Better the devil you know: what role should teachers play in questioning, class discussion and debate?

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 23 November 2018

Tales From The Reach has included a series of blogs on questioning and class discussion. These have included the use of closed questionsPPPB and Socratic questioning and discussion. However, we have not really looked at the role of the teacher in class discussions, especially if we are engineering debate or facilitating learning conversations based on the content taught.

Does the teacher simply ask the questions and discuss them with the pupils? Should the pupils be asking the teacher questions to start discussions? Should the pupils be asking each other?

Of course, all of this depends on what the aim of your questioning is: is it part of a brief recap or a longer pupil centred activity? Here, Gershon (2015, pp. 30-31) amongst others has identified a number of different roles the teacher can consciously adopt whilst asking questions and facilitating discussion. Although he applies these roles to history, they can easily be adapted to other subjects (I apologise as my examples only focus on teaching sociology – but don’t let that put you off reading). These roles include:

Facilitator: this is a pupil-centred approach where the teacher provides the pupils with a series of questions and then lets the them formulate answers amongst themselves. It is the dialogue between the pupils that generates answers. However, it is still monitored by the teacher who may step in to guide or re-direct the pupils if they go off on a tangent, off task or are in need of help. In sociology, for example, this is often useful if the pupils have already learnt some key sociological theories, concepts or studies as they will not need to ask the facilitator to keep intervening when they run out of things to say.

Neutral judge: this is a common approach to questioning and discussion that many teachers adopt naturally. The idea is that the teacher is an objective manager of the discussion that ensues from the question they posed. For example, in sociology, the teacher may ask whether welfare benefits encourage a ‘dependency culture‘ before simply controlling who speaks and ensuring that both sides get a chance to air their opinions. Of course, the teacher will also police the discussion to make sure the rules are respected. In some ways, this is similar to the chair on question and answer programmes like the BBC’s ‘Question Time’.

Committed participant (personal): this is basically where the teacher joins in the discussion, perhaps after letting pupils answer the question posed, with their own personal opinions or experiences. I have often done this as pupils often respect the fact that I have experienced something they are learning about. For example, I used to have a job working for a market research organisation phoning people up whilst they were eating their dinner to ask closed questions about anything from car tyres to ice cream. As some of the responses were quite humorous or, more often than not, rude, I will use this to point out some weaknesses of large scale surveys. Moreover, this role is useful if you are needing to confront challenging opinions, perhaps xenophobic, or if the class is largely against the the values of the school etc.

Committed participant (in role): this is very much like the above role, but here the teacher will act the part of a committed participant if needed. For example, if no one in the class has put forward the views of radical feminism in a debate on gender equality, you could state the argument of a radical feminist. You would need to model the answer as if you were a committed feminist by adopting the critical stance they may have towards gender equality in society.

Devil’s advocate: again, this may seem very similar to the above role, but it is slightly different as you would not just be adopting a view or perspective that has not been aired, but would be deliberately juxtaposing your views to that of the class or, at least the majority. Although you may not like the position you adopt, it will be a way of getting the pupils to fully evaluate their own views, prejudices or biases. I have often done this when discussing the views of the new right who argue that the welfare state has created an ‘underclass’ of ill-educated work shy social security dependent people who are often ‘lone parents’ (see Murray, 1999). The latter point can cause pupils to fundamentally disagree and it is left to me to defend the perspective’s contribution to sociology even if I disagree with some of its assumptions. Of course, you need to let them know you are playing devil’s advocate; better the devil they know (who is inauthentic) than one they don’t (who might be authentic).

In all of the above, it is worth remembering your own biases and the law around political bias in schools – if your class discussion is political in anyway – as well as rules for teaching controversial issues.


Gerhson, M. (2015). How to be Outstanding in the Classroom. (Abingdon: Routledge).

Murray, C. (1999). The Underclass Revisited. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press.

Picture credit: Pixabay (used under a Creative Common Licence).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s