If you've got middle or high school-aged kids shopping around for a fun and worthwhile summer camp, check out the new classes LearningLeaders has on offer starting in July. Their new two-week programs are great for future Pulitzer-winning journalists and earth-shattering novelists, thinkers, politicians, and economists on track to save this beleaguered planet, and / or everyone and anyone looking to build skill and confidence with how they think, interact, speak, and learn about the world.
LearningLeaders is an after-school public speaking and debate school oriented towards helping students increase critical thinking skills, build confidence in group speaking situations, and equip them with the skills to be lifelong learners in their academic careers and beyond. For their summer program, after placing students according to their needs and abilities, three general areas of study -- public speaking, debate, and writing -- are explored from a variety of different subject formats, techniques, and workshop formats. Subject material for debate range from current events to social concerns, and students are encouraged to think critically about the changing world around them and confidently express their viewpoints.
Popular and unique course offerings include: TED Talk, beginner-friendly Novice Argumentation camps, content-based Economics & Science debate, interview-focused Pathways Programs, Journalistic & Creative Writing, and Academic Research and Essay Writing.
SmartShanghai talked with LearningLeaders co-founder Hans von Meister about the new summer classes, their eight-year run to becoming China's top debate and public speaking training school, and the educational philosophies which have enabled them to have such a positive impact on their students' lives.
SmSh: Can you tell me a little bit about how LearningLeaders got started?
Hans von Meister: We started this company about eight years ago, my business partner, Mike Hauge and myself. When we started, our vision was to help kids increase their communication skills and build their confidence, so we started doing that through the tool and study of debate.
Over the last eight years, we've become one of the largest debate and public speaking institutions, almost in the world. But definitely in Shanghai. We've done a lot of competitions with our students going on to win top national and international debate awards. We've refined and perfected our program. We've done a lot of classes — over a hundred thousand teaching hours at this point. It's been a really interesting journey.
SmSh: So, you do after-school classes all year long but you've got a special summer camp coming up? Can you introduce the camp?
Hans: Sure, we work on both foundational and higher-level classes for middle and high school students. We work with, and cater to, people that both want to go and participate and succeed in debate competitions but, also more in general, people who just want to learn how to structure their thinking, learn more about communicating, and build their public speaking confidence.
For this summer, obviously, I think a lot of families are either getting out of Shanghai for good, or they're gonna be stuck with not a lot to do so, hopefully, we'll be a good fit for some people.
SmSh: Yeah, it's looking that way...
Hans: Basically, what we do over the summer is we run a combination of condensed classes of our regular curriculum, which if you take a look at our brochure — there's a ton of stuff there — critical thinking, debate, and public-speaking oriented material — but we've also got some special classes that are only offered in the summer camp. We've got a load of off-syllabus stuff, including a Journalistic Writing class, economics and science content-based camps, and a new analytical research class.
That last one is something that a lot of parents have requesting to help their kids improve their research skills.
SmSh: Tell me about the journalism class. One can study journalism these days? How novel. Sounds useful. What sort of work do the kids get into?
Hans: Yeah, sure. In developing this one, we worked in conjunction with a New York Times journalist. For the Journalistic Writing classes, the goal of the course is to have students leave with a portfolio of writing. And so, generally, what that entails is that they'll tackle a couple of issues both past and present and build reports on them in the vein of professional newspaper or magazine writing.
By the end of the two weeks — the 10 days of classes — the students will have done about three or four different news reports on a variety of different subjects. The idea is to give them an opportunity to broaden their understanding of current events and also to think a little bit deeper about how can you facilitate a story to other people. How can you communicate to an audience in writing?
SmSh: Looking at some of the other classes that are standing out, can you tell me about the TED Talk class?
Hans: Yeah, the TED Talk is a format that a lot of people are familiar with, you know, just over the last 15, 20 years or so — the idea being to come up with and present an informative or persuasive speech with visual aids, usually about a unique topic. That class is about just helping the kids go from zero to creating a very professional TED Talk.
I think the most interesting thing about that one is encouraging the students to find counterintuitive topics. So, obviously, if you've seen TED Talks before, right, a lot of the topics they come up with are always a little bit kind of off the beaten path and interesting takes on things. The first two or three days is spent brainstorming and then organizing thoughts and getting students to grasp the idea of coming up with an interesting hook, and then building a really structured presentation around that.
So, it's a really good entry-level class for people without a lot of public speaking experience and who would like to enter that world.
SmSh: So, the camps are two weeks, available over 10 half-days or 5 full days?
Hans: Yeah, we're gonna start offering camps on the first week of July, and it's half or full days. It gives parents a little bit of flexibility if kids are doing something else as well for that time period or if they want to do the full days and they wanna get kids out of the house for two weeks, which, I assume a lot of parents might be interested in.
SmSh: I would assume that, especially coming off the last two months. What can you tell me about the teaching style? What teaching methods are used in the classroom?
Hans: Right, we use a super discussion-focused style. Even our instructors, we don't call them teachers, we call them "coaches". The idea is learning as a guided conversation and a guided interaction between student and teacher, and student and audience.
The way the classes generally work is that all our students have access to an online learning center. They watch lesson videos before the classes, and then they come in to discuss and then run workshop activities. And each class, obviously, like I mentioned with TED Talk and with Journalistic Writing, there's a pretty clear goal of what's to happen every day, working towards clear goals at the end of the camp — building on individual exercises to a longer-term project.
Technically, it's known as a flipped classroom model where students are preparing outside of class and then coming to class to discuss the topics, rather than the instructor lecturing to the students on the spot. It's just more fun and enjoyable, and, in the end, more fruitful.
For example, if we're doing like a body language class, then you might watch a video on how to use body language effectively, and then you would come into class and we would discuss what some of the things that you've seen before are, what are effective strategies, and things like that, thinking of using what we've learned down the line to a long term project, and then how it all impacts daily life and learning.
What we call it is being active, interactive, and then reflective. Okay. So you're actively learning and thinking of examples, and then you're interacting, you're applying. And then the third step, reflective — you're thinking about what worked and didn't work, and you're getting feedback from the coach and other students, and seeing how it applies outside that setting.
SmSh: Sort of instilling life skills then...
Hans: To be honest, the way that I have always thought about our classes is it's a lot about more teaching people how to learn, than it is necessarily strictly about public speaking and debate. That's just kind of the vehicle that we're using.
Debate, I think, is a fun activity. It's a useful activity but in reality, I think the process of learning is what we're hoping to instill in students, right?
We want them to be able to go out and find the information, then they interact with it and apply it. And then they, you know, with their team or by themselves, they think about what worked and didn't work, and how can I make myself improve for the next iteration?
SmSh: Where are the coaches coming from?
Hans: Our coaches are all super, super experienced educators. All of them have debate and public speaking backgrounds, but are coming from different walks of life. We have a lot of teachers, but also bankers, journalists, TV hosts, and lawyers ; people coming from industries where effective communication is just really important. They're all really good with kids and all have an extreme passion for debate and public speaking.
On the competitive side of things, obviously, many of our coaches are very accomplished competitive debaters, with lots of experience, and they're just really passionate about sharing that with the next generation.
SmSh: What about the subject material itself. What sorts of things are up for debate?
Hans: It depends on the student level and program. Generally, the way we choose debate motions if students are new, we try to find motions that people can relate to in their lives. So for the younger students, we do a lot of things revolving around school. Should PE class be mandatory? Should school uniforms be mandatory? When we get to more advanced classes, we try and find a balance between policy and issues of morality.
So, policy would be like the legal framework around things like ‘nuclear weapons should be banned', whereas value questions are more around like the ethics of decisions. So we start with simple and relatable questions and then move into kind of more abstract and historical debate situations.
SmSh: What are you hoping that the kids come away with after the program?
Hans: The learning objectives for each student and family are very different but I would say kind of a more general answer to that is that I want students to learn the habit of knowledge acquisition right. So, that's kind of the process that I was talking about before, you know. Hopefully, by going through one of our programs, they can understand that debate and public speaking — it doesn't have to be an intimidating or painful experience — but even more than that there is a process and strategy of critical thinking, communication, and knowledge acquisition that can help every interaction you are involved with — school, friends, work. We want to help boost the confidence of students to reach new conclusions on their own, teach them how to communicate what they are thinking, and discover new things.
SmSh: So from a niche thing like debate students are coming away with more...
Hans: You know, when we started this company eight years ago, we were one of the only ones that were doing it, and over the last eight years we've been tempted by many people, internally and externally, to go into different things more directly lucrative for the Shanghai market — college consulting, SAT prep, things like that.
But we're pretty steadfast in what we want to do. We're not here to directly help students ace exams or guarantee college admission — although I think those are all great outcomes.
I would say that what drives us and what makes us so passionate about what we do and why we've stayed so niche is that we really just want to help people become better learners. We want to help people become comfortable in learning new things and be comfortable in communicating those things.
I feel like everyone walks away from LearningLeaders with a new tangible skill set, whether it's the speaking, whether it's the researching, whether it's the critical thinking. And I think it has just such a positive effect on so many of the other aspects of their lives.
And that's something I'm really proud of.
Speaking towards the situation with the ongoing lockdown stuff, LearningLeaders is working to host their entire camp on their campus facilities but will also go ahead with online classes if necessary.
Get in touch with LearningLeaders to learn more about their summer camp below:
For more information please contact Joyce Ni: