I spent about six hours yesterday putting together a debating activity to run at Teddington School today. I practiced my introductory lecture exactly once, at 11:30 PM last night. I had no idea whether or not it was going to work.
I opened with a 12-minute talk on the merits and difficulties of unmanned and manned spaceflight. (The UK doesn’t presently have a manned spaceflight programme.) The teacher and I divided the class arbitrarily into two teams, one that would argue in favour of a manned spaceflight programme, and one against. I gave each team some material I’d prepared. Each side got a sheet of potential points they could make to support their argument. The “No” side got a sheet about nanosatellites and how cheaply and quickly they can be built and launched (and also how much science they can do). The “Yes” side got a bit of propaganda from the British Interplanetary Society, which wants the UK to fund manned spaceflight, and a list of NASA’s top 20 spinoff technologies from spaceflight.
We gave the students 15-20 minutes to elect one or two representative(s) and formulate an argument. We went round the groups and made sure everyone was contributing a point that their representative could use in the debate. Each representative had two to three minutes to speak and then we went through a couple cycles of rebuttal before the “independent observer” (the teacher) declared one side the winner.
We ran this activity in three different classes, two of Year 10 students (14 years old) and one of Year 9 students (13 years old).
Some points that impressed me:
- First of all, I must say the vast difference between age 13 and age 14 was a revelation to me. Both classes of Year 10s followed the rules of debating almost instinctively. They knew how to focus their efforts and work as a team. Although they got pretty excited, they never became disorganized. The Year 9s, on the other hand, were rather more chaotic. We eventually forged something that vaguely resembled a sensible debate, but we had to put up with a lot of shouting and not very much listening for every minute or so of actual communication.
- Second, nearly all of the Year 10 representatives were self-possessed and articulate to a degree I wasn’t expecting. The second group, the one with the irascible teacher that I wrote about during my last visit, turned out to be phenomenal overall. (Said teacher was also the best assistant amongst the three and gave the students useful feedback at the end.)
- Third, all except one of the representatives were male, even though the girls contributed actively to the group discussions.
- Fourth, the second group of Year 10s told me they’d pestered their teacher about whether or not I was really coming back today. ♥
- Fifth, the first teacher told me she was pleased to have the debating activity demonstrated by me because teachers are being encouraged to do more lessons in that style. However, no one’s bothering to give them any training in it. Then I told her I’d never done it before, and she almost collapsed with laughter.
- Sixth, I’m so going back to do another activity with those Year 10s for National Science Week in March.
- Seventh, Year 7s (age 10) are much too young to sit through even a twenty-minute lecture on measuring magnetic fields in space. I don’t think I’ll try doing a lesson for a group of students that young again, unless I meet their teacher in advance and have guarantees that they’re a relatively calm bunch and that the teacher has firm control over the classroom.
- Eighth, British teenagers are incredibly pragmatic. Although most of them wanted to be astronauts, the “No” side of the debate won two out of the three times. The “Yes” team of Year 9s won, but only because they were marginally better at debating, not because the content of their argument was superior. In the first class, we had a vote on whether anyone had been converted from the “No” side to the “Yes” side. No one had. Then we voted on whether anyone had been converted from the “Yes” side to the “No” side. Four people had, including the boy who’d given the most compelling argument in favour. Much as they’d like to try it, they honestly don’t believe their country has the resources to fund manned spaceflight.
- Lastly, I adore doing this. I don’t think I want to be a teacher because I couldn’t sustain this level of energy for eight hours a day five days a week. But I do want to visit a school a couple of times each term to run outreach activities.