Silent Debating

I learnt early on last year to use the word silence, over the word quiet, when I wanted just that. No confusion there: “Silence please” (pleadingly).  Job done.  However, alongside my requirement for silence to give instruction, general knowledge, facts about me or more importantly before I let them leave my humble abode I have often spent an hour asking my classes to do the opposite: to talk, debate, discuss, work together, move mouths.

This nonsensical introduction makes it sound like the lesson I’ve been asked to share was planned. It wasn’t. The rest of Friday was planned precociously: with probably a ‘detrimental to learning’ amount of new things and exciting ideas. As my other lessons had been nauseatingly exciting I did feel a bit bad that I hadn’t planned for year 8s’ excitement too. Instead, I had planned a lesson debating along an opinion line from one side of the classroom to another. This meant moving tables, possibly ribbon and a lot of the loudest kids getting their opinion across. All in all it was Friday period 5 and under the laws of pity you have to forgive my lapse in originality.

Therefore, as my unsuitably early students bounded in to the room on Friday afternoon I changed my mind a little. Quite simply, I recycled an idea from one of our wonderful Geography teachers @haydocklynns83 which I had seen the previous day. I had seen it written on a table at a great meeting of minds for teachers who are interested in taking risks in their classrooms (see MB Learning Blog).

I’ll be honest, I think of sky diving and eating burgers from Tesco when I say ‘risk’ but I do see how this could be deemed risky. My poor tables had been written on every lesson that day but I hadn’t yet tried the idea of a silent debate.  Having not seen or read an explanation of the silent debate I presumed it should be just that. It seems a little contradictory that, in trying to enhance speaking and listening skills and encourage the use of appropriate structure and vocabulary, I would ask my top set year 8 not to talk. Yet, just as any form of practice does, it really did seem to improve their answers in the spoken debate we had at the end of the lesson.

Clumsily I provided my class with the tools for the job. These were: a recap of the play and the themes thus far; a quick peak at our ‘prejudice plates’ from our first lesson (to remind us of the issue); the argument stems from my argumentative window and some board pens and tables.

Each table was given a statement to debate. I made each group (they’re in ability groups) provide a key at the top of the table so I could tell who had been contributing without making them talk. (This I thought was quite a clever idea for someone running on stale donuts and decaff tea – there was a mix up…).

Secondly, I gave each group a statement to write in the middle of their tables. Literally on the table of course; in case anyone is still confused about the fact you can do this. There were 2 groups for each statement. Then I put 10 minutes on the IWB and off we went. They were told to concentrate on arguing for or against and giving reasons for their opinion. Where possible they should use the argument stems to agree or disagree with other comments.

At first it was a free-for-all; they were simply writing for the sake of it. After about 3 or 4 minutes (which seems much longer when silent!) I reminded them to read too. We did a bit of acting before we set off about how to look dismayed if you didn’t agree with someone. Imagine an Italian “mamma mia” type pose. After this reminder they began to debate by writing on the tables with retorts and responses galore. During this time you can easily walk around and add your own questions to their comments to extend their thinking. This also avoids teacher interruption to a student’s train of thought. Once the 10 minutes was up I let them talk for 1 minute before setting them off to look, read and respond to other tables’ work – again silently.

At the end of this we had a proper debate. It started with one of the statements and moved on. The best bit seemed to be that they could respond to points without having ever heard them. For example: students from my green table responded to the red table’s points they had read and misinterpreted. This meant the red table could clarify their points and therefore I could question them further. As these tables are at opposite ends of the room this meant they’d been over and read and taken in their ideas. This is quite impressive as in a normal debate they may have just stared out the window when others’ were talking. Moreover, we didn’t spend more time listening to the louder students than others or wait for me to coax out ideas from the more shy students. At least I didn’t see the creating and writing down of these ideas as wasting time. The use of a key meant I could see instantly who had and hadn’t contributed and for more timid students this process seemed to help. In a sentence the ‘activity’ improved our debate: which in my mind increased their learning and debating skills.

Writing on things is not a big deal. I am and have become a cynical fool in my youth and I’m entirely against doing things for the sake of it. Although that doesn’t mean I haven’t. This task could definitely be a huge waste of time if not controlled properly.  If ideas are quite literally washed away without engagement then what is the point? If arguments are dismissed as messy art work that shut them up for a bit then there’s no need to do it. Therefore, if drawing on the tables helps engage brains to control hands; the challenge of being silent actually allows our students to think independently yet cooperatively; and if the kid at the back writes a brilliant response to ‘only ignorant people judge others’ then who am I to argue? In response to our debate and the above statement I am now inclined to try everything out before I  judge (and I do) those who draw on ceilings, walls, desks, animals, post it notes or year 7s faces with the aim to inspire, challenge and engage our pupils.

NB. The below picture proves they really were arguing just on the tables ‘Don’t you whatever me’ made me laugh for quite a while. See @CaldiesEnglish for some brilliantly written Of Mice and Men analysis after using this technique.


4 thoughts on “Silent Debating

  1. Jon Haines

    Great combination of ideas… This is so easy to transfer and apply to so many different subjects and can easily be combined as you suggest with a range of other T&L structures such as opinion lines, full on verbal discussion and debate etc.
    Thanks for sharing:)

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