Bradford caught my attention in a couple of circumstances; Involving particular ‘unhealthy’ food being banned from school. Teachers even going so far as to ‘encourage’ children to open their lunchboxes and show them what they’re eating.

While I’m all for ‘Encouraging’ students to make healthier eating choices, this annoys me for two particular reasons:

  1. ‘Encouraging’ could very well be the Teacher emotionally pressuring the child to show them. That’s not encouraging, that’s emotional bullying.
  2. It’s utterly condescending, they’re not teaching them anything apart from to resign to authoritarian school policy.

The second point most of all is what irritates me. I don’t like kids, anyone who knows me is fully aware of it, but even I accept that children are actually incredibly receptive to information. Research by the Universities of Chicago and North Carolina found that children as young as 4 and a half were capable of complex forms of reasoning.

Impressive right? So either teachers are oblivious of this, which is possible, or they are completely resigned to just hammer the ‘because we said so’ into their pupils to make them ‘compliant’. Way to prepare the voters and taxpayers of the future. They are being taught not to question and to just abide, how is that helpful?

Bradford in West Yorkshire 

That’s not all that came out of Bradford by the way. The National Secular Society discovered that two schools were enforcing a ‘Compulsory Hijab’ policy. It immediately erupted into a clear cut yes or no debate, apparently, children STILL didn’t have a choice on this one, it was held away from them.

In a statement, Spokesman Ishtiaq Ahmed, of the Council for Mosques, said: “We have to accept that Britain, and a city like Bradford, is a multi-faith society, and faith is an important part of people’s identity. It is about tolerance and respect. And making efforts to understand people’s different way of life. People should have choices without the fear of being criticised.”

Sara Khan, CEO of Inspire added: “They say it is to respect religious sensitivities, but there is no requirement in religion for young girls to be wearing a headscarf,”

And yet, throughout the WHOLE article (here, by the way), there was no mention of how to educate students properly on this; just an argument between two opposed ideas. It’s insulting.

The fact of the matter is this. A debate can help to do a lot of good for these intellectual divisions. While complex thinking begins at 4 and a half, researching, structuring and instigating a debate allows the pupil to process and use complex information in innovative ways that mere regurgitation education can’t.

This is a form of learning which is invaluable in later life, regardless of what they’d intend to do; having to research and explain any topic allows for a deeper level of intellect. One which is tragically absent for many adults it seems.

For the children themselves, though this depends on their initial confidence, it’s been shown that debate improves confidence and self-esteem. Underprivileged schools utilise them as a means of increasing the student’s future prospects: “It’s the only way to help equalise the life chances of children from less privileged backgrounds,” she says. “It’s the confidence and the commitment and the manner of their speaking which is going to make that critical difference for them.”

“It’s the only way to help equalise the life chances of children from less privileged backgrounds,” she says. “It’s the confidence and the commitment and the manner of their speaking which is going to make that critical difference for them.” – Avril Newman, headteacher of Sir William Burrough Primary School

The longer-term aspect of it is correlated with all that I’ve mentioned previously. If a pupil is taught how to reason, to challenge an entrenched idea or thought with facts and debate, you immediately make political emotion impossible why?

Because the student will know that ideas can be tested and changed, that a sceptic mind is better than a closed one. So here’s a controversial thought for both sides of the intellectual camps: let the children hear both arguments, and come to their own conclusions.

Maybe then they can go to school with/without a Hijab and eat a pie in peace.


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