Communication Skills

A Framework for Whole-Class Discussions

Philosophical Chairs is an exercise that fosters careful listening and encourages every student to contribute their thoughts.

May 7, 2019

An exercise called Philosophical Chairs is a versatile way to get students speaking and listening to one another. It’s a student-centered strategy that can be used in any content area around a multitude of topics. It’s set up like a debate—and one explicit objective is for students to be open to changing their minds.

The other objectives—which can be tied to standards—are for students to practice respectful dialogue, provide evidence for claims using prior knowledge, organize their thinking and logical reasoning, and avoid disputable statements. The exercise also provides a venue to challenge students’ assumptions.

Getting Set Up

The basic outline of Philosophical Chairs is this:

  • The teacher or a student presents a statement for the class to consider;
  • All students spend three minutes writing their ideas about the statement;
  • They decide which position they’ll take on the statement (yes, no, undecided);
  • They discuss their ideas and positions for about 10 to 15 minutes; and
  • They write a reflection that includes the comment that most challenged their thinking; whether they changed their mind or not; and how open-minded they were at the start of the conversation.

Before starting any speaking and listening activity, it’s important to have discussion norms. In my class, the norms generally include:

  • One person speaks at a time;
  • Look at the speaker and use body language that shows you’re listening;
  • Restate what the person before you said;
  • Let three people on your side speak after you before you speak again; and
  • Gently and quietly remind others if they’re not following the norms.

I provide students with a sheet of sentence stems for politely disagreeing, adding on to someone else’s comments, and redirecting the conversation back to the topic. We use these for the first few discussions, but after that students generally don’t need them.

An In-Depth Look

A more detailed explanation of Philosophical Chairs goes something like this. A statement about a topic is presented to the class by the facilitator—it can be either teacher- or student-generated.

It’s a statement that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, but is relevant to the content. For example, in a health class, Philosophical Chairs could begin with this: “Tobacco products should be allowed for ages 12 and up if monitored by an adult.” In math class: “Using a car-sharing service makes more financial sense than owning a car.”

I like to give students at least five statements to ensure that we have some with sufficient disagreement to generate a good discussion, and they spend a few minutes writing their responses to each one—yes, no, or undecided—and providing a rationale. I quickly poll the class before we begin to ensure there’s a fair division of opinion—if there is not enough for a robust discussion, I’ll drop a statement, or participate with the side that has less advocates, but otherwise I’m an observer.

After students write their initial responses and thoughts, they move to sit or stand in a yes row and a no row facing each other. Undecided students stand at the end of the two rows, facing them.

A student facilitator moderates the discussion. They read the statement, call on students to speak, and gently remind students to stay focused on the topic. I coach facilitators ahead of time, teaching them how to ask clarifying questions, and asking them to call on those who seem like they have something to say but are not raising their hand.

The two sides alternate speaking at first. But as the year goes on, and the class gets better at listening and respecting each other, it’s normal for students to relax about the order—everyone still contributes.

I give the facilitator a roster so they can mark off who they’ve called on, in an effort to broaden the number of students who talk at least once. Students are not required to speak. I ask for everyone to show that they’re listening respectfully, but it’s important to let kids not talk. Eventually they will—I’ve never had a student who never speaks, because their classmates eventually prompt them, and they do share their thoughts.

As the discussion begins, the first person to speak gives a clear rationale for their belief. The next student must then summarize what that person said before they share their own thoughts.

Students are allowed to switch sides at any time. They don’t give an explanation—they just move. They frequently speak up soon after moving to share what point changed their mind, and then add their thoughts.

Students who are undecided never have to pick a side, but they do have to share what they see as the strongest points from either side and say why they thought those points were the most compelling, even it they were not ultimately convinced. The facilitator shares their opinion at the end of the discussion.

Occasionally, when I sense that both sides are not being open-minded about a statement, I’ll have them do something I call a Lincoln Debate—everyone has to switch sides and argue for the opposing position. This challenges students’ thinking and pushes them to see other perspectives.

I think it’s important to praise students for open-mindedness, and not for their excellent points. They get a lot of positive feedback on zingers, but how often do we acknowledge open-mindedness as a skill we want to cultivate?

It’s illuminating for me to listen to the insightful commentary my students share. But the best part is reading their reflections, and seeing the growth on the page: “I changed my mind because...,” or “I didn’t change my mind because..., but I learned that....” I can see their growth in their own words.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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