Getting a whole class of students to discuss a philosophical issue at length is difficult to do. There is a constant tension between listening, participation and critical thought. Philosophical Chairs is a discussion technique that gives students intensive practice in weighing the supporting and opposing arguments in a discussion. Students develop sensitivity to their own and other’s opinions while also improving their analysis and communications skills.
How Philosophical Chairs Works
- Write the topic/question on the board
- Have the students write the topic/question on a sheet a paper and next to their heading they will answer in one word — yes, no, undecided. Have the students spend a few minutes writing down the reasons or “evidence” for their choice.
- Divide the room in half, one side is yes, one side is no. Ask the students to move to the side that reflects their choice. Students who are undecided sit in the middle.
- Begin with the side that has the least amount of support, and ask one student to share why they answered the way they did. Limit each student to no more than one minute of talking.
- Go back and forth between students on the yes side and the no side. Before a student speaks, have them repeat or rephrase what the last person said.
- Each student should wait three seconds before responding to be sure the last person is finished.
- Each student should speak once before any student speaks twice.
- Students in the middle should move to the yes or no side as the discussion progresses. However, the goal of the activity is not to “win” by getting the most students on one side. The purpose of this format is to promote listening, analysis and discussion.
- At the end of the activity, have the students write a short reflection explaining how their viewpoint was strengthened, weakened or changed as a result of the discussion.
Philosophical Chairs can be used in elementary, middle or high school classrooms.