Why school debating in Israel really matters

But then team spirit helps the students regain their composure, and they just go on stage and do it.

THE WINNING Ankori team. ‘Unlike ordinary debating tournaments, the Debating Matters format puts an emphasis on substance, not just rhetoric and style.’ (photo credit: ODED KARNI)
THE WINNING Ankori team. ‘Unlike ordinary debating tournaments, the Debating Matters format puts an emphasis on substance, not just rhetoric and style.’
(photo credit: ODED KARNI)
It is Wednesday, April 13, 2016, and we are at the National Library in Givat Ram, Jerusalem. It has just been announced that our team from the Ankori School in Jerusalem has made it to the finals of the English-language Debating Matters (DM) Israel tournament in which we were competing all day against 10 other Israeli schools, Jewish and Arab. The thrilled students are preparing to go on stage, only to find out they have prepared to speak for the wrong side of the motion. For three horrifying minutes it seems like a colossal disaster, as one of the speakers runs outside with tears in her eyes. Even our opponents from the Branco Weiss Rabin High School in Hadera are sympathetic.
But then team spirit helps the students regain their composure, and they just go on stage and do it.
And they win! It all started with an email I received from competition coordinator Joel Cohen last year, inviting our school to take part in the pilot of DM Israel. As the English coordinator, I receive dozens of emails per day and most of them are tedious, but this one immediately caught my attention. Founded in 2002 by the Institute of Ideas (IoI), DM is a national sixth-form debating competition involving nearly 300 schools from around the UK, and has also been operating successfully in India since 2008.
Following its success abroad and with the support of the Anglo-Israel Association, the organizers decided to bring the competition to Israel as well and see how Israeli students coped with stating their strong opinions in a civilized manner that does not include shouting.
Unlike ordinary debating tournaments, the DM format puts an emphasis on substance, not just rhetoric and style. The participants have one month to prepare their showcase on given contemporary key issues such as civics, science and society, and are judged by a panel of specialists from a wide range of professional backgrounds.
The competition is open to basically everyone, including schools with a long tradition of debating and those with no experience at all.
Well, no debating experience at all is something we definitely had, and I jumped on the opportunity and registered. Unfortunately when I broke the news to my students they were not as keen and I had to work hard to persuade them this was a good thing.
The fact I had to talk them into it has to do with how studying is perceived by the average Israeli teenager: a boring burden that they have to carry through their adolescence, a series of tests they have to pass without seeing a point to it, and a bunch of papers they need to get over with by the time they turn 18.
To add a debating competition to their to-do list was just adding more weight to the heavy load they were already struggling with, therefore most of them simply refused to cooperate, and the ones who said yes only did it because I begged them to.
Every student in Israel knows why English matters.
It is the global language and they all agree they must learn it to maximize their future possibilities. However not all Israeli students know that learning it doesn’t have to be torture. Entering DM has completely turned my students’ views around, not because they liked studying all of a sudden, but because they were having fun. Building their arguments, conducting thorough research on the topics and preparing their presentations was something they did to impress the judges, audience and the opposing team. Forming intelligent questions was something they did in order to fail their rivals. Winning the battles last year has brought them confidence and pride – but not for one moment during that entire process did they realize they were learning.
Truly, seriously, learning; or that they were speaking English the whole time.
This is why debating matters to language and this is why it matters to education. Because forcing students to write a 120-word opinion essay in their matriculation exam on some random “surprise” topic is, and forever will be, an excruciating task that does not begin to scratch the surface of their abilities. Why would they even want to explore their abilities or stretch them, when they are finally judged by a faceless entity that gives them a number? DM gives them the opportunity for constant feedback on their performance, as the judges take the time to explain at length to each individual contestant why they did or didn’t do well, and how they can improve. Each of the opening statements they wrote, and re-wrote and pondered and polished was a finer opinion essay than they could ever formulate on a test, because they were craving feedback and because they cared about it.
Last year’s DM changed the atmosphere in the classroom and its echo continued to resonate in the following months, so much so that our network of schools decided to have an English-language debating tournament involving all campuses. I can honestly say that the willingness of the pupils to learn English has turned into a passion.
They were asking about DM2016 already in September, and lining up to take part in it. The ones who were chosen to represent the school took their role seriously and were extremely proud in the knowledge they accumulated.
Tom Ashkenazi Naim (18) said: “For the first time you are really praised and rewarded for doing this thing you love.”
His fellow student Eran Roi (17) remarked: “As students in the Israeli educational system, Debating Matters was able to provide us with a challenging task of thinking on our feet and answering questions that we had not prepared for, making us think for ourselves.”
David Roiterstein (17) said: “This competition taught all of us what we are willing to do to be the best we can be.”
And Or Halperin (18) added: “I believe winning was only the second-best prize. Us sticking as a team from start to finish and having each other’s backs through and through – that’s the best prize we get from this competition.”
Indeed, placing first in the 2016 tournament has uplifted their spirit, a considerable achievement we must not underestimate – but the broadening of their minds and horizons is the achievement they will probably never talk about, and the one that really counts.
The writer, known as Trixie, is an English teacher and coordinator at the Ankori School in Jerusalem, where she also teaches drama and media.