Growing Up Debating

Growing Up Debating

by Darion Hotan & Tan Teck Wei




It was not too long ago when both of us were first-time entrants to the debating fraternity, green and keen for the thrills before us, yet a lot has changed since then. This year, as we move from debating for our secondary schools into the college circuit, a similarly new experience awaits us. In our first few months, our debating has changed tremendously, but the passion and intensity that originally fuelled us remains the same.


The first change is both immediate and mandatory; the rules are different! Not everyone notices this, but debating in secondary school usually uses a modified version of the World Schools’ rules, and being in JC means coping with the full monty. Speeches are now 8 minutes long, rather than 6. There are more points of information (POIs) to be accepted and given; no more offering a POI as early as possible before gluing oneself to the chair! Last of all, the luxury of a 2 minute interval before reply speeches has been removed.


There are some debaters who find it hard, initially at least, to adapt to having 8 minutes of top-class substantiation. There are also those who wish they had more time for their speeches. The extra time we get in JC brings with it broader speaker roles. The opening speakers have to get used to delivering two substantives instead of one, while rebuttal speakers have more targets to attack, and more material to defend. At the same time, it gives us the scope to use rhetoric and rapier-like wit to the fullest. It all makes for a more electrifying debate, and ultimately a more challenging task for the debaters involved.


These changes are generally easy to understand, especially since most secondary school debaters have already been exposed to these rules in a few debate tournaments (such as the NUS Challenge Shield or open varsity tournaments). What’s the big difference then? The primary challenge is becoming so familiar with them that debating becomes almost second nature.


This is particularly challenging because it requires us to forget all the instinctive habits of our secondary school years. Most debaters grow into a rhythm as they debate more frequently, and some of these changes can be disruptive. It varies from speaker to speaker – some find it easier to adapt, while others work consciously to make these changes, but everyone ends up finding a new rhythm to debate with when moving into JC.


Beyond the rules of our debates, however, lies a deeper change in the argumentation that judges (and hopefully audiences!) expect. Adjudicators judging a secondary school debate are often more forgiving of loosely built content analysis; some debaters can still get by with well-chosen words and powerful styles, but in JC adjudicators expect a lot more. They expect the intellectual rigour that comes with both maturity of years and experience in debating, and this translates into a higher standard for substantiation in content. No more dropping links and ‘fluffing’ one’s way through substantives; in JC the playing field is more challenging in this regard.


Thankfully, the format is perfectly suited to this higher expectation, because more time means more space to fully explain and develop our points. But this also means that the debaters who expect JC debating to be easier than before, because of the extra time, are often proven wrong!


Regardless of age, good substantive arguments make for a good debate; a debate is nothing without material to argue over, and the better the material to begin with, the higher the quality of engagement. Getting carried away with rebuttals and neglecting substantives shouldn’t happen anywhere, but it is more problematic on the JC circuit, and will be punished by teams and adjudicators alike.


However, debating at its roots, regardless of secondary or JC level, revolves around the same essential qualities; engagement, teamwork, persuasion, strategy, determination, grit and having fun in what we do. These were the skills we picked up as young debaters all those years ago, and they continue to be relevant in our JC debating careers. As much as debating has become more competitive and more challenging since we transitioned into our college years, these remain the qualities that a good debater must have, and the qualities that we continue to aspire towards.

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