fall 2017

Exploring Cultural Competence in the WSDC Community

by Cindi Timmons

While debating teams from six continents have been represented, the increasing variety of participants from non-Western nations and the growing diversity of the debaters themselves means that it is time for the global debating community to examine how inclusive it is and to evaluate its cultural competence as an organization. This paper seeks to address the current state of cultural competence in the organization and how WSDC might become even more inclusive.

By Cindi Timmons • United States of America


When the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC) began in Australia in 1988, six nations participated: Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Over the years, the event has expanded, culminating in 2016 with fifty-six nations represented at the WSDC in Stuttgart. While debating teams from six continents have been represented, the increasing variety of participants from non-Western nations and the growing diversity of the debaters themselves in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc., means that it is time for the global debating community to examine how inclusive it is and to evaluate its cultural competence as an organization. This paper seeks to address the current state of cultural competence in the organization and how WSDC might become even more inclusive.


What is cultural competence and why should we consider examining its place in WSDC?

Tim Brownlee and Kien Lee of the University of Kansas write about the concept in their work titled “Building Culturally Competent Organizations”:

Diversity is reality. We are all connected through the increasing globalization of communications, trade, and labor practices. Changes in one part of the world affect people everywhere. Considering our increasing diversity and interconnected problems, working together seems to be the best strategy for accomplishing our goals. Because social and economic change is coming faster and faster, organizations are understanding the need for cultural competence…

Benefits of building an organization’s cultural competence include: 

  • Increasing respect and mutual understanding among those involved.
  • Increasing creativity in problem-solving through new perspectives, ideas, and strategies.
  • Decreasing unwanted surprises that might slow progress.
  • Increasing participation and involvement of other cultural groups.
  • Increasing trust and cooperation.
  • Helping overcome fear of mistakes, competition, or conflict. For instance, by understanding and accepting many cultures, everyone is more likely to feel more comfortable in general and less likely to feel the urge to look over their shoulders to be sure they are being “appropriate” in majority terms.
  • Promoting inclusion and equality.

One of the first questions that the organization should consider as it assesses its cultural competence is the purpose of the organization. According to the founder of WSDC, Christopher Erskine of Australia, the first WSDC in 1988 was meant simply as an international competition to be held in conjunction with the bicentenary commemoration of European settlement in Australia. There was enough interest generated by this first event that, after a year’s hiatus, a second event was held in Canada in 1990, called the World Debating Championships (WDC). Seven nations attended the 1990 WDC and the WDC became an annual event. The WSDC debating format attempted to combine various debate traditions from other countries; POIs (points of information) were added in 1991 and the event became known as the World Schools Debating Championship. For years, the WSDC annual event was attended by just a few countries, but slowly, the number of countries began to expand: six in 1988, twelve in 1991, sixteen in 1996. It appeared that the idea of an international high school debating community had arrived at a watershed moment in world history as it coincided with the beginning of the post-Cold War era – the Berlin Wall came down, apartheid ended, democratic elections were held in many former Latin American dictatorships, and debate began to be viewed as “a good civics class for students to learn how to engage in democracy.” Around the same time, in 1994, the Soros Foundation launched its first debate program in eastern Europe, through the Open Society Institute, with the goal of promoting democratic discourse among young people in fledgling democracies. This increasingly friendly environment meant that international debate could flourish. By 2010, the annual event regularly had over 50 nations in attendance.

  • 2010 – 57 nations (Doha, Qatar)
  • 2011 – 48 (Dundee, Scotland)
  • 2012 – 48 (Cape Town, S. Africa)
  • 2013 – 50 (Turkey)
  • 2014 – 45 (Bangkok, Thailand)
  • 2015 – 53 (Singapore)
  • 2016 – 58 (Stuttgart, Germany)

This growth in WSDC attendance has led to increasingly complex factors having to be considered in hosting the annual event. These include:

  • What nations can adequately host the event in terms of finances, venues, organizational support, etc.?
  • What time of year is best when countries from both the northern and southern hemispheres are involved?
  • What role does cost play in looking at regional hosts and travel expenses? What conflicts result when professional educators and college debaters are both present as coaches and judges at the event?
  • What do these increasingly different cultural representatives have to say about motions and judges?
    How does the diverse outlook on important world issues affect motions, arguments, and debate outcomes?
  • How does the volunteer leadership model of the WSDC governing bodies address these issues?

To consider these factors, it is timely for us to reflect on the cultural competence of the WSDC community and see what we can do to make WSDC even more inclusive. A good place to start is to think about the reflections of Mehvesh Mumtaz Ahmed of Pakistan, a long-time WSDC Board Member,:

WSDC has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, fulfilling one of its core goals of spreading debate around the world. The growth has, unsurprisingly, come with a set of challenges… I do believe WSDC started out with a remarkable level of cultural competence, both because diversity has been important from the beginning and because the “founding fathers,” as it were, built solid foundations. The rules of debate are mostly unchanged since the founding, the tournament format has only had one round added (the octos). Innovation and change has occurred, but mostly to accommodate growth in size (e.g. octos), or to clarify and expand upon roles (e.g. the hosting wiki). With a fairly solid core tournament, collaborating across time zones and countries to iron out issues has been relatively easy. This may also help explain why the volunteer model has largely worked so far.

However, as we know, we have been pushing up against the limitations of the volunteer model for a while now, and formalizing WSDC as a truly international body has been challenging. And that’s where the limitations of our cultural competence come in. Development of systems that encourage regular collaboration among the diverse WSDC community has lagged behind tournament growth.

I feel that the main reason for this is that the focal point of WSDC has been the tournament itself and not the 11 or so months between each tournament. And for that tournament, the major responsibility lies with the host, with the CAs and Exec playing supporting roles. We haven’t broadened our focus to alumni, which is a huge constituency, or to activities outside of the main tournament. There has been talk of setting up bursaries for teams that need them, funding training across the world, etc., but implementing these policies requires groupthink and resources. Registering WSDC as a charity was supposed to solve the latter problem, but without systems in place to nurture the former a handful of volunteers haven’t been able to do much. Plus we have been riddled with the usual problems of a volunteer model: uneven distribution of workload, failure to commit time, and lack of accountability.

Mehvesh’s reflections indicate that organizational structure and growth are two issues that need to be examined in determining the cultural competence of WSDC. Even if cultural competence was present at the founding of WSDC, it is possible that the success of WSDC has also brought new challenges for the debate community.

Two long-time educators and respected leaders from South America, Christine Adriani of Argentina and Cristina Loayza of Peru, note additional challenges that result from this increasingly diverse community: with such wide age demographics represented, some feel there is a lack of respect given to experienced WSDC participants and those dedicated to the long-term health of WSDC debating. Younger adults in attendance are viewed as prioritizing the social aspects of the event over long-term educational interests. On the other hand, these same individuals, fresh from a university debate experience, may bring fresh insight into evolving debate practices. Additionally, the lack of a real conversation about what constitutes norms of professional behavior, for example, the use of alcohol by adults around students, means that conflicts can result between WSDC participants from different cultural backgrounds.  These issues are all matters reflective of an increasingly diverse international organization. One area of particular interest to the organization is the critical role judges play in the competition; this would be a good place to start reflecting on cultural competence.  Most recently, there has been a discussion about whether or not conferral judging,  the process by which there is a short discussion time between judges provided before verdicts are rendered after the debate is over, should be utilized. According to Canada’s Tracey Lee of Canada, the current Vice-President of the Tournament Executive Committee and President of the Pan Ams Debating Association:

The past few years have seen tremendous growth in the size of the World Schools Championships with new countries joining and more countries regularly attending the championships. While the increase in competing nations has been a welcome change, it has also raised a number of challenges for adjudication.

We have seen an increase in the number of new adjudicators attending each year, often coming with experience from their local/regional tournaments but having limited exposure to WS debate. The tournament has also struggled with ensuring that experienced WSDC adjudicators return regularly from year to year. The impact of these two factors has been more fluctuation in the number of experienced WSDC judges who return each year, resulting in increased inconsistency with regards to the application of WSDC rules; as well, there has been an increase in the number of new judges/shadow judges in the judging pool.

Recent adjudicator training days have sought to address this issue by improving the training process, supplementing it by online training beforehand and supervision of shadow judges during the tournament.

In spite of these attempts, coaches and debaters continue to raise concerns about the experience of judges, the calibre of the feedback, and the consistency of adjudication decisions amongst adjudicators (feedback from coaches and judges suggest that as WSDC expands to cover more and newer circuits, we are seeing more judges who appear to have given quite random dissents and who are unable to explain them thereafter).

However, Bojana Skrt of Slovenia, a founder of the World Schools Debating Academy and who has done much to promote debate in Eastern Europe, suggests a more optimistic outlook when it comes to assessing new entrants to WSDC debating:

In such a diverse environment as Worlds Schools is it is even more important that you have the system where everybody is making their own decision – to guarantee the plurality and diversity of opinions. Are some people more experienced than the others? Yes they are. But being more experienced does not make you necessary a better judge, especially not in an international environment. Or being experienced does not automatically mean you are also good.  The same as being unexperienced or new or coming for the first time does not make you automatically weak. 

As the community becomes more diverse, the question of what defines a “good judge” becomes less easy to answer. Diversity in judge pools can certainly be viewed as a strength, but without conversations to seek better understanding of how different cultural and debate backgrounds affect the way arguments by debaters are viewed, the debaters themselves are left unable to adjust their messages in order to be more persuasive. For example, appeals to authority, commonly accepted in the United States as part of argument development in Policy and Lincoln Douglas Debate where evidence is evaluated and challenged, might have far less appeal to judges from other parts of the world. On the other hand, judges from more homogeneous backgrounds might not fully understand the impact that arguments regarding speech codes or other forms of minority oppression might have on debaters who have personal experience with those issues. Judge decisions, formed from diverse perspectives, are often confusing to students who are processing arguments from limited world views. Other aspects of the WSDC community that would benefit from an application of cultural competency standards are the debate motions themselves. This author served on the Motions Committee for Singapore 2015 and witnessed the pushback from the community on the octo-finals impromptu motion regarding confidentiality of petitioners to members of the clergy about criminal behavior (“This House would require members of the clergy to report all crimes to authorities including those made in confession.”) Debaters from some nations believed the motion would not be accessible by students who were not Christian, or who were not members of a religious group at all, while others believed the term “clergy” was encompassing enough to allow debate.

The Motions Committee has the annual challenge of navigating incredibly diverse cultures and world views while providing timely topics worthy of substantive debate, often in front of local school audiences. Balanced and fair motions need to concern more than argumentative positions; we need to examine what we are asking students to do in rounds that might create tension with cultural norms, potentially creating problems for them in their home countries. The increasingly common practice of video recording rounds has already created concerns about how  videos of debates might be used against debaters from particular nations  if they are perceived as challenging the policy position of their national government. Adopting cultural competence framing is one way to guide this process in a productive way.

Next, we might use cultural competence as an inroad for reflecting on how best to provide for needs of ESL and EFL participants. The questions we might ask include:

  • What concerns do ESL and EFL participants have outside of a debate round?
  • Are procedures in place to provide appropriate support in times of questions, concerns, and disputes?
  • Should other competitive opportunities be offered at the championship?
  • Does the administration arm of the tournament have diverse representatives available to respond to issues that arise?
  • Does everyone feel welcome?
  • Do new nations, particularly those outside western debate traditions, feel that they are being heard?

Several long-time participants interviewed believe that the insider/outsider dynamic, found in almost any organization, is particularly prevalent in WSDC and may have a cultural component. Other areas for discussion suggested by the Tournament Executive Committee Hosting/Equity/Inclusiveness Working Group as part of a culturally competent organization include:

  • dietary needs not consistently being met by hosts,
  • the use of alcohol by competitors and adults with different cultural experiences and norms,
  • increasing security/visa issues as the community becomes more diverse,
  • the possibility of looking at hemispheric differences in terms of school years and locales to reduce inequitable expenses and missing of school for some countries,
  •  the need to find ways to increase sponsorships or funding supplements to help new countries participate.

A common issue that ESL/EFL students face is in how their delivery is perceived by others. Christopher Erskine noted a bias towards certain accents early in WSDC history and observed:

…in the early judges[’] notes I drafted, I had a section on ignoring accents, yet I think the prejudice still exists two decades on. I would attempt to draw a distinction between a speaker who stumbles or misuses words (poor style, no matter what their accent), and a speaker who is fluent and never lost for excellent words (good style, no matter what their accent). Yet too many judges in my experience assume that an ESL or EFL speaker will stumble and will be lost for words, even when they are not. The converse is true, too.  Native English speakers are assumed to be more fluent and more compelling than some of them actually are…
My observation is that fluent ESL or EFL speakers are perfectly effective speakers – audiences pay attention to them, for example – but judges seem slow to reward the same skills of fluency and word choice in ESL/EFL speakers, yet seem quick to assume that native English speakers are actually superior when sometimes they are not.
One thing I noticed immediately was that everybody else speaks more quickly than your team does: actually, they don’t, but you notice speed more easily in unfamiliar speakers than in those that you are used to. I heard exactly the same comment in reverse from overseas judges about Australian debaters: even when I thought they were speaking at a measured pace, other judges thought they were racing away.

In other words, judging comes with a whole lot of unconscious assumptions about speaking style, that you need to do something about before you can judge effectively in an international competition.

Examining all of these issues in light of cultural competence requires community reflection. Cultural competence is a concept with a history that parallels the history of WSDC. Ulf Hannerz, the Head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Stockholm, writing in 1990, captures the early spirit of the WSDC community when he described the concepts of Cosmopolitans and Locals and uses the term “cultural competence.”

…cultures, rather than being easily separated from one another as the hard-edged pieces in a mosaic, tend to overlap and mingle. While we understand them to be differently located in the social structures of the world, we also realize that the boundaries we draw around them are frequently rather arbitrary…The perspective of the cosmopolitan must entail relationships to a plurality of cultures understood as distinctive entities…But furthermore, cosmopolitanism in a stricter sense includes a stance toward diversity itself, toward the coexistence of cultures in the individual experience. A more genuine cosmopolitanism is first of all an orientation, a willingness to engage with the Other. It is an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experiences, a search for contrasts rather than uniformity…At the same time, however, cosmopolitanism can be a matter of competence, and competence of both a generalized and a more specialized kind. There is the aspect of a state of readiness, a personal ability to make one’s way into other cultures, through listening, looking, intuiting, and reflecting. And there is cultural competence in the stricter sense of the term, a built-up skill in maneuvering more or less expertly with a particular system meanings and meaningful forms.

A contemporary view of this concept in an educational setting (from the US National Education Association) illustrates the need for reflection in creating policy:

  • Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.

One of the unique challenges in examining cultural competency in WSDC is the nature of the organization. There are four distinct aspects within WSDC that may be worth distinguishing for our analysis here: 1) an educational aspect, 2) a competitive component, 3) a cultural experience, and 4) a corporate element. The interaction of these four aspects within WSDC should lead us to use varied lenses to compile a complete picture of cultural competence in WSDC – it cannot just be done solely on the basis, for example, that WSDC is a competition.

Moreover, to examine cultural competency in WSDC, an initial consideration of the variety of diversity categories that exist in the organization should be made. Brownlee and Lee list a variety of categories that are typically present:

  • There are all types of diversity in an organization. However, some types of diversity have a larger impact on organizations than others because they have historical significance. These types of diversity are associated with a history of inequity and injustice where not every person or group has been treated equally because of them. These types of diversity include:
  • Marginalized or socially excluded groups
  • Nationality
  • Ethnicity
  • Native language
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Social class
  • Spiritual beliefs and practice
  • Physical and mental ability

Other types of diversity that should be considered, but tend to be less salient include:

  • Age
  • Educational status
  • Family status
  • Health status
  • Style
  • Skills and talents
  • Customs
  • Ideas
  • Military experience
  • National, regional, or other geographical area
  • Ownership of property
  • Occupational status
  • Socioeconomic status

Clearly, cultural competency considers wider parameters than nationality and race/ethnicity.

Indeed, Brownlee and Lee suggest that the idea of cultural competence can be understood on four different levels:

  • Cultural knowledge” means that you know about some cultural characteristics, history, values, beliefs, and behaviors of another ethnic or cultural group.
  • Cultural awareness” … being open to the idea of changing cultural attitudes.
  • Cultural sensitivity” is knowing that differences exist between cultures, but not assigning values to the differences… Clashes on this point can easily occur, especially if a custom or belief in question goes against the idea of multiculturalism. Internal conflict (intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational) is likely to occur at times over this issue.
  • Cultural competence” brings together the previous stages — and adds operational effectiveness. A culturally competent organization has the capacity to bring into its system many different behaviors, attitudes, and policies and work effectively in cross-cultural settings to produce better outcomes.
    Cultural competence is non-threatening because it acknowledges and validates who people are. By focusing on the organization’s culture, it removes the need to place blame and assume guilt. Since becoming culturally competent focuses on the “how-to” of aligning policies and practices with goals, everyone is involved in the process. This “inside-out” model relieves the outsiders (or excluded groups) from the responsibility of doing all the adapting.

What are the indicators of cultural competence? If the members of WSDC were willing to explore the concept of cultural competence and how it might affect the organization and its future what would they be looking for? Brownlee and Lee provide the following list which might be a useful starting point :

  • Recognizing the power and influence of culture
  • Understanding how each of our backgrounds affects our responses to others
  • Not assuming that all members of cultural groups share the same beliefs and practices
  • Acknowledging how past experiences affect present interactions
  • Building on the strengths and resources of each culture in an organization
  • Allocating resources for leadership and staff development in the area of cultural awareness, sensitivity, and understanding
  • Actively eliminating prejudice in policies and practices
  • Willing to share power among leaders of different cultural backgrounds
  • Evaluating the organization’s cultural competence on a regular basis
  • Cultural differences can either help or hurt the way an organization functions. Creating multicultural organizations makes us deal with differences and use them to strengthen our efforts. To reach these goals you need a plan for action.

WSDC is not alone in dealing with these considerations; the international university debate community has established a few norms concerning diversity as indicated by Lisa Schallenberg of the Netherlands who was on the CA panel in Stuttgart WSDC 2016. She noted that at the university level there is a perception that there is some “universal debater” who respects diversity such as LGBT rights, gender rights, etc. but that might be more true of the tertiary community than the high school community. Schallenberg also noted that some motions, such as the morality of assisted dying, are definitely viewed as more balanced in some cultures/countries than in others.
Feminist ideals could be another topic area that might raise issues about whether the motions set in this topic area are balanced for debaters on both sides. In university debating debaters are allowed to step aside if a motion is personally offensive and get a partner to do the extra speeches. The university circuit has a clear stance on offensive things said in debates: there are equity officers who mediate people offended in rounds and clear policies are given before tournaments.   A consequence of deliberately trying to offend someone could be being banned from the tournament. Schallenberg also noted that, “a tournament founded on free speech with different nations in the same building will have conflicts” and urges open dialogue as a place to start.

Cultural competency includes cultural respect. We need to avoid the missteps of trying to “fix the problems” in other countries and, instead, empower people in those countries and regions to address their own concerns. Several individuals interviewed for this article took issue with an ever-growing practice in the WSDC community: coaches on one continent coaching students on another continent. The belief is that rather than virtually coaching students, we could be coaching new coaches — people on the ground who have the ability to address and understand the unique cultural needs of student competitors. We also need to be circumspect in evaluating those creating commercial debate programs that may not fully be aligned with WSDC objectives . Veterans of WSDC suggest that we need to trust each other and tell each other, that “we need to go back to the basics of why we do this; if we do that everything else will be better.”

What would moving toward greater cultural competence in WSDC look like? Synthesizing from a number of resources easily available a common pattern emerges:

  1. Members of the organization have to be willing to examine this issue,
  2. A committee would be created and tasked with pursuing cultural competence,
  3. A period of assessment, both for the leadership of the organization and for individuals, would take place including the use of formal assessment tools,
  4. The committee would determine what different cultural constituencies exist and make sure they are represented in evaluating the assessment results,
  5. Goals and desired outcomes would be delineated,
  6. A determination of the professional development, judge training, and resources would be needed to make sure the organization is moving toward best practices in the field would be made,
  7. Cultural competence would be viewed as a requirement for organizational leadership and future hosts would indicate what steps they were taking to demonstrate this competence,
  8. Resources would be compiled and made available at the annual tournament and online,
  9. Multi-cultural activities would be integrated into all aspects of WSDC, and
  10. Ongoing reflection and evaluation would be used to track progress toward a more inclusive and culturally competent organization.

Change is never easy. But participants in WSDC have already proven their interest in joining an international community that promotes civil discourse and cultural awareness. It is timely for the WSDC organization to take a conscious step forward in reflecting, brainstorming, creating, and implementing policies that build on the strength offered by cultural diversity to become the best organization it can be: a culturally competent organization.


(1) Tim Brownlee and Kien Lee, “Chapter 27, Section 7. Building Culturally Competent Organizations,” The Community Toolbox, last modified 2016, accessed February 10, 2017,
(2) Christopher Erskine, “History of WSDC,” e-mail message to author, February 18, 2017,

(3) Paul Lau to Basecamp: TEC – Draw Working Group web forum, “History of Participating Nations at WSDC,” February 13, 2017, accessed February 13, 2017.

(4) Mehvesh Mumtaz Ahmed, “Cultural Competence,” email message, April 11, 2017.

(5) Christine Adriani and Cristina Loayza, interview by the author, Hilton Anatole, Dallas, TX, February 10, 2017.

(6) Tracey Lee, “WSDC proposals for online ballot in March,” e-mail message, February 15, 2017

(7) Bojana Skrt, “Conferral judging, problems and suggestions how to improve the judging,” e-mail message, February 15, 2017.

(8) Adriani and Loayza

(9) Anonymous post to Basecamp: TEC-Hosting/Equity/Inclusiveness Working Group web forum, “Hosting Issues,” December 6, 2015.

(10) Christopher Erskine, “ESL and EFL Debaters,” email message, April 6, 2017.

(11) Ulf Hannerz, “Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture,” Theory, Culture & Society 7, no. 2 (1990): 239, accessed February 10, 2017,

(12) National Education Association, “Teaching Strategies – Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators,” NEA: Great Public Schools for Every Student, last modified 2015, accessed February 10, 2017,

(13) Brownlee and Lee, “Chapter 27, Section,” The Community Toolbox.

(14) Brownlee and Lee, “Chapter 27, Section,” The Community Toolbox.

(15) Brownlee and Lee, “Chapter 27, Section,” The Community Toolbox.

(16) Lisa Schallenberg, interview by the author, Old Parkland, Dallas, TX, February 10, 2017.

(17) Adriani and Loayza, interview by the author.

Author Bio

Cindi Timmons has been involved in debate for more than four decades. She has hosted three national championships in the United States and is a member of both the National Hall of Fame and the Texas State Hall of Fame for her leadership and coaching. She has served as the resident USA Debate Team Manager for the National Speech & Debate Association and has served on the Motions Committee and Code of Conduct Committee for WSDC-Singapore. She has been instrumental in facilitating the growth of the World Schools format in America and has taught at WSDC in Slovenia as well as coached and judged for the USA Debate team. A coach of national champions in three different debate formats, she is also a frequent finals judge at the national championship. Cindi taught speech and debate for 30 years before retiring to be an educational consultant.