03 November 2010

Teaching Debating

As JET Programme participants, we're employed to teach oral English. For many JETs this seems to involve conducting lessons on a number of key topics: food, hobbies, careers etc. They teach vocabulary and get the students to practice using it in a real situation, like ordering food at a restaurant. As it happens though, I don't do that at all. I mostly teach debating.

This is only possible because of the really high level of my students..they are absolute ledges all of them! Thus it would be pretty pointless conducting lessons on key topics because they already know all the vocab and probably more about English grammar than I do! My JTEs never asked me to use a book for teaching or to follow any set curriculum. I was left with the opportunity to teach whatever I wanted..so I decided it was best to play to my strengths. Some super-insightful JTEs even said that they wanted to try debating, talk about being in the right school at the right time!

There are several reasons why teaching debating works..it involves speaking English of course, English which can be as complicated or as simple as the students want. Often they surprise me by coming out with vocabulary that I had no idea they knew. For example, there's a debating warm-up game that we play with first (15-16) and second (16-17) years. We clear away the desks and designate sides of the room as agree and disagree. Then I read out sentences and they move to express their opinion. Finally, we ask some students why they agree or disagree. One sentence I use is 'Students should not wear school uniforms'. Typically, Japanese students disagree with this. First years say things like: It is convenient or It costs less money. Second years use more complicated English: It teaches us group identity. The advantage is that the students we call on can use whatever English they have to answer.

The second reason why debating works, is that it gently encourages students to act as individuals. During the above game, the same class who had collectively chosen to disagree with the sentence about uniforms, were suddenly split down the middle when I read 'The U.S. military should leave Okinawa'. Friends had heated discussions before parting ways in the middle of the room...a deprival of group identity and participation in the culture of the English-speaking world, individuality! The first kind of debating we taught was Impromptu. We graded the speeches on a number of criteria, one of which was 'expression of opinion'. For every point they made in a speech they had to give a reason, no blindly agreeing with popular opinion because it's popular..what do YOU think?

The final advantage of debating as I see it, is that it guides students toward critical thinking. Ok, so maybe it's time I took off my college hat..but I honestly think that it's a pretty crucial life-skill and people should be introduced to it as early as possible. After Impromptu, the students graduate to British Parliamentary Debating. This is the point at which I struggle to explain terms like principle analysis and model definition to the JTE...and that's before the lesson even begins! In the end, the students incredible English has saved the day thus-far. They knew the word 'abstract', which helped me cut some dark, translation-filled corners. Then came the gasps of 'Eeeehhhhhh' when I revealed that we'd need to ask WHY? at least 3 times for each point in BP. Lights, camera, critical thinking.

Maybe it should worry me that only one out of three 'debating rocks' points mention English, but it doesn't! The students get their English practice in. Seeing as I'm under-qualified to improve their language skills, I might as well improve their communication. After all, what's the point of speaking English if you can't use it to engage in real discussion?

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