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After 18 years of experience in the education system, debating is still one of the most effective ways for students apply their learning.
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Have you ever asked your
child after school, “What did you learn today?” and they reply with, “I don’t
know.” In your mind you hope they are just saying “I don’t know” because they
don’t feel like talking. But in reality, this “I don’t know” is real and much
of what children learn at school is not being retained. Educational research of
the last 10 years has advocated a set of declining percentages for just how
much students remember from year to year.
The model is called the “Learning Pyramid” and it is widely accepted
that students retain 5% of what they hear, 10% of what they read, 20% of what
they see, and 30% of what they see demonstrated by another person. The questions remains: What about the other 70%?
As a teacher of 18 years,
at some of Canada’s best independent schools and now completing my career as
Academic Director, I still find myself stepping back from the school day and
questioning “where is the learning here?” How can teaching professionals make
learning meaningful and have what children learn “stick”? In many cases, students default to the
age-old habits of hard work and well-developed study tools. The ultimate goal
for most students in Canada is admission to a good university and hopefully
the sound preparation for a successful career.
Education systems are built to facilitate this journey and inside the
schools, teachers aim to keep the learning meaningful and rigourous.
But does this always work?
Good teachers generally
check their classes, for understanding and retention, often with tests or
exams. We assume, that as students advance successfully to the next level, they
have learned something. But what if we
Feedback from the universities
themselves asks the same question. We, at
the secondary school level, track our graduates as far as second and third year
university – to ensure we are doing our job well. A common lament among the universities we
poll is that a number of undergraduates lack a true foundation. In sum, there
is a feeling in the universities that many students have advanced by figuring
out how to earn good marks, but when truly tested in either the university
seminar group, tutorial, or when the level of their analytical skills are put
to the test in writing, students are falling short.
I believe Canada’s best
teachers are constantly striving to ensure they do not produce graduates who
have mimicked knowledge and “played the system” for marks, but who have actually
“learned” and / or knowledgeable. The answer is not in harder exams, but in the
design of a learning experience that demands students to apply their knowledge;
to engage their learning at several points in the school day – not simply at
the end of a term.
In Ancient Greek times
this used to be in the form of a Socratic dialogue, where students at the
Academy would be questioned constantly in a kind of academic sparring with the
teacher – this was seen to sharpen the students’ minds. This ancient method of
learning still appears in the modern classroom in such forms as the inquiry
approach or Harkness table discussion / dialogue.
But after 18 years in the
system and seeing my graduates in most cases, thrive in university, I remain
convinced that one of the most rigourous and exciting ways to have students
apply their learning is debating. To bring traditional debate into the lives of
young people stands to provide an intensified learning experience – one kids
always remember - - and here’s why:
Debating asks student to
take a side – whether they believe in it or not. Immediately, they need to suspend their
subjective worldview and learn to construct a case or argument in favour (or
against) a topic. They need to access their learning - - with purpose. They
have to learn how to organize and prioritize information, align it with a
greater point, and ultimately make their learning make sense to an audience.
Perhaps best of all,
debating honours knowledge itself because it is a 2 way street: Too often in education, students are
acquiring knowledge and then putting it back on the page. In debating, students must not only present their
side, but they must listen effectively to their opponent’s points. This honours
the true aspect of knowledge itself - - that the further we develop an
understanding of something, the deeper we probe the depths of an argument by
accessing all of it’s possible sides, the closer we get to real knowledge - -
something philosophers call “the truth” of a subject. In real educational forums, it is clear this
level of learning is not achieved easily, and not achieved by simply taking in
knowledge from one source. Debating
engages students, right from the beginning, asking them to delve into the
opposing views and honour what is being said by countering it well. A sharpening of the mind indeed…
From Ancient Greek times
till today, debating stands to be among the richest, most rewarding
intellectual exercises young people can participate in. The universities also
recognize it, with accomplished high school debaters being among the most
sought after by leading universities - - largely because they have stood out
against their peers in the university setting demonstrating their educational
foundation is well-built. Moreover, as I
stand inside schools and listen to my students, I remain convinced that
debating, is one of those activities that guarantees learning is happening, and
According to the Learning
Pyramid, students retain 50% of what they learn if they can engage it in
discussion, 75% of it if they can practice in some form and 90% if given the
opportunity to teach it to others! So
next time you pick your child up from school, and ask that very general question “what did
you learn today? – don’t take “nothing” for an answer. Ask instead; “Any interesting conversations
today?” See what they say – and then
follow with, “So what do YOU think about that”
Prepare for an opposing view - - and then enjoy the debate! Ultimately, you are setting up a forum for
your young learner to teach you! Believe it or not, you are helping the
learning “stick” and perhaps even become more meaningful along the way.
Nick Szymanis is the founder and lead director of Debate Camp Canada. Debate camps are offered in Victoria, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax, and Seattle.
Nick is the founder and has been principle director of Debate Camp Canada since 2002. He has been a career educator for 18 years, inclusive of academic leadership positions at Havergal College in Toronto (2005 - 2010), Crofton House School in Vancouver (2000 - 2005) and most recently as Director of Academics at the Sterling Hall School in Toronto (2010 - 2015). Nick, his wife Oona and 2 sons Noah and Aaron live in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he currently coaches debating at Armbrae Academy and King's Edgehill School.
Two of my sons loved debate. They started in junior high and continued on through college which was paid for by debate scholarships! They are both very analytical and intelligent and I believe a large part of this is due to their debate experience. I totally agree with you that this program is a great one to get kids involved in. One more point - debate also gave them a group, a sense of belonging, and fun, like minded friends. Essential in the high school years.
Posted by Geanie M on Apr 15, 5:03 p.m. |
| Flag as abuse
But I'd still like the idea of Finland's new restructured educational system which is up-to-date. Good read: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/...
Posted by user_11650 on Apr 21, 5:35 p.m. |
| Flag as abuse
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