How to prepare and lead a debate


The debate is a key approach to allowing trainees to discover a great way to implement arguments, and more widely to implement ethical, creative and attentive thinking. However, a debate can also be a source of tension, conflict and power play without allowing real learning. This is why a debate can be feared by educators. It is important to moderate a debate while avoiding destructive conflicts.

With regards to a subject that raises questions about ethics and scientific knowledge and which raises emotions, two issues are identified for the moderator of a debate or discussion:

Therefore, from the point of view of pedagogical conduct, several questions arise. How to propose a framework to help participants? How to combine the ethics of discussion (discussing "democratically" with the feeling that everyone is listened to) with animation techniques (imposing a formal method that respects the contract: duration, time, speech management, space management, etc.)? How to maintain the dual position of facilitator and guide?

Some of us are comfortable with this "in-between", others more embarrassed or do not feel able to do so. However, several tools are available to facilitate discussion and debate by taking up this challenge, which is sometimes unusual for experts, trainers and teachers. They are often more comfortable delivering their own knowledge, when it will be necessary here to help deliver each participant's knowledge to build an "unknown" and together.


For the trainer: to show how to manage a debate in a constructive way

For the trainee: to show the learning possibilities of a debate, to tame this approach, to manage the conflict in a constructive manner.


The trainer can propose different types of debates and show the interests and limits of each of them. Some may split up a group, such as the battle of arguments, while others aim to overcome conflicts. It all depends on the goals you set for yourself.

A battle of argument or a moving debate can be used at the beginning of a pedagogical process. It enables the teacher to enlighten the main arguments of the participants.
A Samoan circle or a discussion for philosophical purposes on the contrary will facilitate the production of a new, nuanced, non-definitive response, acknowledging complexity, and will develop skills in listening, reformulation and questioning. This will stimulate collective intelligence to answer the question asked and facilitate the transition from opinion to reason.
The CLIM method is also an interesting tool to generate a debate, and support an argument with different resources (movies, scientific texts). It is particularly useful when the group of participants is large (over 30). The group is split in subgroups. In each subgroup, participants take a role to enable the learning process. Texts and movies are carefully chosen for stimulating the argumentations, and at the same time to maintain a principle of impartiality (it means that the resources cover the main points of view, the main ethics).

Aniphi is a platform which enables an open and at-distance debate. Its main interest is to allow anonymous exchange of perspectives and values between the participants of the group based on a problem situation (dilemma, philosophical question, case study, ....). After offering the possibility for participants to share and deepen their arguments, we expose them to some new knowledge offered through films of the professional practices of breeders and scientists giving their feed-back about the practices. These films are analysed after viewing.

How to conclude a debate?

There are two main conclusions, one about the content of the debate, the other about the debate itself. (1) Concerning the content itself, two positions are possible. In the first one, all the arguments are accepted, and the trainer will “institutionalise” the main knowledge showing the main ethical and scientific controversies (see the controversies map). In the second one, the trainer won’t give the same value to each argument; he/she will define statements about ethical and scientific regulations. (2) Concerning the debate as a pedagogical tool, the trainer can collect the feeling and emotions of the trainees, and finally analyse the limits and interests of this pedagogical approach.
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Pitfalls and recommendations

The trainer has a very specific role: he/she must have an overview of the issue, animal welfare regulations, scientific points of view and controversies, ethical arguments, and must enable exchange between the participants.
The participants have to be confident with the trainer. This means that even if the leader of the debate can give his/her own point of view (if the participants want to know it for example), he/she mustn’t impose this, discredit other points of view, or promote different argument, nor guide the debate in a selected direction. The posture is very important: the leader has to have a low profile position on the opinions given by the trainees and their judgments, but a strong position in maintaining an assertive posture regarding the rules of participation so that the participants can speak freely while respecting other participants. While it is important to engage the quieter participants to speak, some participants can also try to take the leadership of the debate. To avoid leadership effects is not easy. It is possible to modify the rules to adapt them to the situation. If a person speaks too much, the leader can announce that he will give priority to those who speak less. If people cut each other off, it is also possible to propose a talking stick.
If, on the contrary, the participants don’t want to speak, some triggers as a movie presenting a hard controverse can be showed (as a movie about the end of life of animals).
The role of the leader is also to guide the building of argumentation. He will ask for some clarification, for a more in-depth study. It can take time. Wanting to move too fast, being caught up in time is often detrimental to the debate. Sometimes the leader is waiting for some results and can presh the group to elaborate a better quality of argumentations. To want to demand too much, it's risky to block the speech. It can be helpful to draw up a detailed step-by-step programme for the course and to define a timing that makes everyone feel comfortable.
The debate has to enlighten scientific knowledge but also experiential knowledge, ethics, and emotion. Scientific knowledge is not to be preferred.

A tricky question is whether or not to accept all the arguments, points of view. But, according to what criterion, the leader will say that something is acceptable or not ? According to the law, the science, the ethics ?
There is no clear answer. It really depends on the frame that the leader will give at the beginning of the debate. Or any opinions are accepted If they are argued, or the debate will be framed by some boundaries : for instance, do we accept professional practices which are forbidden ? Do we accept at the end arguments that are scientifically false ?

The trainer has also to take in consideration the fears of the trainees to lead a debate. It is not something easy to do, to mediate conflict, to receive the violence of participants, to react in this moment,... the trainer will allow to everybody to express their fears, and to overcome them according to the possibilities of each person.