In the age of social media, mastering the art of measured debate has never been so pressing. Knee-jerk reactions are common in cyberspace and often there is little in the way of listening and prioritising involved. With arguments flaring at lightening speed, exchanges can quickly spiral out of control.
But in the real world, this kind of behaviour leads to polarised positions and unnecessary conflict. From an early age, children benefit from learning to debate an issue in a more thoughtful and tolerant manner.
Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This ability to understand the various sides that inevitably exist to every argument is the key not only to nurturing critical thinking, but also to fostering empathy, which in turn is the key to great leadership.
According to an article published in Forbes, called Find the Millennials who will Lead your Company, many of those who will lead us into the future are likely to be former debaters.
Juliette Robinson, Secondary History teacher and Debate Coordinator at King’s College Madrid who took 29 students to Bilbao’s prestigious Model United Nations (MUN) debating competition at the start of February, expands on this, saying, “Debating is an essential skill for life. It encourages students to see the world from different perspectives, to question their own views and why they hold them and to learn to understand and respect the views of others.”
Students from as early as primary can benefit from structured debate, which takes them beyond the angry, frustrated “No!” and helps them to start navigating reason and logic as well as allowing them to see that a difference of opinion does not have to lead to a fight or a huff. Instead, they can start to flex their analytical muscles by detecting the weak points in their opponent’s argument, considering them, then countering them calmly.
On a broader scale, our increasingly global landscape allows students engaged in debate to appreciate the world’s rich tapestry of thought.
“This is especially true of the Model United Nations, whereby students not only gain insight into the workings of the world ́s most significant supranational organisation, but, more importantly, the wide socio-economic, political and cultural diversity of the countries who are member states,” says Juliette.
This year, the King’s students attending the Model United Nations in Bilbao won three overall awards – two for the Best Ambassador for their Committee and one for Best Delegate for the Arctic Council.
The teams act as countries and each country has a topic such as human rights, disarmament or world health. After some discussion, the teams come up with proposals or resolutions and representatives are then sent to committees, which combine the resolutions and lobby to get these debated.
Two thirds of King’s participants had their resolutions passed at committee stage after two days of intensive debating
The final day was the General Assembly, during which a selection of resolutions were debated.
“It was a pretty busy four days,” says Juliette. “From my perspective the students all did a wonderful job: they worked well together, prepared fully and debated with flair and passion.”
Most importantly, of course, debate is learning at its most fun! Students are driven to research a topic and analyse information in an absorbing and dynamic environment.
As one of the Model United Nations King’s participants remarked, “I fell in love with MUN last year. I had heard everywhere that it was a great experience, where you got to meet amazing and open-minded people and get out of your comfort zone. I decided to get out of mine to check it out for myself. I loved the entire experience – it was beautiful and really fun in so many ways! It’s amazing how, in just a couple of days, people can get to become really important parts of our lives. MUN is the best experience, and I really hope to repeat soon!”
Another said, “It gave me insight into what it was like to be a diplomat and what they do, emphasising the importance of their role in making the world a better place for everyone. I got the opportunity to meet people from other schools, learn about their cultures and points of view on global topics and forge friendships.”
Back in 2008, King’s College Madrid was invited to participate in the Model European Parliament debating programme for the first time with one student, Felipe Monge, getting to the International final held in Bonne and The Hague. Just sixteen at the time, Felipe says of the experience, “It is one of the things in my life I am most proud of!”
Juliette herself is convinced that debate has a crucial role in developing well-rounded individuals. “It helps to create confident, articulate, global citizens, who will hopefully put their skills to good use by working together to have a positive impact for the next generation,” she says.