The dangers of encouraging dominance in debate

Modelling respectful debate

As a teacher, how do you react when one student (or a small minority) dominate discussion and class debate? Do you step in to include the rest of the group or just let the one-sided rhetoric run its natural course? If you intervene, what is the usual outcome, and why do you interject? Similarly, if you choose to become another bystander within the arena, why the stance of passivity rather than the role of moderator? I am genuinely interested in a public response to these questions as I have my own opinion and modus operandi but am keen to see what teachers of more discussion-based subjects do. How do we perceive our role in this forum, and to what end are the reasons for our choice?

Love or hate Jeremy Corbyn, he certainly brought a different attitude to political debate than we had been party to for decades. His approach was one of reason and discussion, of measure and discourse. He clearly was passionate about what he was arguing for (and against), but never once did it overflow into a lack of respect for fellow humans or their opinion. This has been a very different floor show than the public is used to from parliament, which, at times, has been akin to opposing fans on football terraces.


I spent a morning watching the excellent debates that were held at the Michaela School in Wembley. The one which I was most excited about was the one between Daisy Christodoulou and Guy Claxton, as it was something I felt quite strongly about. Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of Guy and was keen to know more about Daisy as I avidly read her work but wanted to see her in action. The title of the debate was “Sir Ken is right” and was about creativity in schools. It is most definitely worth a watch (Article continues below…).

Being more on the progressive side of the spectrum, Daisy had her work cut out to convince me otherwise, especially going up against a heavyweight such as Guy. However, listening to her speak, her reasoned and passionate case for a traditional education has a place in our society seemed more than worthwhile. Daisy’s manner and disposition were not how I had imagined them to be; I had a very ignorant preconception of an academic, well-spoken individual who would be somewhat aloof. She was clearly well-read and, to that end, well-respected, hence a glowing reputation at such a young age. In addition to those qualities, Daisy was charming and down-to-earth and spoke in a language that was engaging and which didn’t exclude any group through bias. She developed ethos with her audience quickly through reasoned argument, facts, and passionate personal opinion backed up with evidence to support her claims. Guy was equally brilliant in stating his case, there were many points on which both opponents disagreed vehemently, but they did so respectfully.

As an observer, I could hear all the claims and their justifications and was able to form my own opinion based on the debate that ensued. I did surprise myself; I found that I had moved further along the traditional route than I had bargained for. Daisy had won me over; she’d argued her case brilliantly and beautifully. Additionally, I’m even more interested in what she will have to say in the future; she has gained further respect with the way she conducted herself at Michaela. Equally, Jonathan Porter’s expression of affection for Michael Gove surprised me even more so. Unfortunately, he hasn’t convinced me yet, but in an excellent execution of rhetoric, he managed to share a very different perspective that I had never considered before. You can watch him in action…

I’m not a fan of football, well, that’s not strictly true. I used to love playing it, but I find myself increasingly dismayed when I watch professional games on television. It’s not the game itself which bothers me as such; it’s the way in which teams behave towards one another and the officials when a decision does not go their way. Unfortunately, these attitudes are becoming more apparent at amateur and junior levels. They are replicating the behaviour they see, and it has now become accepted practice in football.

Modelling is important; I’m acutely aware that, as a teacher, I am always on duty. This is a fact. If I didn’t accept this, I would not continue to teach. I know that I can be seen in the local area, in the wider region (I’ve even bumped into students whilst on a cruise) and in the widest global community on the internet. This doesn’t mean I have to hide everything about my personal life (I fundamentally disagree with any teacher having to hide aspects of who they are), but it does mean that I have a responsibility in the way I conduct myself both in school and outside of it.

Students are naturally inquisitive (as are adults) about role models and will try to find out about their teachers. In my day, it used to be finding out your teachers’ first names, but now Google stalking is the sport of choice. So whilst a teacher’s personal life is their own, it’s always important to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves. Young people model what they see. I’d much rather them model Daisy and Guy than the behaviours of some over-riding Premiership footballers. I believe that it is my responsibility to encourage this through my own authenticity and actions.

The best part of my role is working with people and building mutually beneficial relationships through collegiate practice. Primarily, it’s my job to help others. However, I consider myself blessed. I’ve learned so many things which have developed my own teaching and leadership through listening to others. It is only through discussion, observation and being exposed to opposing perspectives and approaches that I’ve grown as a person. The position of SLT is a fortunate one which enables this insight; however, this level of awareness is something which all teachers, whatever the stage in their career, can benefit from. Something which, as a school, we are encouraging through our triad-led personalised professional development model this year.

More recently, I have also been fortunate enough to visit lots of schools in different settings; teachers from these schools offer another perspective which can sometimes not be considered because we’ve never had that level of insight as we may have never experienced their contexts. This opportunity is one of growth and gives balance. Different viewpoints might not change my opinion or approach, but they quality assure a well-considered perspective rather than a single-minded one which is founded on I’m right you’re wrong mentality not dissimilar to that of Mr Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

Conversation with colleagues always includes the use of social media as a means of sharing practice and opinions with a wider audience. It is saddening to hear that professionals who have a lot to share with the community choose to stand on the sidelines rather than contribute because they are worried about being made to feel inferior or that they are not intelligent enough to participate. Surely we should be encouraging their engagement rather than excluding a significant proportion of people who could help to affect change on a larger scale? A staggering amount of teachers use Twitter as a platform of communication but there is only a small proportion of this number actively contribute to the forum. Is this not a sea of opinion, practice and perspective that we might be missing out on? Their input can only serve to enhance the rich tapestry that is weaving its way into our educational landscape. Are the reasons which these professionals give for their lack of contribution any different than the way some students feel at a class level? Would we want just a handful of dominant voices to be heard, or would we want the group to feel involved and engaged? I can pre-empt the response of those readers who will adopt the well if they can’t take the heat mentality. This isn’t surprising, but it isn’t unwelcome as I would like to engage precisely those people in this type of discussion. If you find yourself always in the right and never questioning the reasonableness of your argument, then perhaps it is time to stop and take stock.

The crux of this blog is that having a respectful debate, it encourages an audience to see all perspectives and form an opinion based on a holistic approach. I can accept the fact that students use a different approach to solving equations than I might prefer to use, providing the fact that they have explored other ways than their own preferences through dialogue and listening to others. In more serious matters, it is acceptable to choose the opposite end of the spectrum, providing you can empathise with what it looks like from the other side. More importantly, it is vital that we teach our children to do this respectfully and with tolerance. We are in a world where this may be paramount to our survival as a global society. It is our role as teachers to give students the opportunity to form a broad and balanced opinion, developed through fact, evidence and reason, to model the behaviour that we wish them to adopt in every form of communication we use. It is our responsibility to give them a different perspective, to encourage a view through different eyes.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Kelly Leonard and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.


Image credits: Article images provided by Kelly Leonard. Featured (football) image via Bay Area Bias on Flickr under (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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