I had the opportunity to spend the last ten days participating in Public Forum format debates in China with two current members of the Lakeland District Debate team and one recent graduate. We participated in tournaments organized by the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) of China and Dipont Education Management. In all, we competed in one tournament in Hangzhou, engaged in demo debates in Nanjing & Shanghai, and we judged a beginners tournament in Zhangjiagang. In all, we had the opportunity to visit seven different schools throughout China in ten days.
Based on this participation and my experience helping with the development of the program, I offer the following observations.
Participation is strong. In the last two years, more than 2,000 students have participated in the program. More than 1200 of these have joined the US National Speech & Debate Association. Currently there are nine full-time debate coaches living in China, and this year they are responsible for teaching and coaching more than 1, 200 students. More than 30 tournaments have been run in China since the fall of 2012..
To provide evidence of current numbers, 130 teams participated in the Hangzhou tournament on the second weekend of February. During this weekend, 40 teams also competed in Chengdu. There were 22 teams at the beginners’ tournament in Zhangjiagang. On the final weekend of April, more than 140 teams will compete in debate tournaments in Shanghai and another 140 will compete in Nanjing.
Frequency of participation is increasing. When the program first began, it was difficult for students to find the time to participate in more than two tournaments a year. Relative to US students who often participate in 10 or more tournaments, this participation level made it difficult for Chinese students to develop as debaters in a way that enabled them to compete with US students. This year, however, Chinese students have been able to find more time to debate and coaches have been holding more of their own tournaments, as well as traveling with some students to tournaments in other cities.
Students are well-prepared. Although the Chinese students do not have as many opportunities to compete as American students, the Chinese students appear to spend more time preparing for individual tournaments. This substantially offsets the tournament experience gap that I just referenced. In the debates I judged over the course of the last 10 days, the debaters displayed extensive knowledge of the topics they were debating and were well-prepared to debate. In fact, I think they were more prepared than most American debaters would be at that experience level.
The competitiveness level of the students is increasing. When the program first began, all of the students were beginners. Of course, this made it difficult for the students to compete against Americans it was often a source of frustration. Now, however, the students are more experienced, more prepared, and more confident, strengthening their overall competitiveness level.
Student leaders are emerging. In many cases, leaders of individual debate classes and clubs are emerging. For example, in Nanjing, one student who wanted to start a debate team at her own school originally competed with the Nanjing Foreign Languages School. Now there is a club led by her at her own school and the school is going to add the debate class in the fall.
The English language skills of the students are improving. One of the English teachers who traveled with the students from the Wuxi No. 1 School said that her students’ participation in debate had served to strengthen their English skills. I have also noted a substantial increase in the English skills of the students who participate in the program.
Students are developing portable skills. Over the last two years, I have seen students strengthen their research skills, develop self-confidence, become more capable of asking and answering questions in cross-fire, develop stronger flowing and note taking skills, and improve their teamwork. These are all standard “portable skills” that we expect to see all debaters develop.
New NSDA events. Some experimentation with an additional NSDA event – Original Oratory – has begun. The goal is for hundreds of students to participate in this event next year.
The development of the program over the last 18 months has been nothing short of extraordinary. More than 2,000 students have participated across more than 30 tournaments, 1200 students have joined the US NSDA, the frequency of participation is increasing, student leaders are emerging, students are developing the English language and portable skills that are expected, and robust future growth is anticipated.