China’s young students keen on debating in English to grow critical thinking skills
Group photo of a debating team in an English debate competition in Shanghai  Photo:
Debate competition and training, boosted by China’s long-standing English learning fever, is being coveted in both big and lower-tier cities, allowing the country’s younger generation to develop critical thinking skills.

With training workshops sprouting up, there are routinely 30-40 English debate competitions annually in quite a few Chinese cities. And young Chinese people are putting on good performance at international tournaments, presenting a good contest for those from English-speaking countries. In 2018, a Chinese team was crowned at the renowned World Schools Debating Championships, a global championship for high school debaters.

Urban China’s craze for English learning that has continued for nearly three decades is behind the boom. For those born in the late 1990s and 2000s, an upgraded English-language learning now puts an emphasis on critical thinking, cross-cultural communications and leadership.

Vida Peng first participated in an English debate competition when she was 15 years old. During the three years at the Hangzhou Foreign Language school, she had gone to different cities in China, Thailand and South Korea to engage in 18 events and training programs. This September, Vida will begin to attend a liberal arts college in the United States. In her personal statement, she talked about how English debate had freed her from stereotypical views and helped her develop analytical skills.

With middle class rising in lower-tier Chinese cities, English teaching and debate training resources are being channeled to the potential markets to satisfy surging demand. Meanwhile, online English education is used to complement what’s lacking in the smaller cities, like native English teachers and major debate competitions.

36 Kr Research Institute surveyed parents of those aged between four and 15, to find out that parents in lower-tier cities are willing to spend a lot on their children’s online English courses.  “The parents on average spend 8,300 yuan on online classes annually, while for those not from well-off families, the amount of expenditure on the classes could account for a considerable part of their total income.”

In 2017, Wen Qinglin who worked for seven years as an English debate trainer and judge set up his own training facilities in Shanghai, Nanjing and Chengdu. “Shanghai is the most exciting place for English debaters in China, considering the city boasts many renowned international schools, major global debate events, workshops and families that could afford all the resources,” he said.

The main purpose to train Chinese kids for debating in English is not to improve their language skills but to train them how to reason and think critically and independently, just like their foreign peers. The basic rule is to pinpoint the problems, propose solutions, evaluate the solutions and make some improvements.

Zheng Bo, the founder of Tsinghua debating team and judge for the World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC), believes the English debate system could be more “adept in” constructing logical frameworks.

Since 2011, debate competitions in Chinese were included in the WUDC structure, and the British Parliament Debate Championship began to hold contests in China. It’s believed that the most influential Chinese-language competition is the International Varsity Debate which started in 1993.

English language is widely used in global debate competitions. Compared with Chinese-language debates, it covers a much wider range of topics, and would not intentionally dodge culturally or politically sensitive issues.

The English debate incorporates cross-cultural dialogue and “citizen of the world” point of view. Debaters could meet with rivals from different cultures and countries. With a specific topic, different values formed in different cultures and educational systems would interact or contest with each other. “So, it’s not limited to the Chinese ways of seeing things or moral judgements anymore,” a veteran debater was quoted as saying.

Against this backdrop, the English debate that combines language learning and reasoning skills highlights the importance of critical thinking which could be overlooked by the country’s exam-orientated education.

Despite the growing market, the English debate in China remains a “game for elite” and not for every young kid. Compared with musical or fine arts courses, training for debate in the foreign language tends to be overpriced. One hour in Wen Qinglin’s private classes would cost over 400 yuan, while most summer programs for the activity in China cost an average 500-1000 yuan per day.

Vida revealed that over 70,000 yuan had been spent on her three years’ competitions, workshop activities, accommodation and travel for participating in the events. At the current stage, high-quality training for the skills is largely limited to middle-class families.

Hao Xiaowei, a critical thinking trainer with the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, said it’s necessary to do something with the now merely “exclusive access” to English debate activities, so that critical thinking could be included into “civic education”. “The goal should not be for the young kids to go abroad and enroll in good schools but to turn them into citizens who care about social issues, sympathize with others and are capable of standing for what they believe.”     

The article is based on a Chinese report by 

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