How to prepare and lead a debate


The debate is a key approach in allowing learners to develop an argumentation and reconsider their point of view and professional practices. But a debate can also be a source of tension, conflict and power play without allowing real learning.
On 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:
- ensure discussion without exercising power over the group or individuals and without generating power plays
- deal with the subject while ensuring participants' free speech

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 and educators. 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 educator: enable constructive critical, attentive and creative thinking
For the learner: debate and discuss democratically on complex, controversial and involving social issues…
- Know and understand the position of each other
- Implement critical thinking
- Enhance emotional skills
- Open one’s thinking to new possibilities
image photodger.jpg (2.2MB)


There are different types of debates. Some tend to split up the group, such as the battle of arguments, others aim to overcome conflicts. It all depends on the goals you set for yourself.

A battle of arguments or a moving debate can be used at the beginning of a pedagogical process. It enables the teacher to highlight 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 (more than 30 persons). The group is split into subgroups. In each subgroup, participants have a role to take in the learning process. Texts and films are carefully chosen to stimulate debate while maintaining 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 an anonymous exchange of perspectives and values between participants in a group, based on a problem situation (dilemma, philosophical question, case study, ....). After offering the possibility for the participants to share and deepen their arguments, we expose participants to some new knowledge offered by films of professional practices of breeders and scientists giving their feed-back about the practices. These films are screened and analysed.

How to conclude a debate?

Two positions are possible. In the first one, all arguments are accepted, and the educator will “institutionalize” the main knowledge showing the main ethical and scientific controversies (you can see the map of controversies). In the second one, the teacher won’t give the same value to each argument but will define statements about ethical and scientific regulations.

Pitfalls and recommendations

The educator has a very specific role and must have an overview of the issue, animal welfare regulations, scientific points of view and controversies and ethical arguments. He/she must enable exchange between the participants.
The participants need to be confident with you. Consequently, while you can give your own point of view (if the participants for instance want to know it) you should not impose it, discredit or promote other points of view, or guide the debate in the direction you want. The posture is very important here: the teacher has to have a low position on the opinions given by the learners and their judgments, but a high position with regards to leading the process. In other words, you have to maintain an assertive posture regarding rules. Participants can say anything while respecting the other participants. Although it is important to engage the quieter elements to speak, some participants can also try to take leadership of the debate. Avoiding leadership effects is not easy. It is possible to modify the rules to adapt them to the situation. If a person speaks too much, you can announce that you're going to 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 such as a film presenting a hard controversy can be shown (such as a movie about the end of life of animals).
The role of the leader is also to guide the building of argumentation. He/she will ask for clarification or for a more in-depth study. This can take time. Wanting to move too fast, or being caught up in time, is often detrimental to the debate. Sometimes the leader is waiting for some results and can pressure the group to elaborate a better quality of argumentations. Demanding too much may well block speech. It can be helpful to draw up a detailed step-by-step programme for the course and to define 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 arguments and points of view. But, according to what criterion can a teacher say whether something is acceptable or not ? According to the law, the science, the ethics?
There is no clear answer. It really depends on the framework that the teacher gives at the beginning of the debate. Are any opinions are accepted IF they are argued, or can the debate be limited by some boundaries: for instance, do we accept professional practices which are forbidden? Do we accept any arguments that are scientifically false?