Debating as a pedagogical approach

November 08, 2023 08:42
Photo: Reuters

Those who know me would know that I have long been a fervent advocate of promoting competitive debating – in both English and Chinese – across China, including, of course, in Hong Kong. Yet debating is more than just an activity and a past time – it is fundamentally, a way of thinking, a way of life, and an ethos in education.

Now the skeptic may ask: can we really teach using debating? How applicable and transferable are the skills involved in both teaching, and practicing debate? How can we adequately and competently incorporate debating into our teaching repertoire, as educators, teachers, and academics? More generally speaking, how can we transform debating from an after-school or extracurricular activity into something of lasting, enduring substance and influence?

There are several facets to my answer. In short, there are three prongs to my argument that debating should and must be taken as a central component of education, at schools and in universities.

Firstly, it is imperative that students are encouraged to ask, as opposed to merely answer, questions. Question-based dialogues should comprise the bulwark of teaching experiences, with students offered the tools, space, and room to experiment with different angles at attacking the same issue, through trial and error. No question, save from deliberately obtuse or rancorously unreasonable ones, should be deemed out-of-bound. The teacher, in turn, should seek to leverage questions as starting points for further topics and angles of enquiry – thereby fostering a climate where questions are answered with (constructive) questions.

The platonic ideal of debating demonstrates fully the virtues and value of question-asking. The ideal debate education relies heavily upon participants’ willingness to listen to, and interact with others’ viewpoints – not by dismissing and misconstruing them from the get-go, but by charitably interpreting and responding to the best versions of the other side’s claims. Of course, there are real life debates where the questions put to participants inevitably descend into vitriol and smearing. But we can and should seek to rise above the fray, as educators.

Secondly, students should have their horizons ‘opened’ to the fundamental proposition: that all reasonable and convincing responses to arguments can and should be rewarded, not just because of their truth-values in their own right, but also because they reflect a degree of sincerity and earnestness in how these individuals are approaching distinctive viewpoints. It is one thing to know that [X is true.], and to offer detailed analysis concerning why this is plausible. It is another to know that [X is true, despite Y.], and make sense of how X fits into the bigger picture of A, B, and C.

For instance, in planning for one of my lectures – concerning the ethics of AI and surveillance – I would advise my students to reflect upon the different dimensions and elements involved in surveillance. There is the monitoring and observing (which may well undermine the privacy rights of individuals); there is the subtle yet important adjustment of behaviours, what some would term ‘self-policing’ or ‘performativity’, in response to the possibility of being observed and tracked. And then there is the overarching question of what happens to the data and information collected. These dimensions come together in shaping and contributing towards the vast power and leverage of those who wield surveillance – especially when conducted with algorithms and Big Data as assisting tools – consciously or subconsciously over surveilled subjects.

To answer questions concerning the ethics of AI-based surveillance, without making references to the Panopticon (Bentham), to the dangers of granting one’s state and bureaucratic apparatus excess access to one’s personal information, to real-life examples of surveillance-based and -caused rights transgressions under an unaccountable judicial system, would be a tragic neglect. Such knowledge pigeonholing and silo-ing are precisely the malaise that debating can resolve. By inviting students to debate the merits and demerits of the application of AI to CCTV and security systems, we can equip them with the ability to think more robustly about the connections between seemingly disparate, but fundamentally mutually reinforcing spheres of knowledge and insights. Teaching holistically, as one should coach debating, would require one to bring in a range of contexts and frameworks, and highlight how they intersect and interact with one another.

This ties me onto the final point here. Debating is a confidence-boosting exercise.

Note, ‘confidence’ here does not refer simply or purely to the extrinsic, or the post hoc presentation of viewpoints. It also maps onto the quality of intrinsic self-reassurance, the willingness to take intellectual risks and articulate ideas that may contravene orthodoxy.

At the core of debating lies a conviction that is rather central to any sound, decent education system: the willingness to embrace and acknowledge – indeed, thrive upon the basis of – the fact that two individuals can hold radically divergent views on a particular matter, and both be perfectly entitled to their views, so long as they can justify them. Intellectual confidence – self-confidence, more precisely – without hubris, is the aspirational ideal of both debating, and education at large.

In de-personalising – where possible and valuable – discussions, in rendering the identities and circumstances of the individuals secondary in importance to the rigour and quality of argumentation and refutation, debating liberates us from the shackles, at least as much as is possible, of our socioeconomic, religious-cultural, and political backgrounds. It encourages us to think dexterously, but not nihilistically; it reinforces the importance and value of pluralism, without compelling us to uncritically embrace relativism.

When it comes to education systems at large, it falls upon the teacher in question here to identify and platform the very best of their students – to not be afraid to call out mistakes and misconceptions, but also to not be reticent in praising elements of their students who have something valuable to say. For this is by far the best means of affirming the agency and possibility for students to be active and capable knowers in their own right.

I firmly believe that debating has a core role to play in the classroom – and this applies beyond merely the university, the high school, and the primary school. Indeed, let us take classroom as a metaphor for how knowledge transfers occur in life, and debating a key means of augmenting and broadening our understanding of knowledge exchange.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU