Bright-eyed, bright-minded, bright future. Brae is one of my weekly students. He’s like most of you. Eager to spot logical fallacies, quick to provide well-researched evidence for his beliefs, hopes to become President one day, probably has a real shot. He wants to join his school’s debate team next year. But before he jumps into a debate team, he’s taking a foundational logic and speech class from Ethos. That makes sense, right? Master the foundations of debate first. Seems to be logical.
The only difference between Brae and you? Brae is eleven years old.
As the administrator for the coaching program here at Ethos, I meet a lot of parents that want to give their young students a head start into the debate world. Parents call me wanting to set up a debate class for their twelve and eleven year old students. Maybe even send them to one of our debate camps. This eagerness warms my heart. I love to see students excited about things that matter. As a debate enthusiast, I want to throw them into the debate vortex as soon as possible. Drink the kool-aid. Become one of us. But as a coach, I know the absurdity of placing 5th graders into debate.
When a parent asks for a debate class for their brand new, never-debated, pre-highschool student, I strongly advise against it. Alternatively, I advocate for a foundational speech and logic class. Here’s why.
1. There is no competition for that age.
Your fifth grader has no outlet for competition at that age. Most private leagues do not allow competition until twelve. Most private and public schools don’t offer a serious debate team until highschool. Giving a student material to learn without providing them an arena to practice it = nothing sticks. It is much more beneficial to wait until they can begin competition directly after/during a debate class. It improves their ability to implement ethical, substantial, wise debating versus the frantic wax-eloquent stuff. What they’re learning will stick, rather than being forgotten and then polished up with surface-level tricks.
2. Teaching rhetoric relies on imitation.
Speaking of surface-level tricks, ancient methods of teaching classical rhetoric heavily rely on imitation. This can be used for a student’s good or for their detriment. Give them a coach in a speech and logic class, and they’ll see an experienced debater instruct (not just exhibit) proper delivery skills of eye contact, stance, projection, etc. This will improve them as students and thinkers. But put them into a debate class and then throw them into a tournament a few years later when they’re old enough? You’ll see imitation alright. Imitation of all the airbrushed, empty-substance, hair-gel-and-fake-glasses debaters out there. (I know, because that was me for a hot minute there back in highschool.) And you can’t blame them. They want to fit in with their competition, the competition they’ve waited years to meet. Plus, second and third-year debaters are awful. They grab up novices and fill their head with junk they’ve barely got the hang of, and it confuses/distracts novices. That’s what they end up imitating. Alternatively, a class with a coach does not provide that foolery. It provides a foundation and safe environment for fine-tuned imitation. Imitation is only beneficial to the student with a coach to monitor and direct the implementation.
3. Playing catch-up =/= debate.
Honest moment here: it took me two years to have enough outside knowledge of foreign policy, civics, and history to truly debate. Debate requires back and forth for AN HOUR, which rests on knowledge of policy, civics, history, and so on. I was fourteen when I started debating, yet I still needed more time to be intellectually mature enough for a debate of substance. Throw a 5th/6th grader into a debate round, and they’re not learning debate. They’re learning the three branches of government for the first time. They’re learning US history with Russia. They’re learning the names of newsworthy senators. They’re learning the types of economic systems. They aren’t focused on the DEBATE; they’re trying to catch-up with the basics of world affairs. And that’s not really on their level yet. That’s 8th grade stuff.
4. Debate builds on successful speech.
Like I noted earlier. Classical education methods specify that rhetoric stage follows logic stage. Logic is analyzing and presenting info. They should master the elements of debate first. Logic. Basic speaking skills. Compare/contrast this to sparring: they’re not ready for it yet and it’s not healthy to introduce it too soon. A house built on sand will fall. 😉 Solid foundations prepare the student best. You’re making a great choice here, with two thousand years of history behind it.
5. Proven burn out by debaters who started too soon.
Fact: we’ve coached five national champions and four of them didn’t start until fourteen or fifteen. Starting your mastermind in debate at age 11 does NOT give them an advantage. It only gives them years of foundationless floundering to undo later.
Does this work?
Yes. How do we know? Ethos did two full years of 5th-grader coaching at a top classical school in Northern VA. We also have done over 20 weeks of 5th & 6th grade speech summer camps, where we specialized in teaching basic communication and foundational logic. Plus, countless parents are seeing the benefits in this course of action. We have set up classes with several 5th and 6th graders, like Brae, who are beginning their debate career where they should and loving it. Parents are wanting to extend this foundational instruction into deeper levels, which led for us to structure an Advanced Speech & Logic class. One of my students chose to spend his summer-break digging into the advanced class. Proof that beginning with logic & speech is fun, and not as terrifying as being 12, thrown into a debate round, and only with the “advice” of too-confident 2nd year debaters.
At the introductory level, students learn habits of critical thinking, using a book called “The Argument Builder” that teaches them ancient rhetoric techniques for brainstorming, analyzing, and choosing materials. Students will use classical rhetoric’s method of learning; imitation. They will learn to explore the intent of literature and period speeches, which is where they pick up all delivery skills of eye contact, stance, projection, etc. Plus, they learn how to properly research by writing a 2-6 page research paper which they will turn into their first speech. This will improve them as students and thinkers. They end the class with a performance for friends and family.
At the advanced level, students use “The Fallacy Detective” which Isaiah helped edit. This allows them to dig further into fallacy recognition in their OWN thinking as well as the world around them. This is when they will also begin to build a more specific skillset for debate. That includes being able to identify and label claims, warrants, and impacts on a debate, learning/performing five types of speeches, getting feedback from real audiences, improving and repeating, learning types of theses, deductive logic, and case construction.
My closing question is one you should take seriously. Why would you throw a twelve year old into a debate round without them having the above, basic knowledge? Enable them with a great foundation instead of shaky walls.