Debating issues in science: introducing young audiences to bioethics

Over this autumn school term, members of our Education Advisory Group are sharing thoughts and ideas based on their own experience of how bioethics and debate can be useful in education contexts. This post is written by Susan Meikleham, Science Education Coordinator at Glasgow Science Centre.

Advances in biology abound, each offering up new ethical questions for debate. Based on my experience of running discussion sessions with young people at Glasgow Science Centre, this blog post introduces three ideas designed to support successful discussion of complex ethical debates.

1. Set the scene

It can be easy to assume that your audience will have an opinion on the subject you want them to discuss but that isn’t always the case.  In order to mitigate this, it’s useful to start off with activities that introduce the subject as well as the ethical considerations.  For example the Nuffield Council for Bioethics has an excellent resource on the ethics of organ donation that gives an accessible introduction to the topic before delving into the debate.  As obvious as this may seem, don’t underestimate the importance of laying the groundwork for the discussion.

2. Get the conversation started

Now that we’re all on the same page, it’s time to get the discussion started. The discussion continuum is a tried and tested technique with teenagers and adults, designed to spark discussion by inviting participants to ‘vote with their feet’. You will need 2 posters stating ‘Strongly agree’ and ‘Strongly disagree’ stuck on opposite sides of the room with enough space for all participants to stand in a line between them.  Pose a controversial statement to the group, for example ‘It is right that a person who donates an organ should receive a financial reward’.  Invite the group to discuss the statement in pairs for 3 to 5 minutes before physically standing on the continuum according to their opinion. This allows you (and the rest of the group) to see the spread and relative strength of opinion at a glance. Ask participants from either ends of the continuum to share their opinions on the subject.

3. Facilitate, don’t dictate…

While facilitating the discussion, remember the golden rule: your role is to make the discussion easier for the participants, not to dictate how it unfolds. How you do this will depend on many factors like the age of the participants, how familiar they are with the subject and how willing they are to share their views.  For example, a group who are reluctant to enter into a discussion may benefit from some of the introductory activities described earlier or open questions from the facilitator like ‘Why do you think someone might object to payment being offered in return for organ donation?’. Conversely, a lively group who are keen to contribute will benefit from a facilitator who summarises the relevant points raised (while delicately putting aside irrelevant ones), moves the discussion along and encourages participation from less confident members of the group.

For more information on discussion techniques go to www.dialogueacademy.org.uk/resources.html
For excellent bioethics discussion activities go to www.nuffieldbioethics.org/education/

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