An Evaluation of Four-Team-Per-Contest Swiss (Power Paired) Tournament Structures Using Computer Models in Python

Neil du Toit


In this paper we present the results of an analysis of the structuring of four-team-per-contest, Swiss (power paired) / elimination tournaments. We create models for teams and tournaments using Python. Team scores are sampled from normal distributions. We estimate the mean and variance parameters of the distributions based on a statistical analysis of the tab of the Chennai World Universities Debating Championships 2014. We provide a discussion of the appropriate methodology for selecting evaluation measurements. We then provide an overview of the more common measures of rank correlation, and rank disorder. We run one thousand iterations of the model of each tournament structure. For each model, the iterations are performed once under the assumption of no team variance, and once using samples from the distributions. The results provide accurate estimates for the population means of the chosen metrics. The no variance iterations isolate the inherent fairness, and suggest the inherent competitiveness, of the tournament structures. The iterations with estimated parameters suggest how fairly the tournament will perform in real world applications. By comparing the performance of the tournament structures, we suggest answers to the following questions: Which bubbling procedure is most fair? Which intra-bracket match-up procedure is most fair? How many rounds should a tournament have? How many randomised rounds should a tournament have? How influential are these decisions on the competitiveness and fairness of a tournament? How fair and competitive are power paired tournaments?


The Swiss tournament system was first used in a chess tournament in Zurich, in 1895. Since then, FIDE(the World Chess Federation) has officially recognised five different Swiss tournament structures.1 Originally,preference was given to ensuring board fairness (the equivalent of ensuring that debating teams speak in each position a similar number of times). Over time, more emphasis started being placed on ensuring competitor fairness.

The Swiss tournament structure has a number of attributes that make it an incredibly desirable format for debating tournaments. It can be completed in significantly fewer rounds than a Round Robin. Round robin tournaments also pair up the weakest teams against the strongest, which can be undesirable. In comparison to elimination tournaments, the Swiss system has the advantage of allowing everyone to compete in all of the (prelim) rounds.

However, in porting the Swiss system to British Parliamentary debating, new problems have been introduced. The fact that ordering problems exist is common knowledge. We do not, however, know the severity of the problem; and the precise nature of its causes is often confused.

In this paper we will be looking at the prelim stages of a Swiss/elimination tournament. The fact that there is an elimination phase after the prelims, is important in so far as it requires us to look at the ’break’ ordering of the prelims. We will not, however, be looking at the elimination stage per se. We begin by investigating some of the more relevant differences between chess and debating, and the problems which they cause.

Causes of Power Pairing Failure

The Monotonicity Problem

One of the FIDE rules, which apply to every tournament structure, is that no two players may face each other twice. The primary reason for this is rather simple: if teams repeatedly face each other, then they will be taking too many points off each other. The result is that lower ranked teams can easily ’catch up’, and,therefore, the difference between teams on the tab will no longer have any relation to the true difference in skill between the teams. In effect, the tab is ”compressed”.2 Again, it is well known that the middle of the tab often ’catches’ the top rooms, when teams in the top rooms are constantly taking points off each other. This may appear to make the tournament more exciting, but it is not too difficult to imagine the injustice that may result. Consider a team just below the break who repeatedly catches a team just above it. The higher rated team may win several of these encounters. However, the lower rated team only needs to win once(at the end), in order to break, above the better team. This is the case no matter how much better the higher rated team actually was. By forcing monotonicity, chess tournaments allow the gap between teams to widen, until they reflect the true difference in ability between the teams.

The Stability Problem

Arguably the most serious concern with power pairing, is its instability. This refers to the fact that the tab doesn’t converge to any particular order. After settling, it fluctuates, quite significantly, around the correct order. This is true even in the complete absence of any upsets. The source of this problem lies in the fact that four teams compete in each BP debate. By awarding more than one point for a win, power pairing enables teams to ’jump’ over brackets, without having had to face any team in that bracket. By ’bracket’,we mean a group of teams in a tournament that are on the same number of points (the WUDC Constitution uses the word ’pool’ to mean the same thing). For example, should one bracket have 4 teams on n points,and another bracket have 4 teams on n+1 points, 2 of the teams on n points will end up above a team who started on n+1 points. Necessarily.
Screenshot 2014-12-23 19.53.28

In the initial stages of the tournament, this is not much of a problem. However, once a portion of the tab has settled, then running another round will disorder that portion. Since different parts of the tab settle at different times, a significant portion of the tab is always going to be getting more disordered each round. The result, is an upper limit to how ordered the tab can get, before the order starts fluctuating, and the degree of order levels off towards an asymptote. This does, of course, only happen when teams are close together. The monotonicity problem described above ensures this compression. In that sense, these two problems are mutually re-enforcing

Creating A Metric for The Disorder of Tabs

There is a considerable amount of literature on the subject of disorder, and several definitions from which we can choose. As Paul Collier notes,3 one should always try and use criteria set by other researchers, so as to avoid the temptation to define your hypothesis to be correct. None the less, many measures of disorder are inappropriate for tournaments.4 We therefore offer a brief discussion of how we selected our criteria


In this paper, we are primarily interested in practically significant differences. To that end, we would like our metrics to be interpretable. That is to say that they should have an obvious meaning. Measures such as the Kendall τ coefficient and Goodman and Kruskal’s gamma, are popular, and well suited to hypothesis testing. However, they don’t offer any insight into the absolute disorder of a list.


In tournament evaluation, we must fully account for outliers. If a team is severely disadvantaged by a tournament, it will be no consolation to the team that this was a rare event. Tournament structures need to be designed to ensure that every instantiation meets some minimum criteria of fairness (in the absence of variance attributable to the teams). Therefore, we use some statistics which are noticeably volatile.

Consideration for The Break

It is again well known that power pairing has a preference for the extremes. That is to say that the top and bottom few teams in each tournament will be relatively better ordered than the middle. An important part of the preliminary stages of a tournament is the ranking of the break teams. This is unique to our purposes,and traditional measures of disorder will not take this into account

Metrics Used

Preliminary Definitions:

•A team’s “rating” is where they should have placed in the tournament

•A team’s “ranking” is where they actually placed

• “The break” refers to the top ranked 16 teams

Measurements on The Entire Tab

Spearman’s Footrule Distance: Spearman’s Footrule Distance is the sum of the differences between the ratings and the rankings of the teams5

Spearman’s ρ Distance: The Spearman’s ρ distance is similar to Spearman’s footrule, however, it exaggerates outliers, by squaring the distances before summation6.

Measurements on The Break

Measurements Relating to The Correctness of The Break

Break upsets: Break upsets is the number of teams that should have broke, but didn’t. Equivalently, it is the number of teams that shouldn’t have broke, but did.

Break-loser: The break loser is the top rated team to not break in a tournament. Ideally this is the team rated 17th. If the number is significantly lower than this, then it will indicate that a strong team has been severely disadvantage in that tournament

Measurements Relating to The Ordering of The Break

Spearman’s Footrule Distance on The Break: We re-rate the teams who have made the break from 1 to 16. The Spearman’s Footrule Distance is then calculated as normal.

The Models

How the Models Calculate Intra-Bracket Match-ups and Bubbles


Bubbling is the procedure whereby the tabbers adjust the brackets in order to make each bracket consist of a number of teams that is divisible by four. The WUDC Constitution, Art 30(3)(c), states that “If any pool (The Upper Pool) consists of an amount of teams equivalent to a number that is not divisible by four,then teams from the pool ranking immediately below that pool (The Lower Pool) may be promoted to the Upper Pool…”  This is a somewhat cumbersome provision.7. However, it is clear that bubbling must consist of ’pull ups’. We investigated three different ways of selecting the teams from the lower bracket that need to be bubbled up:

Low: Teams in the lower bracket will be bubbled starting from the bottom, in terms of rating. See Figure 2.

High: Teams in the lower bracket will be bubbled starting from the top, in terms of rating

Random: Teams in the lower bracket will be bubbled randomly. Note that this is currently what the WUDC Constitution requires

The WUDC Constitution, Art 30(3)(d) provides that “Once the pools have been adjusted in accordance with 3(c) then the pools are divided into debates of four teams”. We investigated three different ways in which this can be done:

Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.09.17Splitting: Teams in a bracket will be paired in the same way as teams 17th to 48th in Art 30(5)(b)of the WUDC Constitution, adjusting for bracket size. See Figure 3.

High-High: The top four rated teams in bracket will form a room, continuing as such through thebracket

Random: Teams in a bracket will be paired randomly. Note that this is currently what the WUDC Constitution requires.

Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.12.54The Model Without Upsets

We rate 3668 teams from 1 to 366. The top rated team in every room will always win, followed by the next highest rated team, and so on. The only differences in outcome, over the various iterations of the model, are due to the first round, which is completely randomised, as in Art 30(2)(g) of the WUDC Constitution.

Model With Upsets

An upset is any debate result in which a team places higher than a team which was ”better” than them. This happens when variance is introduced to the team’s performances. We wish to investigate how well the different tournament structures tolerate variance. I.e. are the results still reasonably accurate, when a couple of upsets occur? It must be stressed, however, that too much weight should not be afforded to these results. Teams have been modelled based on the 2014 Worlds tab, with the average speaks of each team in each round being used to estimate the mean and variance of each team’s speaks.9 From these populations, the model will sample scores for those teams in each round. Unlike in the case of no upsets, we now have to determine what the ratings of the teams ”should” b. This question is not a trivial one. The first question is whether the estimated population means, or the actually attained means, should be used for comparison purposes. We decided that the latter would be more appropriate. An iteration of the model which samples,on average, higher or lower than the population mean, models a case where a team performs better or worse at that given tournament than they would normally be expected. It is only right that they should thus place higher or lower, respectively. The second question is more tricky. It concerns whether a team with a lower mean score than another team might actually be “better” in some sense than that team. The best estimate,of course, is that they are not. However, see section 7.5 for a discussion of this problem.


Figure 4 and 6 tabulate the results of the different bubbling and pairing10 procedures, for a 9 round tournament with 1 random round. Figure 4 shows results without upsets, figure 6 shows results with upsets. Figures 5 and 7 are plots the five number summaries of the Spearman’s Footrule distance results from tables 4 and 6. “High-High” pairing permutations are on a separate axis, because the values of their five point summaries are all orders of magnitude above those from the summaries from the other permutations. Figure 8 shows how the mean of the Spearman’s Footrule distance decreases as the number of rounds in a tournament increases. The tournament structure used is one with random pairing and bubbling. Note how the graphs level off towards an asymptote. Figure 9 shows the effect on the mean of the Spearman’s Footrule distance, when more rounds in the tournament are allocated to completely randomised pairing (as in Art30(2)(g) of the WUDC Constitution). The total number of rounds remains constant, at 9. The tournament structure used is one with random pairing and bubbling.

Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.21.40Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.23.33Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.22.49

Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.24.29Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.24.33Screenshot 2014-12-23 20.25.38Interpreting the Results

A Note on Speaker Scores

Any non-randomised tournament structure will necessarily need to compare teams who are on the same number of points. The most obvious way to do this is by using team average speaker scores. It might therefore be worth discussing some issues raised in English and Kilcup’s Article, Abolish Speaker Tabs.11 First, it must be noted that the team’s average speaker score does not suffer from all of the problems of individual speaker scores, described in English and Kilcup’s article. Second, if speaker scores are used in determining match-ups or bubbling, I would recommend not using the total speaks up to that round (which is what our model used). Rather, use the speaks from only the previous round. This will both make each round more competitive, and will ensure that outlier speaker scores only affect a team once. Third, it must be noted that there are many alternatives to speaker scores, which can also separate tied teams. Chess systems have had to develop measures of relative strength based only on wins, because you don’t get a score in chess, you only win or lose. For example: the Buchholz System takes the sum of the points of each of the opponents faced by a team. “Direct Encounters”, splits players (teams) based on who performed best when they faced each other. “Number of games played as black”, is self-descriptive, and is used because black is considered more difficult. This could find an analogue as ”number of debates as Opening Government”, or whichever position has been weakest. There are several other systems as well,1 and new ones could be created for debating (such as WUDC Constitution Art 4(a)(iii)).

Fairness and Competitiveness

Fairness is what we have been directly measuring with the model. It concerns whether the better teams in a tournament do actually do better, and if not, how evenly teams are prejudiced. A related, but not equivalent concept is that of competitiveness. Competitiveness refers to the extent to which a tournament incentivises teams to perform at their best. In any tournament where future round match-ups can be both predicted by the teams, and affected by them, there may arise an incentive to perform poorly. In theory, a tournament that is fair will not be uncompetitive. In practice, unfair tournaments can be competitive, and vice versa. For example, elimination tournaments are very unfair, have predictable future rounds, and yet are very competitive. This is because teams can’t affect who they face in future. They either face whoever gets assigned to them, or they drop out. By contrast, round robins are the most fair tournament structures,and yet they often become highly uncompetitive. This is because teams who do badly early on start taking the tournament less seriously. It is apposite to mention here the analogous effect of dropping blind rounds. When teams reach a point where they either have enough, or too few points to break, it will affect their performance, if they are aware of the fact.

How Do the Tournament Structures Support Competitiveness?

Broadly speaking, randomisation supports competitiveness through unpredictability. Splitting brackets, and bubbling low, support competitiveness by creating incentives to score high. Pairing high, and bubbling high, do not support competitiveness at all, because they create incentives to score low. Note that these considerations only apply to speaker scores, not points.

How Do the Tournament Structures Support Fairness?

We submit that the only way for a tournament to be more fair, is to order the teams better, and minimize outlier teams. It could be argued that a tournament which does a worse job of ordering teams, is in fact more ”fair”, if it prejudices teams on a random basis. This is fallacious reasoning. If a team ends up being severely disadvantaged, due to a combination of randomly being bubbled up more often than other teams and/or randomly drawing the strongest teams in the bracket more often than other teams, it will not be any consolation that this was a rare event, nor will it help that all the other teams in the tournament had stood an equal chance of being so disadvantaged.13 That random can be unfair, is perhaps even more evident when considering completely randomised rounds, in figure 9. More completely randomised rounds aren’t even less fair by the Spearman’s Footrule metric, they are more fair, and yet one would undoubtedly still be very cautious of having too many completely randomised rounds. The reason is simple, some teams might be disadvantaged too much in having to face very strong teams. These same sorts of black swan events can happen within brackets. Evidence of this can be found by looking at the maximum values of the metrics in figures 4 and 6. In particular, the Spearman’s Rho metric, which exaggerates outlying teams within a tournament. Notice how the Spearman’s Rho maximum for ”Random Random” is more than double that for ”Splitting Low”, in the no upsets table. If one can appreciate that completely randomised rounds may be unfair, then it should not be too much of a stretch to imagine that randomised pairing and bubbling, which do worse than other tournament structures, by the Spearman’s Footrule metric, may be unfair as well.

Understanding Bubbling and Intra Bracket Pair-Ups

Pairing teams high-high, and bubbling high teams, was historically a popular method. The argument for this system is probably based on the mistaken assumption that, because power pairing pairs off teams on the same or similar points, it should pair off teams on the same or similar speaks. Two differences between speaks and points make this reasoning erroneous. Firstly, the tab doesn’t weight speaks equally to points. Ranking is by points first, and then by speaks. The primary objective of any debating tournament is there-fore to ensure that teams get the correct points, not the correct speaks. By bubbling and pairing high,it is the teams in the bracket that should have got the most points from a round, who are now the most disadvantaged.14 The second difference, is that points are zero sum. This means that, ceteris paribus, the other teams in your room will determine how many points you get. Speaks, however, are largely (though admittedly not entirely) independent of the other teams in the room. Therefore, if the tournament is also interested in getting a good speaks ranking, it doesn’t matter much where teams are.

There is also an interaction between bubbling, and the stability problem described in section 2.2 above. Recall that some of the teams in a bracket will end up outranking teams in the bracket above them, when each new round is run. Bubbling high means that it won’t even be the best teams in the lower bracket who “jump” in this way. It will be the teams below the best teams; the best teams having just bubbled up.

Low bubbling is perhaps counter intuitive. The logic behind it is that the teams in the bracket who were originally expected to lose, should be the ones who are disadvantaged. Bubbling is always going to be a problem for someone. With low bubbling, in the absence of upsets, things will go almost the same way they would have, if no bubbling had taken place (but see section 7.5). Perhaps most importantly, low bubbling increases the stability of the tournament. When the top teams in a bracket ”jump” over the teams in a higher bracket, some of those teams that they jump over will now be teams that had bubbled. I.e. teams that they would normally beat anyway.

Splitting brackets is analogous to low bubbling. It affords the teams who are better on average the greatest chance of winning.

Last Note on Variance and Upsets

One could always simply rank teams by their total speaks. If speaker scores were completely reliable, then this tournament would, by one rating method, be perfectly fair. However, even assuming that speaker scores are completely reliable, there are reasons why such a tournament would not be preferable. Tournaments should give teams a chance to recover from bad rounds, to do well when it counts, etc. In this way, a team may rightly be considered ”better” than a team that outscores them. Similar reasoning reveals a problem with low bubbling. At a given stage in a tournament, the best estimate is always that the bottom teams in a bracket ”should” generally lose the next round (if there are no upsets). Yet no-one would suggest giving these teams an automatic fourth. The purpose of having a full tournament in the first place, is to give them a chance to do better. By extension, it cannot be correct to make it unreasonably difficult for them to do well. Some amount of outright upsets in a tournament may even be considered healthy. The same problem also presents itself when splitting brackets. However, it does so to a much smaller extent. We maintain that a tournament should, at a minimum, seek to be fair in the absence of any upsets. However, the importance of variance in speaker performance must not be overlooked.


It is apparent that the preliminary rounds of debating tournaments cannot be considered to be particularly fair. The two largest reasons for this problem, are probably the lack of monotonicity, and the stability problem, caused by art Art30(3)(h)(ii) and (iii) of the WUDC Constitution. As a result, we suggest the following:

• The prelim rounds should only be seen to ensure that at least a large portion of the top 16 teams in a tournament will continue to the break rounds. The tab should not be considered to have any further value.

• As a direct consequence of the above, all Swiss tournaments must have break rounds. Tournaments structures such as that used at the South African WUPID qualifier, 2014, which consist of only power paired rounds, must not be used again. If it is desired that every team is able to speak in every round, then a round robin format must be followed.

• Tournament organisers, and the WUDC, should seriously investigate the possibility of placing at least some upper bound on the number of times that teams may see each other

• It has been shown that splitting brackets for match-ups, and bubbling low teams, significantly reduces the unfairness of tournaments. However, the bubbling structure is much less influential, and low bubbling presents its own concerns, which might outweigh its benefits. Splitting brackets, however,should be seriously considered as an alternative to randomisation.

•No tournament should ever match up teams high-high, or bubble up high teams.

  2. The other reason is obvious, tournaments are also just more fun when teams get to see a larger number of different teams.
  3. Collier, P The Bottom Billion (2007) page 18
  4. For example, many of the measures of the disorder of a list, are tailored to measuring the number of CPU cycles required for a computer to sort the list.
  5. Diaconis, P & Graham, R. L Spearman’s Footrule as a Measure of Disarray Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series B (1977) Vol.39(2) page 262-268
  6. Diaconis, P Spearman’s Footrule as a Measure of Disarray
  7. Why not just: ”…consists of a number of teams that is not divisible by four…”?
  8. There were 340 team at Worlds 2014. We drop four, because not all teams completed in all the rounds.
  9. We recognise that speaker scores are somewhat unreliable. However, they are certainly the best estimate available for the absolute strength of teams, for the purposes of modelling upsets. See also section 7.1, for more on this.
  10. The word pairing doesn’t accurately capture the fact that there are four teams in a debate. But we use it for convenience.
  11. M English & J Kilcup Abolish Speaker Tabs Monash Debate Review (2013)
  13. The FIDE chess rules, in addition to monotonicity, require that a team may only bubble once per tournament.
  14. It also has the effect of inflating the scores of the teams who don’t bubble. However, low bubbling also has the effect of deflating the remaining team’s scores. Thus, between low and high bubbling, this a moot point.

Transgender exclusion in debating: A case for pronoun introductions

Crash Wigley

This article is a condensed and amended version of an article that was published online in June 2014, which can be accessed at In this piece I argued that the debating circuit should establish a policy in which debaters are asked for their name, speaking position and preferred pronoun at the beginning of all rounds.

The reaction of the circuit to the policy has generally been reassuring. Since the original article’s publication, it has now become common practice in the IONA circuit to institute pronoun introductions at competitions, and most competitions in IONA have used the policy outlined in this document or variants thereof. Pronoun introductions have also been used in competitions on the US circuit, in continental European Competitions (such as the Ljubljana IV) and at EUDC 2014. I am grateful for this response – to be clear, I would not have been able to continue with debating if the situation had carried on as it was, and this was the driving force behind the original article – and as ever, welcome any questions or suggestions about the policy. In England, the National Universities Debating Council has set up a working group on the best way we can formalise pronoun introductions as a circuit (through formalising a national policy, sharing best practice etc.). Other national circuits (including Ireland and Scotland) have also formally instituted pronoun policies. In the UK, we are also developing a policy for introducing pronoun introductions at schools-level competitions, recognising the importance of supporting transgender young people and countering transphobia at school along with the unique challenges of communicating this information to teenagers.

For reference: I use the words trans and transgender interchangeably to refer to people whose gender doesn’t match up with the gender they were assigned at birth, and/or who have genders other than female or male. This includes trans men, trans women and people with non-binary identities (e.g. genderqueer people, gender neutral people etc.). I use the words cisgender and cis to refer to people who aren’t transgender.

The deal with misgendering

During debates speakers use gendered language to talk about the other people in the debate, whether that’s saying ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ when offering a POI, or using pronouns to refer to what previous speakers have said (e.g. “Speaker X said this, but what he doesn’t understand is…”). Similarly, judges refer to speakers using gendered pronouns during the deliberation, when calling speakers up to speak and when explaining the call and giving feedback.

In debates, trans people put themselves at risk of being publicly misgendered (i.e. referred to by the wrong gender) which can be upsetting. It is unpleasant if you are, for example, a transgender man and people repeatedly call you ‘she’ or ‘madam’ during a debate. It can make people feel self-conscious, or like their gender isn’t being respected. This is so prevalent that without pronoun introductions I would expect to be misgendered at every debating competition I attend. This makes debating an exclusive space that discourages trans debaters from participating.

In most cases, people would like to know how to avoid being making these mistakes. Even in the private setting of the judges’ deliberation, judges who care about respecting trans people’s genders should want to know how people would want themselves to be talked about. It therefore should become standard practice to do pronoun introductions at the start of each round in debating competitions. It is already common in many trans circles for people to say what pronoun they prefer when introducing themselves, and it is generally considered polite to ask for somebody’s pronoun preferences if you don’t know.

How pronoun introductions work

At the start of debates, chairs already have to find out which order the speakers in each team are speaking. When doing this chair judges should also ask which pronouns each speaker prefers.

This is the sort of exchange that occurs:

Chair: So can I check, who is speaking first for opening government?

Kate: Kate.

Chair: And what is your preferred pronoun?

Kate: She.

Chair: And speaking second?

Crash: Crash, and I don’t mind being called either they or she.

Everyone makes a mental note of this information, and then the chair proceeds to ask the speakers on the other teams in a similar and polite fashion.

Before or after this spiel, the chair or panel might also want to give their names and pronouns. Individuals may choose to specify a pronoun (such as she, he, they or any alternative pronouns) or to say that they don’t mind or have no preference.

If somebody says they want to be called ‘she’ or ‘he’, it is fair to assume that they are also happy to be called ‘madam or ‘sir’ or ‘Madam/Mister Speaker’ accordingly, unless they say otherwise. However, if somebody asks to be called ‘they’, it is sensible to avoid using gendered terms altogether, and finding gender-neutral replacements (e.g. saying ‘On that point’ rather than ‘sir’ to offer a point of information).

Two things are important. Firstly all speakers should introduce their names and pronouns to the entire room rather than just write them on the ballot, so that all other speakers know. Secondly, these introductions should happen in all rooms. If you’re cis (i.e. not trans) and don’t get misgendered on a regular basis you might think this is unnecessary for you, but unless this happens for all speakers in all rooms then it puts a lot of pressure on trans debaters to personally request to introduce their pronoun in each of their rooms. That can be intimidating and make people feel unwelcome. It requires trans debaters who want to be referred to in a specific way and are at risk of misgendering to effectively repeatedly identify themselves as transgender and ask for special treatment. It pushes the burden on transgender people to make themselves the odd one out, rather than recognising that in this circumstance we don’t need to make assumptions about anyone’s gender, and can create a space where everyone can self-define rather than be labelled.

All speakers and judges should listen carefully to which pronouns people prefer, and endeavour to use those in their speeches, and in life more generally. If speakers realise they’ve made a mistake, the best response is to quickly apologise, correct themself, and then move on. If a speaker doesn’t realise they have misgendered somebody during their speech, the chair’s place should be to remind speakers to use the pronouns that other speakers have asked to be referred to by at the end of the speaker’s speech. People should not be referred to the Equity Team for accidentally using the wrong pronoun provided they apologise if they make a mistake. Pronoun introductions remove the need for cisgender speakers to guess the preferences of speakers in their debate, and so make mistakes less common.

This system has the added benefit of judges and other speakers knowing each others’names during the debate, and allows judges to listen to how individuals pronounce their own names.

Competitions who want to introduce this system will need to explain it to all speakers and judges. It is important that people understand the reasons why pronoun introductions have come about, to stop it from becoming something we do ‘just to be politically correct’. That said, in many ways the system is straightforward, and it is sensible to not to make more out of it than needs be. On top of all this, in the separate judges’briefing, the system of asking at the start of the round should be explained, as well as the importance of asking in every round. If individuals make fun of or mock the system of pronoun introductions, they should be referred to the equity team – if trans debaters are to feel welcomed and not just ‘tolerated’people need to take pronoun introductions seriously.

Potential concerns and alternative policies

In discussions, many people have raised concerns about the effect of this policy on people who aren’t comfortable making public declarations about their gender for whatever reason. In this context it is important to note that pronoun introductions are not an affirmation of gender or identity – they’re an instruction about how you would prefer others to talk about you in a specific context. Pronoun introductions allow people who have a complicated relationship with gender to experiment with different pronoun use in a respectful space as they feel comfortable. Furthermore, it is perfectly legitimate for individuals to reply that they do not mind or have no preference if this is what they prefer.

In addition, fears that people would feel like they are ‘betraying themselves’ by asking to be referred to by ‘birth gender’ pronouns when they’re closeted are overstated. These people (whose situation I have been in myself) live in a world where they constantly have to make decisions where they present themselves in a way that doesn’t match with their identity to protect their own security. They are best placed to make these decisions for themselves. What this system does do is give people more control over the language that other people use to describe them, and that’s helpful for people who have a complicated relationship with gender. Finally, being closeted when trans is unpleasant full stop. To me, it is a greater priority that the circuit can be seen to be valuing, welcoming and supporting the participation of out trans debaters, and in doing so it can increase the confidence of people coming to terms with their gender identity. This policy does not ‘require disclosure’. It merely recognises the fact other speakers are going to have to refer to individuals by some pronoun, and gives them the opportunity to have a say in which one they choose.

At Zagreb EUDC 2014 Council, additional concerns were raised about the effect of this policy on ESL speakers.1 Nevertheless, while the circuit must be reactive to the needs of ESL speakers and the background of individuals from different circuits when considering how this policy should be introduced to tournaments by equity teams, and while recognising speakers’ different backgrounds in English might encourage participants to be more tolerant of mistakes made by speakers (especially if an individual has requested people to use a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’), ESL status should not be a carte blanche for speakers to ignore individuals’ preferences about their gender. That would have the effect of maintaining a debating circuit that is exclusive of trans debaters (many of whom will be ESL).

The alternative policy suggested by the Equity Team was to promote the use of gender-neutral language.2 This policy is insufficient. Firstly, it expects that speakers within debates will call other speakers ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ to avoid misgendering. Nevertheless, this is a much harder norm to enforce and to inform people about, as unless people are being very consciously listening out to the pronouns used, uses of ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ will go unnoticed. As a result, at best this policy would result in ‘calling everyone who looks like they abide by conventional sex-gender binaries he or she, and anyone who looks trans, queer or otherwise non-conventional ‘they’. Furthermore, the main concern expressed by ESL speakers during EUDC was that it was harder to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun as its use in that context in English is rare, and so it doesn’t overcome the concerns about language difficulties.

Consequently, such a policy would continue to make debating exclusive for many trans people. It would ignore people’s preferences to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ and not ‘they’(which is important given that many trans people will have fought for the right to be respected as a man or as a woman). Indeed, it could single out trans people to such an extent that they end up being the only ones referred to as ‘they’, implying that trans women are not seen as ‘real women’ and trans men are not seen as ‘real men’. It would also disrespect the preferences of ‘conventional-looking’ speakers who might strongly prefer the use of a pronoun that wouldn’t be anticipated. Finally, because of the concerns about norm-enforcement, trans debaters would have little confidence that participants were even going to call them ‘they’, rather than use inappropriate gender-specific pronouns. Recognising these issues, EUDC Council implied that it would be happy for individuals with such specific preferences to announce them to the room at the start of debates, a so-called ‘don’t ask, do tell policy’.3 This was effectively the status quo when I decided to first advocate for pronoun introductions, and it was what motivated me to do so – otherwise I would not have carried on debating. That policy permanently forces additional burdens onto transgender people and makes debating exclusive, as explained previously. As a result, requiring all speakers to say at the start of the debate their name, their speaking position, and which pronoun they would like others to use when speaking about them is an undemanding solution that is needed to welcome trans debaters.

The Bigger Principle

There are many reasons to think that there are advantages to pronoun introductions in everyday life. Whenever you’re asking a group of people to tell each other their names you could ask them to give their preferred pronouns. It takes the pressure off trans people to individually tell everyone how they want to be talked about; it makes cis people aware of the potential existence of transgender people and it shows that we care about how people identify rather than just applying whatever label we decide fits best. In the same way that people often choose their own name or nickname, we care about giving people the authority to decide how they are referred to by other people, and this is an extension of that principle.

Pronoun introductions are especially useful for people who are in the process of transitioning, or have a non-binary gender or an unusual gender expression because even going on names or how people dress isn’t going to be sufficient to work out people’s preferences. They also give people who might want to experiment with, for example, being called ‘they’ the opportunity to do so without it having to be such an intimidating step. They also provide space for people to define their relationship to gender in other ways (e.g. some people like being referred to as ‘they’ for ideological feminist reasons, because it limits the extent to which we are gendered unnecessarily).

As such, I would like pronoun introductions to proliferate more generally in society and I hope that our debating circuits can be a bit pioneering in this respect. I strongly believe pronoun introductions are also a bare minimum needed for at least most trans people to feel in any way comfortable at debating competitions.


Competition organisers (CA teams, equity teams, convenors) should put in place pronoun introductions in their competitions, as set out here. Information about the policy should be given in a such a way that firstly, participants understand the reasons for the policy and know what is expected of them and secondly, the wellbeing of trans debaters and trans people in society is considered. (i.e. if organising teams explain the policy poorly, the policy could make debating a less rather than more welcoming place for trans debaters).

Debating societies should use pronoun introductions where appropriate at internal events (e.g. when new members will be meeting each other for the first time). This will make debating more inclusive of trans debaters from the ground-level, and will familiarise debaters with the concept before they attend competitions.

  1. Zagreb EUDC 2014 Council Minutes, p. 8.
  2. Ibid. p.7.
  3. Ibid. pp. 8-9.

How (not) to Run Worlds: Advice from two people who needed it

Harish Natarajan and Michael Baer

When we agreed to serve as the chief adjudicators for the 34th World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC or Worlds) in Chennai, we expected to confront a wide variety of challenges – missing teams, significant delays, and even adverse dietary reactions were all within the realm of what we considered possible. The prospect that the tournaments judges would go on strike, however, was not a scenario we had entertained. Yet on the second day of the competition, we awoke to an email informing us that if independent adjudicators did not receive the travel subsidies they had been promised by the end of the day, they would refuse to judge the last three preliminary rounds and the elimination rounds of the tournament. Although the strike was averted, Worlds came dangerously close to grinding to a halt. When participants left Chennai on 4 January, the threatened judging strike and the numerous other problems meant that almost everyone saw the event as an organizational failure.

While it is comforting to treat Chennai as an aberration, its organizational difficulties were just an extreme case of a general problem. Many WUDCs have been marred by organizational shortcomings and failed to live up to their promises. The frequency of these organizational missteps is equalled by the frequency of the pledges by both WUDC hosts and the broader global debating community not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We should know: when we became the chief adjudicators for Chennais bid to host Worlds, we made many such pledges. During the bidding process and in the months leading up to the tournament, we vowed to improve the registration process, secure more reliable funding from sponsors, and house participants in a lavish hotel. We were aware that chief adjudicators and tournament organizers before us had frequently over-promised and under-delivered, but we were confident in our ability to oversee one of the most successful Worlds in recent memory. We were wrong.

So what happened? Why did Chennai Worlds fall so short of the goals we set? And why is Worlds often characterized by raised hopes at the outset and frustration during and after the tournament? This article attempts to answer these questions. Drawing on our own experiences, we reflect on some of the lessons we learned and attempt to shed light on how future hosts and the international debating community can avoid the problems that have plagued WUDCs.

What Went Wrong in Chennai?

Chennai Worlds contended with more than its fair share of organizational setbacks from tracking registration payments, to issues with getting participants visas, allocating hotel rooms, picking participants safely up from the airport, toilet paper disappearing, insufficient food provision, and dangerous dirt bike socials there are simply too many to discuss in a single article. Rather than present an exhaustive narrative of how the tournament unfolded, we have chosen to highlight a couple of incidents that illustrate some of the most serious difficulties. Unfortunately, describing some of the problems that occurred implies criticism of the institutions and individuals who organized the tournament (ourselves included). Many of these individuals worked incredibly hard and, despite the many challenges, contributed enormously to the successful elements of the tournament. Our purpose is not to disparage these individuals or otherwise point fingers nearly a year after the competition. Instead, our hope is that others will learn from our perspective and our mistakes.

Adjudicators Threaten to Go on Strike

The threatened judging strike was probably the most memorable organizational incident from Chennai. Those who were there likely remember the facts all too well. Briefly, however, here is what happened. Like all recent WUDCs, Chennai made a substantial amount of money available to help pay for experienced judges to attend Worlds as independent adjudicators.  The amount in the budget for independent adjudicator travel (and for travel alone) was 40,000 euros. 1 The adjudication core made most of the decisions about which independent adjudicators to fund, and the travel subsidies we offered were quoted in euros. Aside from the figures in the budgeting documents, we never discussed the currency of reimbursement with the administration of Rajalakshmi Engineering College (REC the institution that hosted Chennai Worlds).

At the tournament, RECs administration indicated that they wanted to pay judges in rupees, rather than euros. Their rationale was that they received income in rupees and it did not make sense to pay subsidies in a different currency. The administration also wanted to use the exchange rate that was prevalent in December 2012, rather than the one in December 2013. The rupee had depreciated during the intervening year, and so REC argued that the cost (in rupees) of providing 40,000 euros in subsidies had increased. While this was true, there had been no communication about this concern leading up to the tournament. Judges were understandably frustrated by these developments, and that frustration was made worse because the other organizational failures had already created an atmosphere of mistrust. Faced with the prospect of being underpaid in the wrong currency, and amidst a growing fear that they would not be reimbursed at all, the judges rightly, in our view, leveraged their role in the competition to force the College to pay the amount promised in euros. On day three of the competition, REC was able to pay the judges in full.

Although many participants correctly perceived that we, as chief adjudicators, supported the actions of the judges, we also bear some of the responsibility for what transpired. Confirming the precise details of the reimbursements with the administration should have been a priority, especially given that there were some early warning signs that judge funding could be an issue. In particular, the College seemed to encounter significant hurdles in trying to book flights for independent adjudicators. When we extended offers of travel subsidies to independent adjudicators, we gave them a choice: they could be reimbursed at the tournament, or in exceptional cases we could wire them the money or book a ticket on their behalf. Several adjudicators understandably opted for one of these latter options, and we began trying to facilitate the travel arrangements with REC. But despite months of back-and-forth emails between us, the adjudicators, and the organizers at REC, not a single independent adjudicator actually received a wire transfer or had a flight purchased on their behalf.

These difficulties should have been red flags. At a minimum, we should have been more transparent about our lack of control over the funding process, instead of continuing to pass on revised deadlines for when travel arrangements would be made. In one egregious case, we sent emails on five different occasions assuring an independent adjudicator that his flights would be taken care of that week or within a few days. Although transparency might have jeopardized the willingness of some excellent judges to attend, it would also have facilitated increased pressure. By the time of the threatened strike, we had come to realize that outside pressure can be necessary to catalyse action.

From One Hotel to Three (and then Four)

A centrepiece of the Chennai bid to host Worlds was the hotel we had promised to secure for participants. The hotel, the ITC Grand Chola, was close to brand new at the time of the competition, and it is probably more over-the-top than any accommodation at a previous WUDC. Yet rather than accommodate participants at the Chola, REC assigned them to one of three hotels run by the still-luxurious, though certainly less so, Taj brand spread across several kilometers. Worse, more than one hundred participants were told there were not enough rooms at any of the three hotels for them. Tournament organizers had to scramble to find a fourth hotel that could accommodate these participants.

On one level, the administrations decision to change the hotel was understandable. REC did not raise as much sponsorship as they had intended, and the Taj Hotels cost less than 50% of what the college had budgeted for the ITC. But regardless of the financial wisdom of the decision, the change in hotel needed to be communicated to participants earlier, with an explanation as to why the ITC was no longer a viable option. The College, however, did not appear to appreciate that changing a key detail of the bid would cause participants frustration.

There certainly would have been less frustration if changing hotels had not been compounded with the failure to book enough rooms for participants. Candidly, we still do not know exactly how so many participants ended up without a room upon registration. Given that the College was in control of the finances, and it was RECs solvency on the line, we had very little insight into negotiations with the Taj hotels. We did not see how many rooms the college had booked, nor did we (the CAs and the student organisation committee) see the contract or have the opportunity to talk to the hotel before they signed.

Our experience suggests that hotels are an aspect of the bidding process where it is especially easy to over-promise and under-deliver. When participants arrive at Worlds, they will go where theyre assigned, regardless of whether the hotel meets the promised specifications. Oversight is difficult because bidding institutions can claim that they are negotiating or have an agreement with a hotel which is hard to verify yet can also genuinely state that they will not (and should not) sign a contract with a hotel until after a bid is won and ratified. After ratification, little can be done to change a hosts decision about hotels.

Sources of Organizational Failures

From our perspective, two causes lie at the heart of the organizational problems at Chennai and other WUDCs: first, the host institutions lack of experience at putting on large debating competitions, and second, a misplaced belief that an experienced adjudication core can compensate for the hosts inexperience.
Institutional Inexperience

Within the past fifteen years, no institution has hosted Worlds more than once. And even if they had, the organizational team would likely have been vastly different the second time. To at least some degree then, each WUDC host has been unprepared for the responsibility. Worlds is too large an undertaking an institution has to be responsible for more than 1,000 participants for eight days to master every detail the first time around. But experience hosting large debating competitions matters. No matter how well-intentioned a host institution may be, overcoming a lack of familiarity with large debating competitions will prove daunting.

Prior to Chennai Worlds, neither the REC administration nor the key members of the local organisation committee had run a competition of any meaningful size.  In fact, the debate program at REC was recently formed and participants had not attended many WUDCs. That kind of inexperience manifests itself in several ways in preparing to host Worlds. On a practical level, there is a tendency to underestimate the time and resources it takes to successfully run a competition like Worlds if an institution has not gone through a similar ordeal. For instance, the REC administration (although not the student organisation committee) believed that they needed no more than 40 volunteers to run the event. Similarly, the administration undervalued, in our view, the importance of conducting extensive practice runs in the days leading up to the competition.

On a less tangible, but perhaps more consequential level, an inexperienced host institution lacks the kind of intuitive familiarity with debating competitions that only comes with years of participating in the community. There is a certain rhythm to debating competitions, and a set of expectations, that can be difficult to explain to individuals who have not spent many of their weekends during university traveling to IVs. For instance, anyone who had attended multiple WUDCs would probably have understood the value of housing participants in one hotel; the time participants spend interacting with debaters from across the globe back at the hotel is one of the highlights of Worlds. But from the perspective of an inexperienced institution, the downsides of using three hotels might seem worth the financial savings.

Relatedly, a familiarity with debating competitions can help host institutions understand and anticipate the kinds of sore spots that will most antagonize participants. Readers who attended Worlds in Botswana will remember the difficulties that the organisation committee had procuring meals that complied with some participants dietary needs. One preliminary round had to be delayed nearly two hours so that vegetarian attendees would not have to debate or judge on an empty stomach. Yet even more frustrating to some at the time was what many perceived as the organisation committees nonchalant attitude toward this failure; the committee seemed genuinely caught off guard by the participants strong reaction. Similarly, the REC administration appeared to us to be taken aback by the level of outrage over judging subsidies. While on the one hand these kinds of frustrations are relatively easy to anticipate not feeding participants in accordance with their dietary restrictions and failing to pay judges the full amount they were promised would strike most people as unacceptable we think a host institutions slow reaction time often reflects a gap in understanding that experience hosting competitions and greater exposure to the global debating community would fix.

To be fair, REC recognized that their lack of experience could be problematic, and they made a sincere effort to guard against the mistakes inexperienced hosts are prone to make. For instance, REC brought a large delegation to Worlds in Berlin.  Senior administration officials, as well as 10 members of the organizing committee came to Berlin and made a genuine effort to understand the logistics of hosting Worlds. The organizers also put on what was largely considered to be a successful social, giving us and many participants confidence in how the tournament would be run. While the trip to Berlin was valuable – and something we would recommend for all future organising committees – in hindsight it just was not enough.  And in some ways, the large College presence at Berlin and the relative success of Chennai Night were actually counterproductive. These experiences gave the REC administration confidence that they understood Worlds and would be able to run the competition without much trouble. This confidence made the administration less willing to heed the advice and wishes of the student organization committee, external organizers, and the adjudication team.

Additionally, REC took the significant step of funding an external organisation committee to help handle logistics at Worlds. This committee consisted largely of experienced European tournament organizers, several of whom held senior positions in the Berlin Worlds organizing committee. Without this external organisation committee, it is questionable whether Worlds would have been run at all. However, as the College had never worked with the external committee before, the College was reluctant to trust them or allow them to make independent decisions. Meetings between the external committee and the administration often descended into shouting matches. While external experience is valuable, it cannot replace institutional knowledge unless external organizers have independent authority to make decisions. But host institutions will be understandably reluctant to hand over that kind of authority when it is their money and their reputation on the line.

Misplaced Faith in the Adjudication Core

When we were campaigning for Chennais worlds bid, several country representatives we spoke with expressed concern about whether REC could handle the organizational responsibilities. Our response was generally to sing our own praises even if REC was an inexperienced institution, we argued, the two of us would be actively involved in overseeing the preparations for Worlds. With our collective experience, the competition would run smoothly. We were wrong. Although we dedicated significant time and effort to following through on the promises we made about Chennai Worlds, we found ourselves far less capable of influencing the preparations than we had thought. Based on the conversations we have had with previous Worlds adjudication core members, this is a common mistake.

It is not just the adjudication core members themselves who over-estimate their influence on Worlds; the global debating community similarly places too much faith in a bids adjudication core. To some degree this is understandable the members of the adjudication core are often the most well-known and experienced individuals associated with a bid, and so they end up being the metric that participants use to calibrate expectations. But we hope this article can help debunk the myth for future adjudication core members and participants alike that the adjudication core has control over the logistics of Worlds.

The principal reason this myth is unfounded is because final decision-making authority almost always rests with the host institution (or the organization committee). This was particularly true in Chennai, where the Colleges administration was actively involved in the organisation process, and therefore wanted its administrators to have the final say on all decisions. While the administration was occasionally happy to listen to our advice, we had limited ability to implement changes on our own.

For the influence we did have, we felt a need to marshal carefully. As the adjudication teams organizational influence is derived from the colleges willingness to listen, our tendency was to be diplomatic rather than confrontational. We felt there was a risk of poisoning the well with the administration if we attempted to micromanage from abroad, jeopardizing our working relationship before we arrived in Chennai. Avoiding that outcome meant relying on the representations from the organization committee and the administration, pushing back only when we felt it was necessary. In hindsight, we erred too far on the side caution. For example, we should have placed substantially more pressure on the college when it came to choice of hotels in the lead up to the competition. We should have pushed to see signed contracts, rather than accepting it will be signed soon as a sufficient explanation.

At some point, however, criticism and scepticism do more harm than good. Every adjudication core needs to be able to rely on the organisation committees representations and visa versa in order for meaningful collaboration to take place. Chief adjudicators should not, in our view, set themselves in opposition to the host institution. However, this further reduces the ability of a CA team to influence the running of the event.


The World Debating Community has a strong interest in not repeating the organisational problems that Chennai encountered. That is much easier to say than to do it is hard to completely eliminate the risk of an organisational catastrophe. We hope that some of the suggestions below can reduce that risk.

Improve the Bidding Process

In a perfect world, the best way to avoid the challenges that plague Worlds would be to more reliably select hosts that will put on excellent competitions. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to know two years out which of the promises in a bid will be fulfilled and which ones will not. Compounding the problem, institutions bidding to host Worlds have every incentive to promise the moon to secure the bid because, once theyve been selected, the debating community is locked into that bid. The costs of transitioning to another host or, in the worst-case scenario, cancelling Worlds, are simply too high to constitute a credible alternative. While we believe most promises during the bidding process are made in good faith, we also suspect that institutions would be far more conservative about what they promise if there were a mechanism to hold them accountable.

Without such a mechanism, our best advice to anyone who has a say in selecting a Worlds host is to decide on a bid based on the individuals who put it together, not on what those individuals promise to deliver. As best we can tell, this is the opposite of how most institutions and countries currently make decisions about which host to select. Cost, understandably, tends to be the first factor, but the lavishness of the hotel, the amount of free alcohol, and other similar perks are also high on the list.

To the extent that the individuals associated with the bid receive any scrutiny, that attention tends to fall on the named members of the adjudication core. This too is understandable as we have explained, members of an adjudication core usually have deep ties to the debating community, and they of course have a vital role to play in the tournament itself. But when deciding between bids, the quality of an adjudication core cannot meaningfully counterbalance a lack of institutional organizational strength.

The debating community should therefore focus on who the members of the organization committee are and why their institution is bidding to host Worlds. Key organizers should be prepared to discuss their prior experience putting on large events, how they plan to divide up responsibilities for the competition, and how they will interact with each other, their universitys administration, and the adjudication core. Members of the debating community should also ask tough questions about why an institution wants to host Worlds, what it stands to gain, and how it has demonstrated a commitment to debating. If an institution seems like it is prematurely vying for the chance to host Worlds, a healthy dose of scepticism is warranted.

In some cases there is only so much that you can find out through questioning prospective hosts directly. It may be useful to allow other institutions on the prospective hosts national (or regional) debating circuit to comment on their perception over the hosts suitability – even if only privately. While that information may be biased and coloured by inter-personal relations, their comments may still be valuable.

Strengthen the Audit of Host Institutions

Arguably, the single worst mistake we made as chief adjudicators was failing to travel to Chennai in the months leading up to the competition. A visit to the campus, and in-person conversations with RECs administration and the organization committee, would likely have allowed us to spot several of the areas that would later become trouble spots. We could then have spent the months before Worlds trying to strengthen some of the key interpersonal relationships and focusing our efforts on the logistical hurdles that would prove to be the most problematic, such as increasing the number of volunteers. Yet even if we had made such a visit, and we had spotted problems in the making, our ability to correct them would have been limited by the need to preserve a good working relationship with REC.

The complicated relationship between an adjudication core and a host institution is one of the many reasons why we support the decision of Worlds Council to send a small team of independent auditors to evaluate a host institutions preparedness three to six months before Worlds. These auditors Councils resolution requires two or three must publish a report on their visit within two weeks of returning. In theory, this new requirement should provide the debating community with much-needed transparency. A hosts preparations for Worlds have generally been a black box, and attendees often do not know what to expect until they arrive. And unlike the adjudication core, institutional constraints should not limit the auditors ability to be critical.

We were pleased to see that the audit report for the Malaysia bid was candid about the deficit Worlds will likely run this year. But we were disappointed that the report came out more than a month later than the deadline set in the Council resolution (our understanding is that this was not due to any fault of the auditor). Conducting such an audit within the timeframe set by Council is critical because that maximizes the leverage attendees can exert. Ideally, the audit report for future years will be published before attendees have submitted their last round of payments. As we saw first-hand in Chennai, sometimes outside pressure is necessary to catalyse action. We would also like to see the audit report cover more ground. Auditors should describe conversations with the host universitys administration, meetings with key third parties especially hotels and the status of important contracts. That kind of detail would empower attendees to apply pressure to the host on the issues that are most likely to flare up at the competition.

Pass on Organizational Knowledge

Many of the challenges we have discussed in this article could be avoided if hosting Worlds was something other than a one-shot game. If the debating community professionalized and monetized the responsibility of putting together the WUDC every year, we are confident that there would be a dramatic rise in the quality of the competitions organization. For now, that goal is unrealistic. As an alternative, hosts should look for ways to avoid re-inventing the wheel every year.

One way to do a better job of passing on organizational knowledge and experience is to treat organizational documents the way Worlds adjudication cores have come to treat adjudicator and debater briefings. Each year, an adjudication core starts with the previous years adjudicator and debater briefings and then makes the edits they see fit. Such a system provides for significant continuity the majority of the briefing remains unchanged while allowing for flexibility to add clarity to contentious issues or respond to changing norms on the international debating circuit.

Given that each host will face a unique set of organizational challenges (different numbers of attendees, different hotels, different costs, etc), there is clearly less room for continuity on the organizational side than there is on the adjudication side. That being said, there is no reason not to try to standardize certain aspects of running Worlds. Registration, both before and at the tournament, would be a strong candidate. The website and spreadsheets organizers use to keep track of which institutions have registered for Worlds should be passed down from organisation committee to organisation committee. The same goes for the spreadsheets organizers use to assign participants to particular hotel rooms and the process for checking in participants at the start of each morning.

Worlds Council should require hosts to make these and similar documents available to future hosts. Admittedly, every host wants to put in place their own new system for improving how Worlds is run; that is how we felt, and we have talked with future hosts who have similar ambitions. But there is value in continuity Worlds will run more smoothly if repeat attendees are familiar with past systems, and participants will be well served if hosts avoid the temptation to test-run their ideas, like a brand-new check-in system, at Worlds. If future hosts can more easily implement a procedure that previous hosts have successfully used, the variance in the organizational quality of Worlds from year to year will decrease.


Deciding which institution gets to host Worlds will always involve a significant degree of uncertainty. A hosts motivations for bidding may be opaque, and the international debating community will never have perfect information about a hosts ability to live up to the promises in its bid. Athere is a risk that If so,

The experience of Chennai, coming so soon after Botswana, should ideally catalyse the international debating community to avoid this outcome. Although we have not discussed the challenge of drumming up more bids, we hope this article will help those tasked with voting on bids scrutinise bids more carefully. At a minimum, there should be an expectation that a Worlds bid prove itself by virtue of past organizational success, even if such a norm may be unrealistic in the immediate future. In the long run, even more is required. It is vital that the debating community find effective ways of monitoring the preparations that hosts are making and create mechanism to pressure organization committees to live up to their promises. Without such reforms, the frustrations participants experienced in Chennai, Botswana, and elsewhere will recur.

  1. As a practical matter, this depreciation was offset by the fact that the adjudication core had only allocated 32,000 euros of our travel budget, rather than the 40,000 euros that was promised at ratification

It Actually Has a Real-Life Function: Debating as a Pedagogical Tool in Singaporean Education Introduction

Huiyi Lu

Competitive debating is often lauded as a means of promoting critical thinking in students. In the published literature, debate is referred to as having the capacity to act as “an intense learning laboratory” that “is to language arts what calculus is to mathematics” (Hooley 18). It is therefore ironic that debate enjoys limited emphasis in Singaporean education. Besides a minority of schools which prize debating as a niche co-curricular activity, most schools do not see their debating societies as a major part of their branding efforts. Debating is even less visible in the classroom, as national examinations are largely written in nature, and oratorical abilities take a backseat. This article examines the viability of debating as a pedagogical tool for high-schoolers, in the context of the teaching of General Paper (GP) in Singapore. GP, a compulsory ‘A’ Level subject, requires students to craft argumentative essays on real-world topics, and demonstrate comprehension of given passages. I posit that the skilful adaptation of conventional debating formats and strategies can improve the teaching of not just GP, but classroom teaching in general.

Characterising the Singaporean Student: Bridging the Gap between Expectations and Reality
Singapore’s education system aims to help students develop three 21st Century Competencies: “Civic Literacy, Global Awareness and Cross-Cultural Skills; Critical and Inventive Thinking; (and) Communication, Collaboration and Information Skills” (21st Century Competencies). However, the reticence of most Singaporean students means that this expected readiness to engage in intellectual expression does not often materialise in reality. This can be credited to the “monologic, transmission-oriented mode of teaching that has been found to characterise teaching in Singapore” (Teo) which can be resolved by enabling “space for dialogue…to be expanded in classrooms” (Teo), with one form of such dialogue being “dialogue as a debate” (Teo). Indeed, debating, and its ability to promote expressive and cognitive skills, might contribute towards the attainment of these competencies.

Debating and the Teaching of General Paper

Given that GP is meant to “develop…the ability to think critically, to construct cogent arguments and to communicate their ideas” (General Paper), there are definite parallels between the subject and debating. As a GP teacher at Meridian Junior College, I tested out the applicability of debating to the classroom. Most encouragingly, students were generally enthusiastic towards the concept of debating. However, there was little actual knowledge of what debating entails. There was a need to explicitly provide instruction on the smallest details, to prevent the debate from deteriorating into aimless banter.

I attempted a modified British Parliamentary debate in two classes of 21 and 26 students respectively. To render it more manageable, speeches were reduced to 5 minutes, and students could share the speeches, with a maximum of 2 students co-performing one speaker role. Points of information were retained, to promote responsiveness. I considered having students offer quick-fire rebuttals to opponents post-debate instead, but this might become disorganised and rowdy.
In retrospect, a comprehensive debrief would have been valuable, but I could not conduct one due to time constraints. However, I found that the viability of the activity lay in how I could constantly evoke relevant aspects of the debate to better their academic learning. For instance, substantive points paralleled the structure of their essays. Also, the onus on Closing Teams to distinguish themselves from Opening Teams helped students understand how to negotiate the Application Question, a particularly difficult exam component where they were expected to write a short essay in engagement with a passage. Blindly rehashing the author’s original arguments is frowned upon as it does not evidence any value-addition in argumentation. Cross-referencing to the idea of a debate extension allowed students to understand what is meant by value-addition, something many struggle with. The interactive nature of the debate enabled instant recall when I referenced aspects of the debate, even months after.

In addition, I encouraged debate on controversial issues, such as the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen, and to justify their stance. In each discussion, every student was given a green and a red card, with the former indicating agreement and the latter, disagreement with the motion. To allow for open-mindedness, students were allowed to switch stances if they wished, but had to explain why.

Lastly, I sought to link debating strategy to argumentative skills for essay-writing. Students adopted assigned profiles (different ages, genders et cetera) and considered how this would affect their stances on certain government policies. This demonstrated how characterisation of an issue or stakeholder could affect persuasiveness. On another occasion, students debated a hypothetical motion to vary jail terms based on prisoners’ incomes. After an informal debate, groups penned justifications for their positions on the whiteboard. A specific writing format was mandated, with questions like “Why is this the case? What is the outcome?” Finally, a selected speaker would present the answers in a cogent speech. While mirroring the delivery of a substantive point, the writing format assigned also resembled the structured teaching of paragraph-writing that had gone on throughout the term. The debate influence behind the activity made this structure extremely intuitive, because students were thinking in terms of what bases they had to cover to be persuasive, rather than seeing it as a formula to be memorised.

Insights for Classroom Education in General

My takeaways are not unique to Singaporean education. Indeed, given the widely-acknowledged value of critical thinking, classroom debating can be useful across many contexts, and to any discipline that prizes argumentation and diverse views, especially the humanities and social sciences. However, certain considerations are needed for effective implementation.
How do considerations that accompany classroom debating differ, one might ask, from that of competitive debating? For one thing, the participants’ objectives differ. For debaters, debate mastery is an end in itself. However, classroom debating is a means to the end of larger educational and assessment outcomes. Hence, teachers must clearly explain the linkage between the debates and subject learning, rather than expect organic skills transference.
Secondly, teachers work with larger class sizes. My classes ranged in size from 16 to 26 students, as opposed to the Worlds Schools team size of 5 members. Also, unlike large debate clubs, non-speaking students could not be left to watch and track debates independently, because non-speaking students are unused to the length and rigour of full debates and are more likely to tune out. Hence, teachers must consistently play an active facilitative role to prevent disengagement. For example, teachers can give watching students a part to play when the debate is ongoing – the role of Scribe or Questioner can keep students busily engaged during debates. Alternatively, an interactive debrief, where students know they will be questioned on the debate, would incentivise them to focus.

Thirdly, crucial guidelines for classroom debates might be deemed unnecessary, or even excessive in competitive debating. Being strict about debate etiquette is vital. In some debate circuits, such as the Asian varsity scene, the ability to mock an opponent’s case without resorting to personal attacks, or to make witticisms at each other’s expense, can be easily dismissed as stylistic flair or playful banter. In class, however, where public speaking may be stressful for shyer students, explicit boundaries are needed to establish a safe space.

Some other considerations should be taken into account. Tumposky raises reservations about the reductive nature of classroom debating, saying that “by setting up issues as dichotomies, debate…ignores the multiplicity of perspectives inherent in many issues” (Tumposky 53). Furthermore, she suggests “a confrontational classroom environment” (54) would alienate certain participants. She draws on research that shows that “very few women are comfortable with adversarial argument” (54) and that “cultures that value social harmony rather than individualism also are likely to prefer pedagogies that seek harmony” (54), citing “African-American, Latino, Native American and Asian students” as examples. (54).

In response to Tumposky’s critique, I posit that given the importance of learning to process and justify ideas in this complex information age, students, regardless of background, should be trained to consider the logical validity of ideas, rather than avoiding open argumentation simply because argumentation is inherently combative. Also, inclusiveness can be generated if teachers consciously keep the activity from domination by the same few voices. Lastly, students who greatly prefer collaborative learning can undertake research or preparatory roles, and participate without the stress of delivering speeches.

Furthermore, regarding Tumposky’s concern about binary argumentation, debating can actually scaffold, rather than detract from, the attainment of multifaceted thinking. Learning to grapple with two divergent opinions is the first step towards negotiating a greater variety of views. Additionally, pluralism taken to extremes has its downside – individuals may avoid holding definite opinions “in the interest of embracing “difference””, taking the easy way out and “(seeking) refuge from the pluralist storm in that crawlspace provided by the expression “I don’t know” (Fine).

In summary, teachers who attempt to introduce debating into their pedagogy should take four key criteria into account:

    • Do the students feel safe sharing their thoughts?
    • Is this activity inclusive?
    • Can the teacher act as an effective facilitator and moderator, enabling free student-directed exchanges, but also intervening if things get hostile?
    • Is the debate relevant to the demands of the academic subject, and is this linkage visible to students?
    • These criteria would allow the cognitive merits of debating for youths to be incorporated into education, while mitigating obstacles that classroom implementation may result in.