Debating is a skill that can be learned with practice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 November, 2014, 10:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 November, 2014, 10:56am

"When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser," Socrates said. This quotation is a favourite of a friend of mine who is a native English-speaking teacher (NET) colleague and fellow debating coach.

It is a proverbial piece of wisdom which has come to haunt us in Hong Kong in the light of recent civic events. Yet it underscores the importance of debating as a tool of communication, civil discourse and rational argument.

The good news is that debating has been taking off as an extra-curricular activity and a topic of study for Hong Kong students. This is in many ways a by-product of the drive towards the New Secondary School Syllabus (NSS).

Debating is one of the elective subjects in NSS English. Some schools have elected to teach debating units which are, in the final analysis, used to answer questions for English language papers in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination.

These units have also become a part of the school-based assessment programme. For practical assessments, it has been both instructive and heart-warming to see inter-class debates in English taking place on real topics of concern to Hong Kong in the classroom.

This would have been unthinkable back in 1998 when NETs first arrived in Hong Kong, and the syllabus was much more rigidly constrained.

School-based assessment has, however, put a premium on experiential learning and students have increased their oral communication skills in English through participating in debating units.

They learn how to sort information and how to prioritise arguments. They learn which are the most relevant and important pieces of information for their arguments and which are supporting pieces of data.

It is therefore no accident that many students who are now in legal studies programmes at Hong Kong universities are graduates from secondary school debating programmes in English. In addition, many young lawyers, legal executives and paralegals in Hong Kong, are also former Hong Kong secondary school English debaters.

I am also proud to say that many of the above are, furthermore, alumni of the large English language debating competition run by the Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association.

Hong Kong youth's positive experiences with English debating programmes dovetail with what American researcher, Gary Fine has called "gifted tongues" and "gifted minds", promoted by participating in English language debating at both primary and secondary school levels.

One pleasing feature of the Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association debating programme has been that over the last three years, the primary school part of the competition has become firmly established.

Given that debating is such a potentially rich and rewarding experience for the youth of Hong Kong, it is scarcely surprising that my NET colleagues and I have chosen to become so involved with running it. The Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association, as an organisation, has also recommended and fostered debating as an activity since the inception of the NET scheme in 1998.

When NETs first arrived in Hong Kong, debating tended to be the exclusive preserve of the elite schools and at the very least the English-medium institutions.

The Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association was anxious to democratise debating and involve a wider catchment of schools and students. As a result, there has been a push to introduce debating into lower-band and/or Chinese-medium schools.

It has been heartening to see some of the best results over the past 16 years of the Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association competition coming from these 'salt of the earth' Chinese-medium schools. It seems that all the students needed to improve their English speaking was opportunity and encouragement.

The Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association English debating competition is the largest and most diverse in Hong Kong. For the contest this academic year, there are at least eight divisions to suit English medium schools, Chinese middle schools, and different student age groups.

It is not the actual contest which is the most important feature, but rather, the learning of the English language that takes place along the way.

Who knows? A student who is part of a team of school debaters today may be the chief justice of Hong Kong tomorrow.

Perry Bayer is secretary of the Native English-Speaking Teachers' Association