Benefits of World ORT’s debating programme beyond dispute


As a member of the winning team in World ORT’s inaugural debating competition, Shahd Hammad is an unsurprisingly convincing advocate of the benefits of taking part in it. Through learning debating at World ORT’s YOUniversity in her Jerusalem neighbourhood, Shahd had improved her English, developed empathy and boosted her confidence.

“At first I had to think in Arabic and translate into English – now I can think in English which makes it much easier to express myself. Now I can see things from different points of view while before I could only think of my own point of view. And I’m more confident now: if I have a school project where I have to talk in front of my teachers or class I can do it easily.” Shahd Hammad, YOUniversity student, 16 years old.

Together with fellow YOUniversity students Yasmin Vasilevsky, Salma Barakat, Dunia Sunkrot and Siham Omar Abu Ali, Shahd beat a team from the Lauder-ORT Jewish School in Sofia in the final held at the World ORT General Assembly in Jerusalem.

Ben Goldstein, member of the jury of the Debate Mate’s final in Jerusalem.

“Before that we had only debated with another team but without an audience. It was a bit scary being in front of so many people but it was an amazing experience. I was really shocked that we won because the other team was so strong,” Shahd said.

Over several months, the Debate Mate pilot programme provided students in Israel and Bulgaria with weekly coaching sessions in what is called the British parliamentary method. Tutors critically analysed the way the debaters presented their case both in terms of their rhetoric and body language.

Hopes held for debating in every ORT school

Each week, students would undertake research in a new topic for debate. Similarly, for the final, teams were given a week to prepare on the motion, “The house believes that traditional school-based education is obsolete in today’s society” – but they were given only 15 minutes’ notice of whether they were arguing for or against it.

The Bulgarian team, finalists at the Debate Mate competition with World ORT President Dr Conrad Giles.

Studies have shown the educational value of debating. Multi-year research by Columbia University’s Professor Deanna Kuhn, for example, showed that middle-school students trained in verbal debate were more rational than untrained peers and better able to understand the nuances of different perspectives on controversial issues.

“My students learned that any debate involves extensive research, serious team work and sacrifice as well as a good grasp of vocabulary. They also realised that they can cope with pressure,” said Dimitar Dimitrov, the English teacher who mentored the Bulgarian team.

“I’ve had students come to me and say how they’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time. I’m positive that there is rising interest in debating in the wider student body and that there will be an enthusiastic response to future competitions.”

World ORT Treasurer Peter Klauber was instrumental in bringing Debate Mate, an international charity which helps schools develop debating skills for use in clubs and lessons, and World ORT together.

“I’d long seen the benefits that Debate Mate had brought to children and thought that it would be a natural adjunct for what we offer our children to prepare them for life’s challenges: critical thinking, building self-esteem and the ability to argue respectfully and to listen are all necessary for success.” Peter Klauber, World ORT Treasurer.

“I would like to see this pilot programme rolled out across the ORT network to create a global competition with the final held each year at the Board of Representatives meeting or at the General Assembly. Ultimately it would be lovely to see an ORT team compete at the World Schools Debating Championships,” Mr. Klauber said.

Among the audience at the final was Mariam Francis, an English teacher at World ORT-affiliated Horfeish High School who, within only two years, steered the school’s debating team to victory at the Kdam Atidim debating competition held at ORT Braude College of Engineering.

“I enjoyed watching the Debate Mate final. I feel confident that our team would be able to compete strongly in future competitions,” Ms Francis said.