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Students need to learn how to debate. And here’s why

Over the last few days I have been ‘trolled’ and bullied online for an article I wrote about the problems of seeking ‘truth’ on social media platforms. It is an ongoing debate I’ve had with students and it can cause quite a bit of ‘positive tension’ in the classroom too – a good feature of debate, I think. It’s a long story; I was inspired to write it by a couple of incidents I’d come across on social media. As we know with the media in general, a comment can now make something go viral, which in turn can elicit Chinese whispers.

As much as these whispers fade into the background, I draw attention to them as they also play a major role in where we find and seek knowledge and truth. In essence, the way we share and engage with social media can encourage debate, but it doesn’t necessarily help people learn how to have a debate. Luckily, all of my ex-students and many others who read the article understood the points I was making immediately (they learn well!). However, a couple of people didn’t – incidentally, I have strong suspicion they didn’t read beyond the headline.

We live in an age of fast communication, headlines and 15 second videos (or now a 30 second reel) and I strongly believe as much as they may have merit and some of course are factual and based on truth, many are not. In my conversations with young people recently, we discussed the need to read and look beyond the headline and as much as many people do, the treatment of my article suggested they don’t always and that’s dangerous.

You could say, ‘that’s obvious, Zahara,’ and I agree; it is obvious. It’s been happening for years, so why address it now? Perhaps the authority of social media platforms is just a mere replacement of the printing press. But, with information and knowledge being so readily and instantly available on social channels and life being so busy, the noise that is created shuts off opportunities for debate, discussion and just simple perspective.

I struggle to sometimes see what has authority, authenticity and truth. I like to question statistics (only sometimes, data isn’t a strength!). Likes, shares and followings almost equate to market value for so many, and I just think, like with MANY THINGS, it’s something to question and discuss. Equally, the act of putting your opinion ‘out there’ has become scary for this very reason too.

As much as I stand by my writing and my point of view, the incident left me feeling quite vulnerable. I’d say I’m still visibly shaken. Thinking about what’s important to me beyond the professional space, I asked for the article to be removed. I’m angry at myself now for doing that, because effectively the act has silenced what I think we need in our culture and society: healthy debate and discussion. If we are to nurture generations of ethical, cultured, moral, brave, responsibly untamed individuals, we need to teach students how to have a discussion, how to debate.

It’s unfair to expect teachers and schools to cover debating skills in a few lessons here and there, a competition or a focus day. Now that speaking and listening isn’t a piece of coursework or a compulsory option it has become something schools would love to do more of on an already crowded curriculum. Sadly, exams end up winning. Equally, all students are thrown into classroom dynamics they may not be comfortable with.

The recurring theme here is that there is less and less time to nurture a culture of learning (in this case, discussion and debate) that is necessary in the current climate.

When I came across this debate pyramid posted by Educational Consultant, David Howard, in his group Ethics in Education, I honestly couldn’t have seen it at a better time. My article would fall under ‘counter argument’, as it was offering another perspective (with research and ‘facts to support my piece). Several of the responses I received would fall under ‘Ad Hominem,’ aka, online bullying, in the manner social media enables. Now that I have had time to reflect, they pretty much proved the point I was making in my piece:

The beauty of social media can be drowned out by petty comments, online bullying and misunderstanding. It’s cut throat, harsh and can become unnecessarily personal…maybe there is a lesson in that too.

School Should Be, my little platform, is evolving. I’ve only just started! I’m trying to elicit debate and show young people there are ‘healthy’ ways to talk about what you want to talk about, even if it’s a ‘tricky’ topic. None of us may have the answers and some of us may not have an interest in finding them. We may disagree, we may agree, we may just…well, we may just ‘nothing!’ We may get upset and offended from time to time. We may need to log off and start again tomorrow as Glennon Doyle so wonderfully says. But discussion is an art. It is something to learn. It’s not an attack, it’s not a threat, it’s not bullying or gossip. It’s just a discussion.

Are there some topics or ‘things’ which lend themselves to the latter? Yes. Does it mean they shouldn’t be discussed or addressed? I don’t know, I guess I need a real-time debate with other views and opinions to discuss it.

I have always, always learned best through discussing, reading and writing. It’s what makes me happy, what makes me find my voice and for me, has always led to a successful workplace and classroom culture. In fact, I think it’s what I loved most about my students and I’d like to believe they respected the space I created for it.

Does it help me in other, practical ways? Of course! From interviews to talking to ‘strangers’ and striking a conversation…and dealing with nasty things like online bullying. Students, you would be pleasantly (sometimes unpleasantly) surprised where a discussion can lead. It’s what so many of those motivational mantras call ‘growth’ (cringe).

My network widens my realm of debating. There are people in my network from all walks of life, so many different experiences, views, cultures, backgrounds and so on. I absolutely love it. As much as I loved my career in teaching, I clearly wanted more discussion, learning beyond the rules and realms of the curriculum and the timetable, and I really wanted to take my students with me.

I asked an ex-student recently why she appreciated my teaching and what I can do more. She told me, ‘you’re down to earth and on our level. We look to you for the stepping stones. You’re not Victorian. We look to you for how you were able to overcome things. You benefit from us and we benefit from you. It’s a mutual relationship.’

And that’s exactly what School Should Be will be. A place for mutual, healthy, respectful relationships. A place where students can feel safe, confident and vulnerable all at the same time. A place they can laugh, chat and I hope learn something too. A place of stepping stones with the support of my amazing network. And now, it’s time to show generation Z and beyond how to do it.

Side note, all I want to do is tell the online bullies (I don’t care who you are) to stay in your lane and **** off. Yes, I know, I’m in the ‘red zone.’ I’m only human after all!


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