The power of debating: Empowering students to voice their opinions

Positive early experiences and supportive social environments play a key role in developing confidence. PHOTOI FILE

What you need to know:

  • Participating in debates helps students develop critical thinking skills.

Debate sessions play a crucial role in the development of primary school students, helping them build confidence, critical thinking skills, and the ability to express themselves effectively.

In some schools in Dar es Salaam, debate sessions have become integral to the educational landscape, empowering young minds and preparing them for a future filled with intellectual competence and meaningful contributions to society.

Salum Kunga, 10, a student at Dr Omari Ally Juma Primary School, says that since he started participating in debates, he has benefitted a lot, both in terms of knowledge and skills.

“I have developed the ability to critically analyse information and construct logical arguments to support my opinions,” he reveals.

Margaret Komba, 10, a student at Atlas Primary School, claims that effective communication is one of the essential skills she has learnt through debate.

“To be able to persuade others, you need to present your ideas in a clear and organised manner. Participating in debates has helped me improve my public speaking abilities, as I have learnt how to articulate my points confidently and engage the audience,” she says.

Margaret says she now knows how to use evidence to back up her claims, which has enhanced the persuasiveness of her arguments.”

For 11-year-old Maria Ochieng from St Therese Primary School, debating has significantly broadened her knowledge base.

She has learnt how to research material, as debating requires knowledge of various topics. She has, as a result, become more knowledgeable in different areas, thanks to extensive reading.

“With each debate topic, I am forced to explore multiple perspectives and consider various angles, which helps me understand complex issues,” Margaret says.

Rebecca Michael, a student at Atlas Primary School, says participating in debates has instilled in her a sense of open-mindedness and tolerance.

She says debating enables students to step out of their comfort zones, articulate their thoughts, and embrace constructive criticism.

“By engaging with opposing arguments and counterpoints, I have learnt to respect differing viewpoints and consider alternative positions.

She adds: “This has made me a more empathetic and understanding person. It has also improved my ability to construct more effective arguments by anticipating and addressing potential challenges."

For his part, Boniventure Christian, from Vijibweni Primary School, says debating has taught him the importance of teamwork.

“Most debates involve working in pairs or groups, requiring coordination, cooperation, and compromise.

In these situations, Boniventure has learnt to listen attentively, respect the opinions of others, and contribute constructively to group discussions.

This, he says, is a skill that is valuable in a debate setting and that is applicable in many aspects of life and education, such as group projects.

Since teachers play a vital role in debates, as the facilitators of these sessions, we sought their opinions too.

Ms Aireth Chongo, a primary school teacher in Dar es Salaam, says debates have proven to be incredibly beneficial for her students in several ways.

“Participating in debates helps them develop important critical thinking skills. Through research and analysis of different perspectives, students learn to evaluate evidence and construct persuasive arguments,” she explains.

According to her, these skills are transferable to various academic subjects and are essential for their future academic and professional lives.

Mr Charles Ng’ozo, another primary school teacher, agrees. He shares that engaging in debates enhances students' communication skills.

“They learn to present their ideas clearly and logically while also practising active listening and respectful responses to their peers' arguments.”

According to him, this improves their speaking abilities and fosters empathy and understanding by exposing them to diverse viewpoints.

To ensure all students actively participate in debates, Ms Chongo has adopted several strategies, which have so far been effective.

“I establish clear guidelines that emphasise the importance of everyone's contribution. I make it clear that every student has a voice and that their opinions are valued.”

The teacher says that encouraging an inclusive classroom environment through mutual respect and appreciation helps create a safe space for students to express their thoughts.

Like Ms Chongo, Mr Ng’ozo structures the debate sessions in a way that evenly distributes speaking opportunities.

“For example, I may assign roles or rotate responsibilities to ensure that each student has a chance to present their viewpoints.”

He actively facilitates group discussions to ensure quieter students get the chance to share their thoughts and ideas.

Mr Ng’ozo uses various assessment methods, such as peer evaluation, to evaluate students' participation.

“This holds them accountable and provides constructive feedback for improvement. By highlighting the importance of active participation, I encourage students to engage fully and find their unique voice within the debates,” he says.

Fr Leons Maziku, a psychologist and lecturer at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), believes the idea of debating is good because not everyone is born confident.

Shedding some light on why some children fear speaking in front of people, the psychologist says each child is unique and that their individual experiences and temperaments contribute to their levels of confidence or anxiety.

Fr Maziku says one common reason behind this fear is the fear of judgement or criticism from others. Children might worry about making mistakes, being laughed at, or being perceived negatively.

Some children may also have had negative experiences in the past, such as being ridiculed or embarrassed, which can further contribute to their fear.

To help children overcome the fear of speaking in public, Fr Maziku says it’s crucial to create a supportive environment.

Encouraging open communication and providing opportunities to practise speaking in a safe and non-threatening environment can be beneficial, and debate sessions are one of them.

He says some people are naturally confident and that a combination of nature and nurture influences confidence.

“Some people may have a nature that is more outgoing and talkative, making it easier for them to feel comfortable in front of others. Positive early experiences and supportive social environments play a key role in developing confidence,” he explains.

The SAUT lecturer says it is important to appreciate and celebrate the uniqueness of each individual. Some may naturally possess confidence, while others may require additional support and guidance, he says.

According to Fr Maziku, understanding the underlying factors that contribute to a child's fear or shyness and providing them with a nurturing environment helps them develop the necessary skills to confidently express themselves in front of others.