After a close round, a young junior debater nervously laughed and asked: “Wasn’t this a prepared motion at the world championships? Why is it being used as a junior impromptu motion in Hong Kong?” I didn’t answer, but if I had been pressed I would have said: “Because things have changed.”
The level of quality in the Hong Kong debating scene has risen far and fast recently, and judges and coaches alike are forced to constantly be on their toes. Several years ago, I would go in to judge a debate and pray at least one person in there would remember to offer a rebuttal. Now, a rebuttal won’t just be given – it’s prioritised, is organised, and is effective. I used to watch debates on tedious motions such as “This house believes that children watch too much TV”, or “This house prefers mini buses to taxis”, because anything else was considered too hard for juniors.
Not long ago, at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) Discovery and Innovation Challenge, I observed a team – in their first ever competitive round – debate the motion: “This house believes that megacities are good for the developing world”.
I was blown away.
The debating revolution in Hong Kong is well under way. Pre-written speeches, robotically read with little passion, are being replaced with wide-eyed debaters that have deliberate, determined control of the room. A rebuttal is no longer something you have to do to ensure you don’t lose marks – it’s now seen as both as a tool to intimidate your opponents, and the key to winning an argument. Students look at their stopwatches in frustration – not because they’re waiting for time to end, but because they have more to say, and no time to say it.
If you want to know why debating matters, then simply look at yourself and your friends. You are becoming more critical (in every sense of the word), independent, curious, empathetic, and passionate. You are global citizens, whose knowledge and points of view will eventually bear the kind of fruit that nourishes those around you. The wide range of schools involved in debating is particularly good to see, as it shows that the old stereotypes of international schools dominating everything has been swept away by a new generation of students and coaches.
The next step in the revolution is to make the debates more strategic. Instead of six people giving lists of ideas, the debates must evolve into a contest with two clearly contrasting world views. We need to see teams with a clear idea of what they stand for, value, and wish to achieve. Do they want to minimise harm to children? Do they believe that freedom of speech must never be prioritised over security? Once they know this, they must then ask the key question: “What does the other team believe in?” Never mind the arguments, and the rebuttals – what is the root idea at the centre of their case?
Teams that understand this will be able to give their arguments impact. This means understanding and explaining why an argument should contribute toward winning the debate. Imagine a “this house would ban X”-style motion. Most students will instinctively run their case as a list of arguments as to why X is harmful. Very few connect those arguments back to the first principle – why do we ban something in the first place? Here’s how it should go: “X has the following harmful factors. Things with these harmful factors tend to be banned because of Y. Since X has these same harmful factors, X fits the logic of Y, and therefore ought to be banned.”
The lightning-quick development of debating in Hong Kong down to its passionate students and dedicated teachers. They’re the ones laying down some very groundwork for Hong Kong and its future citizens. Long may it continue.
Greg Forse is the World Schools Debating Championships Head Coach of Team Hong Kong, Head of World Schools Debating Championships, Hong Kong Schools’ Debating and Public Speaking Community.
To find out more about debating, visit www.hkssdebating.com, or contact Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debating Competition Coordinator Stan Dyer via firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to enter a team in the 17/18 Term 2 Competition.