Academic Debate Competition: The International Co-Curricular

2013-09-14 20.11.08

As education is internationalized, secondary schools need to start thinking beyond core subject curriculum and into electives and other academic co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. These activities should not just be any valuable activities that are transplanted from one country (often the US) to another country, but should be activities that present students with the opportunity to interact with, and compete against, students from all over the world.  Supporting competitive academic debate is an excellent way to develop an activity that meets this goal.

Efforts to promote global debate education and competition occurred way before “international education” became a significant focus of educational practitioners and a valuable commodity amongst a growing segment of students and parents. It started way before thousands of East Asian high school and university students started studying in the US each year, and it began decades before the Avenues school opened with the goal of providing students with the opportunity to study on different campuses all around the world. It started around the time when it was “cutting edge” to spend a semester abroad, to host a foreign exchange student, and to learn about “world cultures.”

Alfred Snider, a professor and director of debate at the University of Vermont and editor of the Global Debate Blog, may very well be the “father” of international debate instruction and competition.  He has been actively promoting debate across the world at the university level for more than 25 years. Recently, he hosted the Bangladesh Debate Academy and is currently hosting the Armenia Debate Academy.

Over the last decade, international debating opportunities have expanded at the secondary school level primarily through two efforts. The first is the introduction of the British Parliamentary (BP) format at the secondary school level, most widely practiced in a “World Schools,” BP spin-off format where contestants compete on teams of three and a winner is declared.  The students debate topics that are structured in the form of motions. For example, “This House believes that the US should overturn its blanket ban on negotiating with terrorists” is a motion.  One of the unique features of this format is that the students debate a different topic in each “round” of competition and there are multiple rounds of competition in a single tournament. Often, the students are told of a couple motions in advance of the tournament and then receive the other two or three only one hour before the debate. This type of topic distribution encourages students to develop general knowledge of a variety of contemporary political and economic issues.

Partially due to the efforts of Alfred Snider, this format is popular in Europe and the Middle East. In the Middle East, the format is supported by Qatar Debate, a beneficiary of the Qatar Foundation, the largest academic foundation in the world. The format is also supported in some East Asian nations. Each year, there is a global “World Schools” competition where representative teams from around the world gather to determine global champion.

The second effort to promote the development of international debating opportunities at the secondary level is through the efforts of the US National Forensic (Speech & Debate) League to promote a format it developed in the late 1990s – Public Forum debate. Public Forum debate is a two student versus two student format where a winner is also chosen. The format was designed with the goal of lowering barriers competition in debate (other US debate formats had become highly specialized and technical) for new participants, making it a relatively easy for schools abroad to adopt.

The students debate topics that are structured in the form of resolutions, which are similar to motions. For example, “Development assistance should be prioritized over military aid in the Sahel region of Africa,“ is a previous Public Forum debate resolution.  One of the unique features of this format is that the students debate the same resolution in each “round” of competition at a specific tournament and there are multiple rounds of competition in a single tournament.  The students also debate on both sides of the resolution – arguing for it in some debates and arguing against it in other debates.

In the United States, the NFL announces a new topic for each month of competition, with the resolution being announced thirty days prior to the first day of month for that resolution.  For example, the February Public Forum resolution is announced on January 1st.  This resolution is the same resolution for every tournament in the United States, and since most students in the US debate frequently, most students can expect to attend at least two tournaments on the same resolution, with each student debating least five rounds in any given tournament.  This topic format encourages students to develop a greater in-depth understanding of a particular issue and to adapt, change, improve, and evolve their arguments over the course of time. Public Forum is the largest and fastest growing debate event in the US.

To date, the Public Forum format has caught-on the fastest in East Asia, particularly in China, Korea, and Taiwan. Since introducing the format in China through a partnership with an education management company, Dipont Education Management (cn, en), in the fall of 2012, more than 2,000 students have participated in school-based elective classes and tournaments in China, and it is projected that 5,000 will participate in 2014-15. Students in China are taught in school classes by American debate teachers who are now working full-time in China and use a textbook recently published by the Harvard Debate Council and the National Forensic League. Smaller numbers have participated in Korea, but “NFL China” and “NFL Korea” programs have been established in both countries and full programs are also being considered in Japan and Taiwan.

Outside of East Asia, the Public Forum format is growing in popularity in Latin America and Canada. “NFL Dominican Republic” was launched this fall and there is a plan under consideration to develop “NFL Mexico.”

Just as the students who compete in the World Schools format do not compete only in their home countries, students in the Public Forum format do not exclusively compete in their home nations. Students participating in the Public Forum format from Canada, China, Korea, Mexico, and Taiwan have all participated in debates in United States and many have participated in the US NFL national tournament.

Each year, the US NFL hosts large national tournament (4,000 competitors) that students in the US have to qualify to participate in. Students in China and Korea have the opportunity to qualify for this tournament through competitions in their own countries and last year twenty students from China and eight students from Korea qualified and participated in this US championship tournament in Birmingham, Alabama.

This February, at least 80 teams (160 students) from Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, and Korea will compete against 700 (1400 students) other Public Forum teams from around the United States in the Harvard High School invitational tournament, the largest invitational debating tournament in the world (more than 4,000 competitors). Teams from abroad will also compete at the Stanford and UC Berkley debate tournaments the same month.

Teams from abroad are also drawn to competitions in these countries. In January 2013, two students from the Lakeland Central School District traveled to Seoul to compete in the Korea Winter Championship. They were the first students from the US to debate in Korea. In August 2013, twenty students from China traveled to Seoul to compete in the Korea Summer Championship (photos).

Although the formats are different and emphasize different approaches toward preparation and research, students who participate in academic debate in either of these formats will develop skills in all of the following areas: speaking, writing, listening, critical thinking, idea organization, research, establishing proof, contesting arguments, and logical reasoning.  These are all fundamental elements of the new US Common Core standards that are being adopted not only in the US but in other parts of the world (video discussion of the Common Core and debate training). The curriculum that was developed for students in China by the US NFL and the Harvard Debate Council is based on these standards.

And while the different formats are more popular in certain parts of the world than others, many are working to provide opportunities for students to compete in formats they are more comfortable with, and students have also demonstrated success in competing across formats. In addition to hosting students from abroad competing in the Public Forum event, last year the US NFL hosted a special invitational sub-division and invited World Schools teams from across the globe to compete. Slovenia won the division. Also, this year the NFL has put together a team composed of leading competitors from across the United States to participate in global World Schools events.

The context of international education provides a unique opportunity for debaters to develop these skills, because students will engage in debates and discussion of current economic, philosophical, and political issues with students from around the world, providing them with the opportunity to learn to and understand the perspectives of others. For example, last August at the Korea summer championship, students argued about whether or not governments were justified in restricting political speech on the Internet. It was very interesting to listen to the Chinese students argue that the standards for evaluation should not necessary be “free speech” and what is best for democracy. It was also interesting to hear how the Korean students reacted to that (photos of the debate). And when the Lakeland District debate students competed in Korea, they debated the merits of gun control in a country where private ownership of firearms is essentially illegal. They also debated about the potential threat of China to the Asia Pacific region and the role of the “Asia Pivot” in the development of hostilities there.

There is research that demonstrates that while debate is adversarial, research and preparation for competition encourages students to understand the perspective of the other, to develop tolerance, and to develop empathy. Peace through the exchange of ideas has long been an objective of argumentation scholars and other proponents of debate. As education becomes more globalized, these are critical attributes to develop and are another unique benefit to the international expansion of debate at the secondary school level.

Competitive debate offers secondary schools that are committed to providing international learning opportunities to their students a platform for their students further enhance English Language Arts skills and to engage in a dialogue with students from all over the world on pressing international economic and political issues. The development of the skills, combined with the fact that debaters usually represent the most academically gifted and motivated students in their peer groups, makes it likely that these debate exchanges are also working to facilitate the development of friendships and social ties amongst the world’s most likely future leaders. In this way, secondary schools that aim to provide these opportunities to their students are also facilitating the emergence of a future cooperative global social network.