Professor Güven Güzeldere uses debates extensively in several of his courses, including Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, and Philosophy of Religion. The debates consist of two teams of two or three students each, presenting and defending two opposing positions on a particular philosophical question (e.g., Can we attribute genuine emotions to robots or computational systems on the basis of affect-appropriate behaviors?). Each team gets a first period for presenting, and then a second period for a rejoinder to the opposing team and their own response. The debate concludes with an open question-answer period that involves the whole class.
To prepare for the activity, the class lists a number of topics to form debate questions, forms debate teams among the students, and assigns the selected topics to the teams by means of a collective discussion. Debate topics are always related to the material covered in the class thus far. The instructor suggests topics and questions, and assists each debate team during the preparation period.
Once the positions are selected, students conduct independent research for the debate using articles, books, on-line resources.
After the in-class debate, the instructor holds an open question-answer period involving the whole class. He also takes an informal poll on the convincibility of each team. The students discuss whether anyone in the audience changed their minds regarding the debate question on the basis of the presentations.
The goal of the debates is to engage students in independent research that goes deeper in exploring some fundamental philosophical questions of the course and to have them see both sides of a controversial issue.
Professor Güzeldere finds that the debate format works very well in a number different classes with very different content, as long as the relevant literature involves controversial questions that can be formulated succinctly and in a way that can be answered in two opposing ways by the respective debate teams. Try it out!