Tag Archives: Rhetoric

The Importance of Debate in Schools


Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.


Teaching The Trivium. Rhetoric A-Z: A


My lesson plan for the teaching of Rhetoric continues to be used by many teachers and schools yet it is not the end of the story by any means. Once a student orator has got a handle on the basic outline of speech making you can begin to teach him or her about little tricks they can use to enhance their effectiveness as great communicators. In this occasional A-Z of rhetoric series I will look at some techniques that teachers can teach to their pupils that will make a great difference to the quality of their speech writing and delivery, quickly and simply. The caveat being… do not overuse these techniques!


Great communicators might use anadiplosis (doubling), this is where you take the last word or words from the preceding clause and repeat them at, or near, the start of the next. For example in Shakespeare’s Richard III: My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Antistrophe: continues the theme of repetition where the use of a word or words is repeated at the end of a clause or a sentence. For example: “When I was a child, I spake as a child; I understood as a child; I thought as a child…” In the case where the repetition occurs at the beginning of a clause or sentence it is called Anaphora, this occurs most notably in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Amplificatio is the means by which a simple statement is enlarged or ‘amplified’ thereby strengthening, emphasising or even exaggerating the point. By embellishing a simple point a speaker or writer may enable the audience or reader to realise its importance. If used for a great number of points the impact is lost entirely.

Auxesis is a technique that can be used to amplify something, either by using a word or phrase that exaggerates someone’s position… José Mourinho used this to describe himself: ‘The Special One’, Government advisors are sometimes called ‘Tsars’, but most notably it is used as a series of words that build to a climax by increasing the importance or force as you go, in Henry V: ‘Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ Harry being the mere individual, then the country, then the metaphysical Saint… This technique can stir the emotions.

Assonance and alliteration are well known examples of the orator’s art. Alliteration is used a lot in education circles to illustrate such ideas as 21st Century skills where pupils are told they will need to learn collaboration, creativity and curiosity. The three ‘Rs’ are famous and alliterate somewhat tortuously: Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic the reason being it is a good technique to use to lodge something in the memory. Alliteration was originally associated only with consonants, whereas assonance takes a vowel sound and repeats it exactly or similarly, in Macbeth for example: ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’

Aposiopesis is when a speaker suddenly stops speaking in mid sentence, this can be for effect or maybe even due to memory loss but if the latter is the case make it seem like it is for effect! Important to note this paradox: a lot can be said by not saying something. And for no better reason this draws this blog to

Voices Joined, Not Silenced.


Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.  Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.

In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:

…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.

Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.

If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.

In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.

Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to  begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.

Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up,  they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!

Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.

If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.

Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

In the early middle agesinstruction came from didactic grammarians who taught in repetitive and boring ways… the one way catechism (literally ‘to sound into ears’) by which the master instructed his pupil.” Trivium 21c p45.

When I was at school (not quite back as far as the middle ages) we had a history teacher who would ‘sound into our ears’. He told us to open our textbooks to a certain page, instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook. He would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he ‘sounded into our ears’. Unfortunately we got bored, started to misbehave, threw things at each other, threw things out of the window, including, on one occasion, a fellow pupil who, when he went flying past the window of the class below caused a bit of commotion though no lasting damage to himself. Our teacher blamed us, shouting that we were wasting our lives.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am not proud of my behaviour, but I am interested as to why we didn’t present passive ears waiting to be sounded into. I could pay attention, for example I would sit and listen to the historian AJP Taylor on television as he, without the visual gimmicks of today’s TV historians, stood and delivered lectures to camera. The great AJP was a master storyteller and he gave me a lifelong interest in history. It is not the ‘sounding into ears’ that is boring, it is how a teacher goes about it.

In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ Daniel T Willingham writes: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.” (p51). Willingham suggests structuring lessons from stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character. This is a good place to start but I think it is also worth looking at the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘. The author, Christopher Booker, spent years researching the idea that there are only seven stories: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Rebirth’ and the classical narratives of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’. I believe even a short 5 minute presentation following one of these structures could enthrall the most despondent of classes.

For those who do not feel comfortable with ‘storytelling’ structuring their talk and yet agree with Willingham that lessons based around conflict work particularly well, the art of rhetoric is the perfect option. In Trivium 21c I explore rhetoric in more detail but the following should give a flavour and a great way to structure and think about teacher talk. What follows is a glimpse at ‘the five parts of rhetoric’ as used in Ancient Greek education:

1. Invention Firstly you think about the content which you intend to teach and you draw together your ‘evidence’.  Then you establish your Ethos, your credibility, not your street cred but why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content (this is probably part of an ongoing dialogue where you communicate about why the subject you teach is important). Next you think about how to create the right mood, the shared emotion or Pathos between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. Finally Logos, which is your use of reasoning and logic, and models critical thinking.

2. Arrangement: The order in which you present your talk. For this the basic six parts of oratory are useful: 1. The Exordium or ‘hook’: something that catches the class’s attention but is also central to your narrative. 2. Prothesis: you present the history of what your are talking about. 3. Partitio or division: you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested. 4. Confirmatio or proof: you state your thinking. 5. confutatio or refutation: you refute any opposing argument 6. Peroration You sum up the arguments and leave an impression with your class about why the content matters and should matter to them.

3. Style: Low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, use sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day to day teaching, but every now and then it might be good to unleash the ‘grand style’ of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory If your talk is drawn from your natural memory, rather than always reading from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. If you use powerpoint it should be your tool rather than you being its slave. Anything on your whiteboard should illustrate and not lead your talk. N.B: Natural memory which is ‘knowing your stuff’, is better than artificial memory, which is more like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery: voice, gesture, posture, use of space. Without these performance skills being used to the full, the most brilliantly thought through examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

Put all this together and teacher talk can be something that enthralls a class and helps them learn and remember what you want them to learn and remember. Sounding into ears can be a very effective way of teaching if you do it effectively.