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Managing discussion

Ground rules for discussion

You, as the teacher, will need to establish rules or guidelines on appropriate and inappropriate modes of argument and self-expression. The goal is a general atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance but is more readily stated than achieved.

In defining the rules or framework for discussion, attention should be paid to both cultural and religious sensitivity as well as maintaining a balance between objectivity and emotional engagement. Try not to allow students to personalise the issues under discussion as this may arouse feelings of guilt and a need for self-justification.

Multiple perspectives can arise from differences of culture, religion, social class, gender or academic discipline and when several students within the group share a perspective the discussion can break down into a contest between rival ‘factions’.

A clear framework suggested by Susan Illingworth for students in Higher Education can be helpful here. Teachers should ensure that:

  • Every member of the group has an opportunity to speak.
  • Views can be expressed without interruption.
  • Criticisms are aimed at arguments and not individuals.
  • There are mechanisms for defusing heated situations.
  • Participants are encouraged to apply constructive criticism to their own beliefs
  • Participants are encouraged to look for common ground between opposing views
  • Teaching materials are selected for their accessibility to a range of viewpoints.

Students are used to being asked for the correct answer, it will take them a while to come to terms with the fact that when discussing ethics there will not always be a correct answer, this needs to be made clear to them.

Students should feel safe in the classroom environment.  As private individuals they could refuse to participate in a debate if it distressed them either by remaining silent or by walking away but in school students are expected to remain in class.

 Difficult Discussions


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