Developing International Speech and Debate Learning Opportunities for US Students

2012-01-23 05.17.29

During my senior of high school (1988-9), the school that I debated at and graduated from hosted one foreign exchange student from South Africa. Today, the same school hosts many students from all over the world, including more than 60 from China. At least two schools with nationally competitive debate programs, American Heritage High School (FL) and Woodward Academy (GA), host Chinese students from abroad, and students from China have competed in debate the US for American Heritage.

Expanding opportunities for international students, and particularly those from China, is not unique to my former school, American Heritage, and Woodward Academy. Millman (2013) reports that there are 23,795 Chinese students enrolled in US private high schools, up from 4,503 in 2008. When India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are included, the total number of foreign high school students reaches 42,845, up from 27,235 in 2008.

Similar numbers of foreign students can be found at the university level.  This year, foreign enrollment in US universities increased 6% to 764,495, “propelled primarily by continuing increases of students from China and a recent surge from Saudi Arabia” (Marklein, 2012).

The simple reality is that education, especially at the highest levels, is being globalized: Students from all over the world are seeking entrance to the best universities and the best universities are now recruiting students from all over the globe. Students from the US and elsewhere are not only competing against the best students from their own countries for access to their own universities but also against leading students from all over the world. The students who wish to enter their best American and foreign universities must be able to compete academically against students from all over the world and they must be able to demonstrate the knowledge base and skills that these universities demand.

And the universities themselves are changing in order to best recruit and best serve a growing set of students who are interested in an international education. John Sexton, a former high school debate coach and current president of New York University, has been promoting the concept of the “virtual network university” to “move away from the idea of a central home campus with a few places where people go to study abroad”….to the concept of a university where “you might start a course in Shanghai and finish out in Abu Dhabi” (where NYU has just opened a campus) or “start out in Washington Square and finish up in Shanghai…the idea is that there is no center” (Alberts, 2010).

In January, I had the opportunity to visit Doha, Qatar to take part in the Fourth Annual Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, and Debate that was hosted by Qatar Debate. The Conference was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, the largest academic foundation in the world and one that is supporting Qatar’s educational initiatives. In addition to being the sponsor of this conference, the Qatar Foundation is the sponsor of an education city at the outskirts of Doha.  This city features world-class universities, including GeorgetownNorthwestern, and Texas A&M. In a similar vein, Yale, “a big leader in globalization, has developed partnerships with leading Chinese universities” (Alberts, 2010).

And the development of international educational opportunities is not limited to “exchange” students who attend US high schools and universities from abroad or the growing globalization of US universities. At the secondary school level, many high schools are working to provide international learning opportunities for their students. Miss Porter’s, an independent college preparatory school in Connecticut, is offering its students the opportunity to study abroad in China for a year through a program developed in cooperation with Dipont Education Management. Following John Sexton’s model directly, a number of educators and private investors recently (September 2012) opened the for-profit Avenues school in New York City. Starting in 2014, Avenues will open two more campuses a year in major cities around the world, until a target of 20 campuses is reached. The target enrollment in the 20 schools is 30,000 students and 2700 faculty. Since the core curriculum at all the schools will be the same, students and faculty will be able to easily move between campuses and countries (Tingley, 2011).

High schools and universities that are investing in global education are looking to develop a number of skills among the students in their schools and are looking for skills that they want students to have before they are admitted. Farleigh Dickinson University, one of university leaders in efforts to developed globalized learning opportunities for its students, identified the skills necessary for a global education.

(G)lobal education places a premium on the ability to think critically and ethically. The ability to effectively access, interpret, evaluate and apply information is essential for facing a constantly changing work environment, for continuing self-education, and for participation as an ethical and responsible member of a global society.

Jackson (2013), vice president for education at the Asia Society, writes that a “world class” education is an “urgent call to produce students that actually know something about the world – its cultures, its languages, and how its economic, environmental, and social systems work.” Robert Harrison, the Curriculum Manager for the International Baccalaureate Organization, explained that a panel of “industry and education sector experts tried to forge some knowledge and consensus about what ‘knowledge and skills are attractive to higher education institutions and employers around the world.”  They identified seven common threads, including an understanding of pressing global issues, multilingualism, information technology and literacy skills, collaborative skills, capacity for innovation and creativity, an appreciation for diversity, and the capacity for independent thinking.

Although speech and debate does not provide instruction to students in mastering other languages, the topics they debate in depth do teach them extensively about the economic, environmental, and social systems of other countries. It encourages them to “investigate the world,” “weigh perspectives,” “communicate ideas,” “apply disciplinary and interdisciplinary expertise,” understand pressing global issues,” develop “information literacy skills,” learn to “collaborate” and “develop a capacity for independent thinking” to a variety of problems and situations, cornerstone concepts that Jackson argues are essential to preparing you to develop “global competence.”

As already practiced in the United States, speech and debate already develops many of the critical skills needed for global competence, but it doesn’t go far enough to develop all of the skills that students need to globally competititve. Professor Derek Van Der Merwe, Pro Vice-Chancellor & Vice-Principal at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, explains that students have “to be globally competitive. They have to be able to learn independently, in order to increase their skills and their knowledge base. But they also need to be connected with peers, not only in their own classrooms, but with students in similar situations in other parts of the world.”

While speech and debate students in the US currently lack the ability to connect students in the US with “students in similar situations in other parts of the world,” the capacity and the ability exists within the United States. While the NFL and your speech and debate team are not their own private high school or universities that are focused on building global connections, many speech and debate teams can and do function in ways that are similar to the “virtual networked” universities or learning environments.  For example, many students remark how attendance at summer camps enabled to make friends with students from all over the United States. Similarly, when these students compete during the year they are often competing against people from all over the United States. And although their own school continues to function as their academic center, students learn from high school coaches, college coaches, and college debaters who judge them in competition all year.  And, of course, they learn from each other, enabling what Wildavsky describes as “brain circulation and exchange” to flourish (Anspach, 2012).

All that we need to do is to globalize this “brain circulation and exchange” and US speech and debate students will once again be positioned at the forefront of academic opportunities, bringing with them not only the critical thinking and information processing skills that have traditionally given them an enormous academic advantage, but the experience with global interactive learning that students like those at Miss Porter’s and the Avenues are being exposed to. Given the demonstrated capacity for speech and debate training to provide students with the skills necessary for a global education and the opportunity for speech and debate teams function as virtual global learning centers, there is probably no better way to develop brain circulation and exchange than facilitating international debate opportunities for US students.

Providing opportunities for students to develop debate skills in a global environment situates speech and debate with the opportunity to develop the next generation of global leaders. In the US, many of the country’s most respected leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor and New York University President Roger Sexton, participated in the same speech and debate events that students in the US now compete in. Debate provided them with opportunities not only to develop leadership skills, but also to develop life-long friendships at an early age with other students who would emerge as future leaders. International competition means that today’s students who participate in speech and debate have the opportunity to develop strong ties with the tomorrow’s leaders from all over the world. This provides us with an opportunity to develop what Dr. Jeong-Woo Kil, a member of the Korean National Assembly and a founder of the English Speaking Union in Korea, described in his comments at the Korean National Championships as a “culture of understanding through English.”

The first reaction to the suggestion that we need to encourage international speech and debate competition is often will be too difficult and very expensive. After all, simply transposing the current model where we already extensively travel to tournaments and now add, “all over the world,” can make debate very expensive. And the expense is compounded by jet lag and even more missed school days. But although participation in international debating may seem both financially and practically prohibitive, there are a number of realistic ways that US students can and should participate in international speech and debate opportunities.

Participate in US tournaments that attract international participants.  The Harvard high school tournament, which this year attracted more than 4,000 entries, and included entrants from Canada, China, Korea, and Japan. The Stanford invitational also attracted students from China. In April, Harvard Debate hosted a special tournament for Public Forum debate for students from the US and around the world. This year, as in many past years, students from China, Korea, and Taiwan will be participating at the NFL national tournament in the Public Forum division and in a couple of the individual events. If you attend any of these tournaments and participate in Public Forum debate or these events, you will have a chance to debate students who travel to the US to compete.

Develop opportunities to work and interact with foreign students. In April, the Harvard Debate Council hosted its first international Public Forum tournament and eight students from Korea attended. In order to offset jet lag, the students arrived a full day early, so I took my debaters to Boston a day early so that they could spend some time with the students from Korea.

Participate in online debating. In the March 2013 issue of the Rostrum, Adam Nelson from the National Forensic League introduced the NFL’s new online debating platform. This platform will provide opportunities for US students to debate online against students from all over the world.  Coaches and students should sign up to participate in these international online debates.  “Communications are easier than ever before” (Alvarez, 2010) and global communications and this platform make online debating possible.

Participate in text debating.  Debate doesn’t have to be limited to in-person and online competition.  Modern communications technologies also make it easy to debate via text, particularly in online forums.  My own debaters organized a debate on Social Darwinism in this manner —

Participate in written debating. The International Public Policy Forum, sponsored by Bickel & Brewer, provides an opportunity for student to compete in a written debating competition against students from all over the world, with the finalists flown to New York City for a live, verbal competition. This competition gives students opportunities both to hone their written skills and to compete against international students from around the world.

Travel abroad to compete.  The idea of traveling abroad for one or two tournaments every year should not be dismissed. Many students from abroad travel to the US to compete, so there is no reason that students from the US cannot travel abroad to compete. Debaters do travel extensively in the US, certainly more than almost any other competitive high school activity, so it is not a large leap to consider debating abroad. Also, many schools plan trips abroad for different reasons. Your team should add to that travel by planning its own trip abroad, at least for a few experienced debaters!  Alberts (2010) notes that “travel is cheaper than ever before.”

In January 2013, I took my own high school debaters to Korea to compete in the Korean National Championships. As part of the finals competition, the debaters performed two exhibition debates in Memorial Hall at the Korean National Assembly.  In the final debate, Priten Shah and Mihir Paradkar debated the defending Korean national champions in a Public Forum debate on the topic of US military presence in Asia.  The resolution was, “Resolved: The United States should substantially reduce its military presence in Asia.  Priten and Mihir defended the Pro, arguing that the United States should abandon its military “pivot” towards Asia, because it creating hostility with China and is overstretching the US economically.

In addition to engaging in their own debates at the tournament, the tournament presented Priten and Mihir with a number of valuable opportunities.  At the beginning of the tournament, Priten and Mihir had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jeong-Woo Kil and Ja Kyung Yang. Dr. Kil is a member of the Korean National Assembly (KNA) and a founder of the English Speaking Union in Korea.  Ms. Yang served in the KNA for sixteen years before becoming a policy adviser to the last Korean President.  She is currently the Chairperson of NFL Korea. They also had a chance to see many of the other finalists compete on the stage in Memorial Hall.  These included some extremely talented Middle School competitors and also Korean high school students who engaged in Original Oratory, Dramatic Interpretation, and Humorous Interpretation.

In addition to the debating, they had the opportunity to meet native Korean debaters, eat meals at traditional Korean restaurants, and take tours of the Kyung Bok Palace, the Korean National Assembly, and the COEX, a large convention center and underground shopping mall that was a 10 minute walk from our hotel. They also had a chance to tour the Insadong district area of Seoul.  This is outside of Gangnam and is one of the older areas of the city.   It was an incredible educational experience for the students.  One of my own debaters expressed that it was the “best tournament ever.” It provided my students not only with the opportunity to compete but to make friends with people in Korea.

Participating in international debate will be facilitated by encouraging students to learn a new debate format.  High school debaters abroad mostly compete in World’s, a modified British-parliamentary debate format, and many, including more than 2500 students in Asia, are beginning to adopt the NFL’s Public Forum format. If students want many opportunities to debate internationally, it will help if they learn to participate in one of these formats. There is some more limited competition occurring in the individual events in Korea and Taiwan, but in terms of volume, most of the debating is occurring in the World’s and Public Forum formats. Most students find the transition to these other events to be rather simple and it is easy to find instructional resource materials online.

I strongly encourage all coaches to start to consider how they can provide international learning and speech and debate competition opportunities for their students and to establish a goal of providing at least one opportunity to all experienced competitors on their teams.  This might include anything from text and written debating to traveling abroad to a foreign competition.  For coaches, this may involve learning about a new format, new ways of debating, and perhaps even traveling abroad for the first time.

Although providing international experiences for students is and additional “thing to do” for many coaches, I think it that many will find it to be a rewarding experience for themselves, and it is certainly something that will benefit students.

Over the past few years, the NFL has been working to develop opportunities for US students to abroad by building institutional connections with debating organizations around the world, developing online debate infrastructure, and working to learn about other debating formats and ways of debating in order to provide US students with opportunities to compete abroad.

Developing ties with East Asia.  In January 2012, the NFL began working with Dipont Education Management in China to develop Public Forum debate in China, to providing opportunities for students and schools from China to join the NFL, to compete in the NFL national tournament through qualifiers in their own districts, and to develop “NFL China” itself.  This year, more than 1,800 students are enrolled in debate classes since September and more than 400 Public Forum teams have participated in regional qualifying tournaments. Ten Public Forum teams from China will participate in the NFL national tournament in Birmingham.  In March 2012, the NFL developed a partnership with a debating organization in South Korea to develop the National Forensic League of Korea.  This league has hosted two national qualifying tournaments based on regional qualifiers throughout Korea and the finalists in this national tournament are now qualified to compete in the tournament in Birmingham. Similar efforts are also beginning in Japan and Taiwan. 

World Schools round robin and demonstration at NFL nationals.   The NFL will host a World School’s (BP style) format round robin during NFL nationals in Birmingham from June 19-21.  The purpose of this round-robin tournament is to invite leading teams to come to NFL Nationals, stage workshops about the format, hold a tournament and then have the two top teams debate in front of the NFL Nationals attendees on Friday afternoon. This effort will hopefully increase awareness and interest in this global debate format in the USA.

This program will be paid for by a contribution from an anonymous donor who wishes to share the WSDC format with the debaters of the USA. Six teams will be invited to the event. These teams will be:

•USA world schools team
•Houston Urban Debate League WSDC champion team
•Canada world schools team
•Mexico world schools team
•Singapore world schools team
•Slovenia world schools team

Wednesday, June 19th will be a training day for those who wish to learn more about the format. Thursday, June 19th will be feature a round robin between all of the teams and on Friday, June 19th, the top teams will compete at the finals venue of the tournament.  These training sessions and the demonstrations provide US coaches and students with opportunities to learn about the event without leaving the United States.

Qatar conference. In January 2013, I attended the Qatar International Argumentation & Debate conference to learn more about the development of debate and other regions of the world and to lay the groundwork for debating opportunities for US NFL students. I wrote extensively about this experience in the April Rostrum.

Online competition system.  This spring, the NFL launched an online debating platform at  This platform permits NFL members to connect virtually with anyone in the world and engage in online debating. The platform allows individuals to connect with NFL members of their choosing and engage in online debates.  If the debate is judged and a decision is rendered, students can earn NFL points for the competition.  Now that the NFL has laid the ground work to build connects with debate organizations and students overseas who have signed-up for the NFL, this system creates many opportunities for US NFL members to debate international students.

Public Forum debate curriculum.  As part of efforts to develop debating opportunities abroad in a format that is familiar to US students, the NFL and the Harvard Debate Council have co-developed a Public Forum debate textbook and curriculum that is being sued to support the development of debate.  The book will also go on sale in the US this year. Through partnerships with NFL Korea, the volume will also be available in app form on Android devices and Ipad/Iphone.

Given the importance of creating international educational opportunities for students and the role that speech and debate education can play in this education, the NFL has been working hard over the past year to develop international forensic opportunities for US students.  Ultimately, however, it is US coaches that will act to provide international speech and debate opportunities for their students.

The role of the coach in supporting international debate opportunities for their students is essential, and there is no better individual to rely on than the debate coach to develop these opportunities for his or her students. In many ways, debate coaches act as grassroots educational activists who work tirelessly to provide life-changing educational experiences for their students. Without the advocacy and support of coaches, it is unlikely that speech and debate teams would even exist, let alone provide students with extensive opportunities for competition that turn into life-changing learning events.

Given the value that international academic experiences have for students, given the role that speech and debate education can foster in developing many of the skills necessary for a global education, and given the desire of all speech and debate coaches to provide all students with the type of academic opportunities that students at schools like Avenues and Miss Porter’s are receiving, I’m confident that the US debate coaches will continue to work as grassroots educational activists in developing these opportunities for their students. I hope that the groundwork laid by the NFL will assist their efforts.


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