Conversation-based #activelearning – exploiting the differences between dialogue and debate

Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

Active learning is essentially conversational – a ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of ideas, whether this is a collaborative exchange or personal cogitation and reflection. Pedagogically, there is a lot to exploit here.

I was recently involved in a discussion about the difference between dialogue and debate which referred to Daniel Yankelovich’s The Magic of Dialogue (1999). Yankelovich’s interest is conflict resolution and, in that context, debate is obviously confrontational and not the best strategy. However, from a pedagogical perspective, there is a lot to be said for debate.

First, let’s compare dialogue and debate as outlined by Yankelovich.

assumes there is a right answer – and I have it.assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together, they can craft a solution.
is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side collaborative – participants work together toward common understanding
is about about exploring common good.
entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments.entails listening to understand and find meaning and agreement.
I defend my assumptions as truth.I reveal my assumptions for re-evaluation.
I critique the other side’s position.I re-examine all positions.
I defend my own views against those of others.I admit that others’ thinking can improve my own.
I search for weaknesses in others’ positions.I search for strength and value in other’s positions.
I seek a conclusion or vote that ratifies my position.I discover new options.
from The Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich (1999)

I write about co-operative learning frequently on this blog. The ideas in the Dialogue column epitomise co-operation; a word that Yankelovich uses in the title of his book. Does that make Debate the bad guy, pedagogically?

Assuming any pedagogy must first be consensual and that, ethically, all participants have their eyes open before immersing in any activity, I argue that debate is also a powerful learning framework.

Another look at Debate, as a conceit or constructed situation, presents several reasons for using debate pedagogically.

DebatePedagogic rationale
assumes there is a right answer – and I have it.As learners, it can be helpful to ‘try ideas on’ and see how far an argument can be sustained. Many people like to play devil’s advocate when considering a contentious idea conversationally. This deploys the same principle of putting an idea out there to test it – and possibly reveal flaws in accepted opinion.
is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side wrong.If you are going to test an idea, then it helps to do it with rigour and vigour. Being combative suggests an unhelpful attitude that should be avoided – slanging matches don’t help anyone – but being confident and committed to an idea in order to assess and defend it can add to the excitement of exchange.
is about winning.I always start from a commitment to co-operation. A competitive desire to win has always made me uneasy, but of course ego is an essential part of human nature and, ultimately, people compete with and against their own ideas to test their beliefs of what is good and bad or when re-assessing their personal goals. Ipsative assessment and competing against our personal goals can be very empowering.
More than this, friendly competition within a spirit of co-operation (cricket! Any sport?) shows how they are not the antithesis of each other.
entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments.Simply, isn’t that a way of defining critical analysis? Again, it comes down to context, intent, and, in terms of teaching, how the conceit is presented.
I defend my assumptions as truth.I have already referred to the value of conviction, but within the conceit of debate it is critical to have a period of debriefing and reflection; to step away from the narrowness of positions that may have been taken to redraw personal conclusions ideally in a social setting in which debating protagonists are involved. I am reminded of the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Reunion’ in which key players in headline-hitting news stories or cultural affairs are reunited many years later to retell and reflect on earlier events.
I critique the other side’s position.Learning how to critique positions taken by other people is an important skill. In a world of fake news we need to be able to challenge assumptions and lies propounded by others. Again, it comes down to how the conceit it framed by the teacher and the ground rules and etiquette that are put in place.
I defend my own views against those of others.If you have done your research it is one thing knowing and another thing to apply what you know. Often this comes down to a person having developed the skills of explaining and influencing; being leaderly. For example, being able to see a situation from another person’s perspective can help you to show that person what might be of interest to them in a way that is acceptable to them. These skills are learnt through practice. Debating is a way of practicing.
I search for weaknesses in others’ positions.I have addressed finding flaws and critiquing another person’s position, but this alludes to the art of active listening too. That idea of ‘search’ sounds antagonistic, but when reframed as ‘inquiry’ we can see that debate, to be useful, must open our inquiring mind. It cannot be a matter of taking turns to hail missiles at each other, it needs to be clever – an intellectual exchange. The legal pedagogy of mooting is a refined and highly structured enactment of debating in which arguments and counter arguments are prepared and presented. It is a constructive process.
I seek a conclusion or vote that ratifies my position.This can be part of the conceit, but is not at all desirable pedagogically. As the teacher frames a debate, space is needed to top and tail the activity to ensure safe and critical reflection happens.


In writing this post I have sought to present extreme positions and then reflect in more detail on their respective virtues. This, in effect, is what a well-framed debate should also achieve pedagogically. A debate is a conceit – an idea or tool that serves a purpose; just as an experiment serves a purpose. Good teaching, in both cases, creates a meta space in which to get closer to meanings and truths and their implications, and to discover the new options noted as the culmination of the dialogic model.


Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue: transforming conflict into cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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