Elementary Students Shine at Korea International Debate Tournament

Students gather at the NFL Korea winter championship.
Students gather at the NFL Korea Winter Championship.

Today (August 16, 2014) I had the opportunity to judge the final round of the Elementary School Public Forum division at the NFL (NSDA) Korea International Championship Tournament. The debate pitted students from Heung Duk Elementary against students from LDBS Elementary.

As it was the first debate I had ever witnessed amongst elementary students, I was especially anxious to see the debating abilities of elementary school students. In the United States (and even in Korea), formal debate competition amongst elementary students is quite rare, with the only competition that I know of occurring in the New York City Urban Debate League and in California.

Elementary students from the New York City Urban Debate League face off
Elementary students from the New York City Urban Debate League face off

I must simply say was incredibly impressed by the preparation, talent, English language abilities (all were ESL students), and skill of all of the students in the debate. Their debating not only demonstrated the hard work and preparation of the students but also the dedication and teaching abilities of their coaches, Megan Kowalski and Bill Eddy.

There were a number of specific things that impressed me.

Topic knowledge. The students debated the following resolution – Resolved: There should be more emphasis on liberal arts education over the sciences in Asia.

If you are familiar with the educational model common in East Asia, you know that it emphasizes rote learning methods in classrooms that emphasize hierarchy and that are largely focused on math and science education. This is contrasted with more “Western” models that often emphasize a more liberal arts oriented approach.

I was simply amazed at how much these elementary school students demonstrated an understanding the core issues and were able to so clearly articulate those arguments in the debate.

The Pro side argued that the current educational model in East Asia is too focused on rote learning and hierarchy and it undermines innovate and creative spirit in students that is needed for innovation, the development of talent, and intellectual growth.   They argued for a Project Based Learning (their words) approach as a superior pedagogical (their word again!) method. They also argued that students who had experience in this model would be more likely to become independent learners and independent adults. Their final argument was that employers valued communication skills that alternative approaches to learning emphasize.

Pro side debaters from LDBS argue in favor of emphasizing liberal arts education in Asia.
Pro side debaters from LDBS argue in favor of emphasizing liberal arts education in Asia.

The Con side argued that East Asia should continue to emphasize more traditional approaches to learning with a special emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) approaches (yes, they had a great understanding of STEM). Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), they said, was high in East Asia because of the emphasis it education system places on STEM. They said this investment was critical to the growth of the regional economy.

Con side debaters argue that education East Asia should continue to focus on science and technology development.
Con side debaters from Heung Duk Elementary  argue that education East Asia should continue to focus on science and technology development.

They argued that alternative approaches to education would be too expensive because they would require smaller class sizes and require the hiring of many foreign teachers. This would also undermine the economy.

Finally, the Con strongly challenged they Pro claim that a focus on a liberal arts education would improve employment opportunities. They argued that liberal arts majors struggled to get jobs after college, that those majors were burdened by high levels of student debt, and that there would be fewer jobs for employers to offer if the East Asian economy was undermined.

Line by line debate abilities. Line by line debating simply refers to the idea that students debate with a “flow” and directly answer each others arguments in a point-by-point manner by first referencing the argument and then directly responding to it. These debaters excelled at this, and it is a skill that many students in middle school and high school struggle with!

Confidence. The confidence that these students displayed was incredible. They were very comfortable in their debating environment. I’m sure that their full understanding of the arguments helped substantially in displaying such a high level of confidence.

Evidence. Both teams were very well researched and had excellent evidence (quotes) that they intelligently deployed to defend their own arguments and respond to their opponent’s arguments.

In conclusion, I simply cannot state how impressed I was with the debating of these students. They would be competitive in any Middle School debate competition in the United States, and I think they would even likely advance to the elimination rounds in Middle School. They would also give a lot of beginning high school students much more competition than they would be expecting.

Congratulations to these students and everyone involved with both coaching them and with providing the opportunity for them to debate. I simply never cease to be amazed with what young learners can do when they are provided with ample learning opportunities and support.