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Sir John Franklin students perfecting the art of debate

Participation in national debate championships helps students hone skills
Logan Doll, left, and James Smillie recently returned from a national debating competition in Halifax, where they debated with students from across Canada to finesse their skills. Smillie won top speaker for the NWT.

In an era of observing dogmatic opinions and frequent ad hominem attacks on social media, a group of Sir John Franklin High School students in Yellowknife have been honing their formal debating skills to learn how to present various viewpoints on topics without resorting to less-than-civil discourse.
“I think that debating now with social media makes it like a bit harder, sometimes with statistics,” senior debate club member Talia Ehrlich said.
“But I feel like it's really important to learn how to debate for things that you don't necessarily agree with, in order to develop your own opinion and to understand counter-arguments. And how maybe you should be empathetic towards people that don't agree with you.”
Ehrlich was on the senior debate team that recently returned from a Canadian Senior National Debate Championship tournament in Vancouver.
She said she learned a lot from the experience and met students from various parts of Canada who had different styles of debating, which helped her develop her own method of debate. 
“I think that made me a better debater overall,” Ehrlich said.
Two other students, Logan Doll and James Smillie, just returned from the Canadian Junior National Debate Championship in Halifax.
The duo won four of their six rounds with an overall finish of 15th place. Smillie was recognized as best speaker for the Northwest Territories.
Both students said the experience was an opportunity to learn different styles of debate in the competitive debating world — skills that will become essential as they navigate through their careers or life in general.
Power of opinion
“I think that with social media and with people having very strong ideals and opinions they're willing to share online, that maybe it is even more important to be able to debate,” Smillie said.
“Because even if you're not able to change the mind of someone who holds a strong opinion, you might be able to change the mind of someone who is looking on social media and is thinking of taking on that opinion. 
“But if you are able to counteract it or bring in your own opinion, or dissuade people in some way, I think it's even more important than it may have been before,” Smillie said of the ability to persuade through evidence and providing perspective.
Doll said he saw learning to debate as an opportunity to gain skills that would help further his interest in politics at all levels of government.
“It's a skill that's good to have but it can also help with specific careers, like law or politics,” Doll said.
“So I think it's both a good skill, but also a good thing to help develop other skills and opportunities.”
Doll said being able to discern misinformation online is a valuable skill to have when navigating the internet. 
“I think like just by looking on people's Instagram or Snapchat stories, even last night, you see stuff that's, you know, even with just a Google search can be proven false, but people believe it because it’s partially like mob mentality, almost, and virtue signalling in some cases,” Doll said of the influence social media and opinions have.
“So being able to both argue for stuff that you don't believe in and find solid points for stuff that you do believe in, would be really helpful for everybody just so that they have better, more well-based political opinions because those do affect everybody.”
The art of listening
Peter Curran, a teacher at Sir John Franklin and an advisor with the debating club, said they primarily use the Canadian parliamentary style of debate but also have used the British parliamentary style. 
He said often the topics for debate stem from current events, such as private versus public healthcare. 
“They need to use their generalized knowledge, as well as the knowledge a teenager would have,” Curran said.
“A big part of it too, though — and this is such a critical part of being an effective debater — is we really condition the kids to listen to the other side. It sounds simple, but so many times either an in-person discussion or argument, and certainly on social media, becomes a bit of an echo chamber. 
“So we really insist kids listen to what other people are saying and it informs how you respond and it sometimes causes you to adjust your own ideas. And it leads to a very thorough treatment of the topic if it's done well,” he said.
“It’s actually very formal and you’ve got to be well-prepared and have some composure,” Curran added.
Quality of thought
In terms of the qualities one must possess to acquire effective debating skills, Ehrlich said one stands out.
“I'm not sure if this is the most important, but I think having humility and knowing that you don't know everything is a really important quality that debaters should have.
“I find sometimes at these big competitions, like when we were watching the finals and the semifinals, some of the debaters, although really eloquent and although they had great ideas, one of their main parts of the main portion of their debate would be filled with like, ‘This is why we won,’ and ‘Our team is better because...,’” she said.
Smillie said prioritizing the content and the ideas that they bring to the table are also essential in effective debate.
“Because no matter how you try to sugar-coat and dance around the topic with fancy words, what really matters is what you're trying to suggest and what you're trying to tell the judges to try to convince them.
“And that's what is really going to convince and stick with people — the ideas that you're bringing to the table.”