5.2 Task: Critical Thinking through Debating

  • During the teacher workshop in May 2021, teachers from Italy introduced their colleagues from Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands and Cyprus to the World Schools Style Debating Format. 


    More info about World Schools Debates: https://wsdcdebate.org/about-wsdc


    Teachers formed two teams to try out the debating style themselves. They chose to debate the pros and cons of the propostion below online. To give you an impression of the debate, here is the opening speech of the opposition:



    "This House thinks that all school paper books should be substituted with open source / freeware digital education tools by 2030, according to U.N. Sustainable Development Goals 4, 10, 12 et 13".


    Opening Speech (Opposition)

    The central contention of the opposition today is that, while there are doubtless positives to be drawn from integrating digital education tools into teaching, the proposition is taking an extreme position that is not just unnecessary but also harmful in any attempt to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    Before addressing our arguments, a single point of rebuttal must be made. While Wikipedia is doubtless a source of value, the proposition today have used a single example to attempt to claim that we should then get rid of every single printed book in all the schools around the world. Needless to say, this is a rather tenuous basis to make such an extreme proposition. The proposition will now show that this tenuous basis supports an even more tenuous proposition.

    Goal number 4 demands the inclusive and equitable quality education of all persons, and so our first argument will treat of the fact that banning all paper books by 2030 will necessarily condemn many to an education that is both of lower quality and in many cases less accessible than it would be if at least some paper were retained.

    Linked to this, Goal number 10 demands that inequalities between persons and nations be reduced. Again, we will show that the abolition of paper books is not only a step towards this, but will in fact move us away from a more equal world.

    Goal number 12 demands sustainable production and consumption patterns, while Goal 13 demands urgent action to combat climate change. Now, much has been made of the environmental benefits of moving to digital education tools. Our second argument will expose this to be largely fallacious, and prove that depending on circumstances, it is likely that digitalisation will only fuel dangerously unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, furthered by the illusory veneer of the simple equation that if 1 tablet can house 1000 books, then surely owning a tablet is good for the environment. A truism that you will soon see is simply not true.

    Finally, we will show that the retention of paper is the wisest policy not simply because of our care for the health of our planet, but also because of our care for the wellbeing of students of all ages. Our third argument will explain the many ways in which excessive digitalisation tends to worsen the health of those in education.

    Again, I reiterate, that the opposition today – unlike the proposition – has no interest in calling for the abolition of anything. Unlike the proposition, we – in line with one of the guiding tenets of the UN – are inclusive. Wherever it can be shown that a digital education tool can improve the quality of education of a student, we are absolutely in favour of its use. We, the opposition, believe that the place of one kind of tool or another within education must be judged meritocratically, eschewing blanket policies that tend to exclude and limit rather than include and expand. 

    On this note, I turn to our first argument: that the retention of paper works to ensure a higher quality, more inclusive, more equal standard of education. 

    First, let us look at the specific terms of the proposition, which wishes to replace every single paper book with not just digital resources, but open-source/freeware sources. This would be an admirable idea in the name of equality and inclusivity, were it at all feasible that in only 9 years, open-source publishing would reach a point at which not only all the currently printed material will be available, but also that quality assurance and publication standards will have reached the levels that it has taken print publication the best part of half a millennium to achieve. Doubtless, in 9 years, there will be some tremendous open-source resources available. We say use them! – Provided that the digital means are available to your students, which our later arguments will suggest is unlikely to be the case in many parts of the globe. By all means, if they’re good, use them. But who can guarantee that a sector whose slow growth has been the subject of much study and concern will be able to overcome the obstacles that have reduced open-access publishing to only about a quarter of the publishing market between 2009 and 2018, with almost no rise in that percentage over the decade studied? We put it to you that there is no way that the proposition can suggest that the coming decade will see a shift that the previous decade shows no indication of. Therefore, to stand here today and agree to the abolition of paper books by 2030 can only put the overall quality of educational resources available to our students at great risk. And, let me say again, this is a pointless risk. A risk that is unnecessary and with no reward. If a digital resource is good, use it. If it is good in 2021, use it in 2021. If it is good in 2030, use it in 2030. But paper books have been good for 571 years, and we suggest that at least some of them will still be good in another 9 years. So use them. In 2021, in 2030, and for however long they contribute to the highest quality of education we can provide those students in our charge.

    But, while we are all in favour of using technological tools if and when they are good, there is much to suggest that they are often not very good at all. Digital learning tools often market themselves as interactive, with the implication that traditional methods including paper books are not. Frankly, the idea that jabbing at a glass screen is more interactive than writing on a sheet of paper or speaking to a human being next to me suggests a rather horrifying definition of the word interactive. A good teacher can and should make any lesson interactive, no matter what tools he/she is using. A bad teacher can make a room full of a thousand ipads just as dull as a room full of textbooks has ever been. Digital tools are no panacea, and nothing has ever proven that they produce greater educational outcomes than what are now rather condescendingly called traditional methods.

    This is before we consider inclusivity. It is frankly astonishing that anyone can believe that suggesting that schools and/or students must invest in a device constructed from expensive, often rare, often exploitatively produced resources, and that schools around the world must invest in extensive and often preventatively expensive digital infrastructure, is putting forward an inclusive or egalitarian proposition. If, in an ideal world where every school possessed a reliable and high speed internet network, and could employ IT technicians to maintain and operate it, and where every child could afford to buy a tablet with a deliberately finite life-span, someone were to put forward the proposition’s proposal, then perhaps we might be able to countenance it. Unfortunately, given the vast digital divide that exists between more developed and less developed countries, as well as the huge income inequalities that would only be exacerbated by imposing the financial burdens inherent in the kind of digitalisation the proposition needs to make their proposal workable, it is clear to see that banning paper books does more harm than good in pursuit of UN goals 4 and 10.

    Simon Demetriou


    Critical Thinking through Debate in the Classroom?

    After the debate, teachers discussed possible benefits and concerns if using this debating format to inspire criticial thinking in their students. Here are some of there ideas: 

    Biases play a crucial role in the creation of information and need to be discussed with students if we want our students to be able to identify irrelevant and reliable statistics. Therefore, a teacher needs to help them realise that with relevant material and exercises provided before the debate takes place.

    - The collaborative aspect of the debate makes team members accountable for a critical attitude towards fact-checking. The whole debate format contains the elements of being precise (otherwise you will be held accountable) and arguing critically (so that you can hold other people accountable for).

    Fact-checking and to combat disinformation. From experience, teenagers are not equipped to critically assess the reliability of the sources they have access to, especially in an area in which social media contain a body of arguably unreliable information. For truth information, teachers need to give guidance to students by providing them with examples of good source,s such as governmental websites, non-profit organizations and the like.

    - Students need to be taught how to spot potential lies or unreliable examples if an appropriate debate wants to be held on both sides, otherwise a skilled team can masterfully trick the other party into believing information which is false.

    - From previous experience, it can be argued that it may be important to “untrain” students who are experienced with a debate format, as they tend to see any argument as a competition and thus just an opportunity for winning. Some “aggressive” attitude towards their willingness to win at all costs can be a side-effect of not teaching our debaters of the fact that what we are doing during a school debate is a simulation/game and not always representative of how we should debate in real life. It is a handy skill to be able to adopt and endorse a position that you do not need to agree with. However, it should not become a habit a student develops just for the sake of winning a competition.

    It can be argued that a debate may lead to a more aggressive exchange of ideas given that the hidden goal is to spot weaknesses in the other party. During just a discussion, a more productive conversation can arguably be carried out. We should see debating and discussing as two different exercises that can be beneficial to one another. We need to stress when it is appropriate to debate and when it is appropriate to discuss.