As an educator, you are no doubt familiar with holding a debate. A debate is a staple activity for any teacher for practically any subject. And it has its place in any scheme of work. Its benefits for learners are numerous.
However, I would like to put the case for holding a discussion, rather than a debate, next time your class are set to tackle an issue with differing and opposing perspectives. I am not suggesting we do-away with debates. As I’ve said above, they have huge importance and I use them regularly. Nor I am not for a minute claiming that none of us holds discussions, but I feel they do not have as much prominence in books on lesson ideas – and so far they do not occur with as much regularity in lessons. My discussions are heavily indebted to the work of Prof. Matthew Lipman and the ‘Community of Enquiry’ which plays a crucial role in the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement. Further reading on P4C can be found at the bottom of this article.
Why, and how, can a discussion provide a much more enriching learning experience for pupils?
First of all, discussions allow pupils to be themselves and think for themselves. And air their own views, immediately. If pupils are themselves, they will normally speak in a more measured, thoughtful way, rather than putting their energy into finger-pointing at the other side. Furthermore, a discussion may also make pupils listen to each with greater care, rather than spending time just preparing their next jab at their counterparts. They will be encouraged to think about what has just been said, and internalise it for themselves, rather than highlight any flaw they can and bat it away in dismissive fashion in the hope of scoring debate points.
Allowing pupils to raise their own points means they can, at any point, find positions which may be between two polarised sides to an argument. For example, in my Year 10 lessons on abortion, it is often the case that pupils present opinions which support abortion under certain circumstances, or when conditions are met (as the law does). Demanding that pupils adhere to arguing from one point of view can make them feel they cannot explore this rich area in between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’, or a ‘for’ and an ‘against’.
Following this logic, a question can be explored with the pupils in charge. To take our discussions on euthanasia as an example, I could not begin without explaining to pupils that other questions will need to be tackled before we even contemplate coming to any conclusions. As shown below – I sometimes show some examples on the screen to begin discussions (see image).
Sub-questions provide avenues of enquiry, whereby pupils can actually spend time thinking about what the most pressing area of the issue is. For euthanasia: is it a matter of personal control and liberty? Is it about potential abuse and dangers? For our discussions on abortion: is it a question of the value of human life? Or a woman’s right over her body? This will often help pupils come to their conclusions, by weighing up where a discussion should actually go.
Pupils can build on each other’s points much more effectively in a discussion. They are not compelled to disagree, as they are during a debate. Appreciation and understanding can be developed by a pupil taking the opinion of a classmate and critiquing it and/or agreeing and building upon it. Hugely influential in P4C, Russian psychologist Len Vygotsky said we learn to think in the same way we learn to speak: by internalising patterns we hear around us, and then doing it in our heads, and then out loud. When a lesson takes on the format of a discussion, pupils can listen to a series of points, which (hopefully) logically follow from each other, and can at any point add their perspective, without having to conform to any side. Indeed, I often present this image to new pupils, to encourage them to engage with each other, rather than just present a point of view.
Two clear sides can still be achieved through a discussion. Points of view can be categorised on an opinion line. Putting ideas on such a spectrum is a far greater test of analytical skill than just clumping arguments in a ‘for’ and ‘against’ column. At the end of a discussion, I often ask pupils to form their own opinion line and then hear a selection of reasons from the ‘far yes’ and ‘far no’ (though I don’t call them that!) and then those in the middle. This nicely summarises the discussion, but also provides clear compartmentalisation of opinions for the less able in the class.
Debates are absorbing, fascinating and fun. We watch them on television – through Prime Minister’s Questions, for example – and hear them on the radio. In the latter especially, production teams will choose two opposing views to give the listener both sides. However, classes don’t come with ready-made ‘proposers’ and ‘opposers’. It is likely that some …
To read more about Communities of Enquiry, I’d recommend beginning with an overview of P4C (bit.ly/ uked14nov22), before details about the process of enquiries themselves (bit.ly/uked14nov23).