Beyond the classroom: Using debates as a learning tool

In December last year, roughly 400 students participated in group activities that involved debates, with themes centred on development. Twenty-four mentors were there to help them. The exercise took place at New Life Christian Academy in Kayonza. Participants were from around the East African region and coaches were debate mentors from the United States of America.

Some of the coaches included; 


• Jean Michel Habineza, Co-founder and CEO of iDebate Rwanda.


• Chris Baron - Founder of Baltimore Urban Debate League.


• Dr Benjamin Voth - Author and Director of Debate at Southern Methodist University - Texas (USA).

• Beth Skinner - Former Director of Debate at Towson University, Maryland (USA).

• Ryan Wash - Director of Debate at Weber State University, Utah (USA).

iDebate Rwanda is a non-profit organisation that aims at teaching students how to think critically, solve problems creatively and have a positive impact on communities. They organise similar events every end of the year and inter-school monthly tournaments.

According to iDebate, though there is still sluggishness regarding debating camps and debates in general, the personal and intellectual benefits derived from being part of a debate team can top the learning that takes place in a regular classroom.

“A lot of students tell me that after a debate, their writing skills improve dramatically,” says Wash, also a volunteer during the camp. 

“They can learn to think for themselves and articulate a point of view in a logical, rational, thoughtful way. In a classroom, students do not necessarily get a chance to articulate their point of view.”

Why should we embrace debates?

For starters, experts say, debates create leaders. The development of leadership in a democratic society has a very direct relationship to the art of debate.  One becomes a leader by moulding public opinion to support a given course of action, not by dictating such an action.  This involves the ability to pinpoint the critical issues of the day, and the willingness to apply oneself to the task of research in order to assemble all considerations bearing upon those issues. 

Skinner, who was in Rwanda for the camp, believes that there is a strong correlation between participation in debate and the attainment of positions of leadership in society, taking an example from her home. 

Debate tests and builds ability by forcing students to see both sides of issues. Net photo.

“A survey of 160 senators, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices, and Cabinet members, and other leaders in the US revealed that 100 of the leaders said high school or college debate experience was helpful in their careers, and 80 classified the experience as ‘greatly helpful’ or ‘invaluable’. Of the 60 who did not have debate experience, 16 expressed regret that they had not gone out for the debating teams while in high school or college.”

Additionally, clergy, professors, academic administrators, lawyers, judges, doctors, business leaders and others report that debate teaches critical skills, and that those skills were an important part of their ultimate success.    

She asserts that it requires the ability to apply logic, rather than emotion and prejudice, to the assembled data, the courage to accept the decisions thus indicated, and the ability to present the opinions developed in ways as to persuade others to a like point of view, which is all learned through debates.

Debate raises student grades

Jean Michel Habineza is the co-founder and CEO of iDebate Rwanda and the 2016 Public Advocate of the Year, an award administered by Cross- Examination Debate Association — the largest inter-collegiate debate association in the US.

He witnesses in a very direct way, how many underachieving students, once involved in debate become better academic performers.

“I have seen tremendous improvements of learners who were mastering debate here. This is justified by the fact that as long as students are engaged in debates, they get used to carrying out researches and embrace a culture of reading which will enhance them in their normal studies,” adds Habineza says.

Critical thinking

The hardest business in the world is critical thinking. A student can go through an entire academic course without doing any original thinking.  Learning what is in a book and what a teacher says is not thinking. As Dr Voth, one of the coaches, says, “Thinking consists in hewing out for oneself new lines of thought - new to the thinker, not necessarily new to the entire world.” 

Jerry Minega, from Riviera High School, attributes his enhanced public speaking skills to reading and debating.

“I have improved my critical thinking, communication and analytical skills in front of great audiences, but the ultimate achievement has been being able to address the problems of my country through speaking out my mind,” Minega says.

It also boosts critical thinking and reasoning; which learners need to be equipped with in this current competency-based curriculum, students confirm.

Also, debate bridges the gap between academic life and the outside world. Job recruiters say that the ability to speak efficiently is a big plus when considering a candidate.

“Anyone joining the job market today needs to be able to communicate with clarity, to articulate ideas, to reason, to separate key facts from the barrage of ideas we all are exposed to every day.  “No single activity can prepare one better than debating — the ability to think on one’s feet, to form conclusions rapidly, to answer questions logically and with clarity, to summarise ideas, are all processes which forensics activity develop”, adds Dr Voth.

According to Ian Musinguzi, the camp director, Rwanda being a country that is trying to promote the use of English, through such debates, learners have a chance to express their views, do research and present logical arguments in English, which promotes language proficiency.

Among the drawbacks, Habineza says, is that the mind-set that debates are for students who have majored in arts only is still alive in our communities. It is crucial for anyone who plans to be in the job market to attend these trainings.

Great public speakers, like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, were proficient debaters in their high schools. Locally, the first four winners of the Miss Rwanda beauty pageant had passed through these trainings, which enabled them to express themselves confidently.

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