Debating with Mr. Paxton

Debating with Mr.Paxton

Article and Interview by: Randy Guevara

Last year I had the opportunity to work on the Ibaraki Debate Committee. It was a rewarding experience that broadened my perspective as my role of ALT. Guiding students to have intellectual discussions in a second language is quite fulfilling and the involvement expanded my knowledge of HEnDA (All Japanese High School Debate Association) topics like Japan’s rice tariffs and nuclear energy plans. Based on my experience, I want bring light to the popular club activity.

There are several high schools in Ibaraki designated as “Debate Challenge” schools. At these schools, students and teachers use debate as a tool to learn English. Over the past few years, the following schools have attended debate workshops, practice matches, and tournaments: Takezono, Mito 1st, Namiki Secondary, Hitachi Ota 1st, Hitachi 1st, Midorioka, Shimotsuma 1st, Koga 3rd, Tsuchuira 3rd, Ryugasaki 1st, Mito 2nd, and Shimodate 1st. Exactly which schools can shift year-to-year based on student interest, but it is fair to say there is a community building.

A large reason Ibaraki has the HS debate culture it does is because of the efforts from Mr. Paxton of Takezono High School. He, along with many English teachers on the committee, organize workshops and tournaments throughout the year to provide a forum for the students to practice their skills.

I gathered a few questions from current ALTS and asked them to Mr. Paxton. Here are his responses:

1.    How did you become so passionate about debate?

My passion for debate began when I was in middle school (Year 8). I continued debating throughout secondary and tertiary education. In university, I coached and judged debate at various levels. I first fell in love with debate during match preparation when my teammates and I felt the excitement of preparing arguments and data, and subsequently considering how to articulate the information we had. At the time, I also had a misguided, youthful belief that truth could be found through logical examination of issues. As such, I loved the idea that debaters could be logical “protectors” fighting for truth.

2.    What should Ibaraki ALTs know about high school debate?

The first things ALTs need to realize are 1) debate is one of the best ways to master a first or second language, and 2) debate is a difficult skill that is not natural to all people. The mistake that I often hear from people when they first encounter debate is that they say, “I love arguing with people. I will love teaching debate.” Conflating the words “arguing” and “debating” is a common mistake. This is why debate has a negative connotation for some people. They believe that debate is fighting or arguing with an opposition team. In fact, debate is about argumentation, criticism & analysis, and communication skills. It is not a game of boasting, chest-thumping, or unsubstantiated rhetoric. In short, I would advise ALTs to throw away their presumptions about debate and, if your school has experienced debate teachers, learn from the quality debate instructors we have here in Ibaraki. If your school’s English teachers are not experienced in debate or lack confidence, I recommend that you teach yourself debate for the reasons that I outline in Question 5.

3. At what English level should a student be to enjoy participating in debate workshops and tournaments?

This is a difficult question because no two students are the same. A high-level English student may have a negative experience of debate because even though he has the ability to communicate, he did not apply himself to the activity. If he does not feel that he gains anything and loses the matches, he will not “enjoy” the experience. On the other hand, a student with low-level English ability may find that she “enjoys” debate matches because even though she feels intimidated and frustrated through some parts of the process, she feels an immense sense of skill attainment, benefit, and “enjoyment.”

Whether students can “enjoy” debate depends on two key factors: 1) a student’s character, and 2) (most importantly) a teacher’s ability to create a positive space in which a student can acquire skills regardless of their level.

There are many elementary schools in Japan that introduce simple English debate about “dogs and cats” and other easy topics, so I think that any student can enjoy debate.

I also strongly recommend schools and ALTs to get involved in debate tournaments and competitive debate because the best way to learn how to teach debate in the classroom is to coach debate at a club or tournament level.

4. How would you describe your teaching approach to debate?

I would describe my approach as passionate but mostly I would say that it is student-centered. Debaters cannot debate received wisdom. They must generate argument and research themselves. This is one of the most exciting aspects of debate.

5. What do you think are the benefits of teaching debate?

This is the most dangerous question to ask me because my answer is liable to cover several pages. Of course, debate gives research skills, team skills, skills in civic democracy, leadership skills, confidence, and logical skills. However, I want to focus on what I see as the three most important benefits of debate.

The first is that the activity is real. It is authentic. It is not a collection of arbitrary sentences designed to teach a grammar point. This factor combined with the student-centered nature of the activity means that students become motivated to study in a way that can be seen in very few educational activities. If you want your students to fall in love with “learning,” debate is one of the quickest and efficient ways to achieve that goal.

Secondly, the time restriction of English debate matches forces students to think in English. Thinking about the target language in the mother language is one of the most significant barriers to second language acquisition. A student will never gain true proficiency until they begin to conceptualize in the target language. Because debate is a game, students do not consciously realize that they make this important transition. That is why using a language game like debate is so effective in improving language skills.

The third benefit is for teachers. In the information age, we find ourselves becoming more and more limited or specialized in our knowledge. Debate, and in particular the policy debate format popular in Ibaraki, forces teachers to research topic areas that they are likely not familiar with. This is one of the parts of debate that I love. Every time a debate topic changes, I get to study deeply in a new field of research. What’s more, I get to share this adventure with my students.

6. What obstacles have you encountered teaching debate?

The greatest obstacle that I encounter is negativity. That negativity can manifest itself in the negativity of Japanese teachers, the negativity of students, or the negativity of ALTs who do not fully appreciate the benefits that students can get or who feel overwhelmed by teaching a new discipline. My advice would be to sympathize with the negativity of some people in our community while simultaneously smashing that negativity with proactive leadership and positivity.

If any teachers have any questions about teaching debate, or would like any further reading about debate or a specific debate topic, please email me anytime at anthony_paxton@hotmail.com

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