A Framework for Whole-Class Discussions

An exercise called the Philosophical Chair is a general method for students to talk and listen to each other. This is a student-centered strategy that can be used in any content area across a variety of topics. It’s structured like a debate – with a clear goal of students being willing to change their minds.

Other goals that can be tied to standards are for students to practice respectful dialogue, support claims with prior knowledge, organize their thinking and reasoning, and avoid conflicting statements. The exercise also provides a venue for challenging student assumptions.

Setting Up

The basic structure of the Philosophy Seat is as follows:

  • Teachers or students provide exam instructions to the class; All students take three minutes to write down their thoughts on the statement
  • what position they decide to take on the statement (yes, no, undecided)
  • They discuss their ideas and positions for about 10 to 15 minutes
  • They wrote a reflection containing the comments that challenged their thinking the most; whether they changed their minds; and how receptive they were at the start of the conversation.

Before you start speaking and listening, it is important to develop discussion norms. In my class, the norm usually includes:

  • speak one at a time;
  • look at the speaker and use body language that shows you are listening
  • repeat what the other person said in front of you
  • Have the three people around you talk after you and then talk
  • Gently and quietly remind others when they are not following the norm.

I provide a stemming table for students to politely object, add comments from others, and lead the conversation back to the topic. We use these for the first few discussions, but after that students usually don’t need them.

Understand deeper

A more detailed explanation of the philosophy chair goes like this. The facilitator presents an explanation of a topic to the class, it can be created by the teacher or students.

This is a statement that has no right or wrong answer but is contextual. For example, a philosophy lecture in a health class might begin with: “Tobacco product use should be permitted from age 12 if supervised by an adult.” In math class: “Using a car-sharing service makes more economic sense than owning a car.”

I like to give students at least five statements to make sure we have enough inconsistencies for a good discussion, and they take a few minutes to write down their answers—yes, no, or undecided—with reasons for each statement. Before we start to make sure there is a fair difference of opinion, I do a quick survey of the class – if there isn’t enough time for a serious discussion, I’ll drop the explanation or choose the side with fewer advocates but I’m an observer.

After students write down their initial answers and thoughts, they sit or face each other in a row, row by row. Hesitant students stood at the end of the two rows opposite them.

The student moderator moderates the discussion. They read explanations, prompt students to speak, and gently remind students to focus. I train moderators ahead of time on how to ask clarifying questions and ask them to call people who seem to have something to say but don’t raise their hand.

The two sides initially alternated speeches. But over time, as the class progresses in listening and respecting each other, it is normal for students to loosen up, everyone is contributing.

I give the host a list so he can tag people he calls to increase the number of students who speak at least once. Students do not have to speak. I ask everyone to show that they are listening respectfully, but it is important not to let the child speak. Eventually, they will. I’ve never had a student who never spoke up because their classmates eventually encouraged them and they shared their thoughts.

At the beginning of the discussion, the first person to speak gave a clear reason for their belief. The next student must summarize what that person said before sharing their thoughts.

Students can switch sides at any time. They didn’t give any explanation – they just moved. They often check in shortly after moving, share their change of mind, and then add their thoughts.

Indecisive students never have to choose both sides, but they must share what they think is the strongest point of view on both sides and why they find those points the most compelling, even if they don’t ultimately believe it. The moderator shares his views at the end of the discussion.

Sometimes, when I feel like neither side of a proposition is enlightened, I ask them to do what I call the Lincoln debate—everyone has to change sides and argue for the opposite. This challenges students’ minds and allows them to see other perspectives.

I think it’s important to praise students for their openness rather than their excellence. You get a lot of positive feedback on Zinger, but how often do we realize that open-mindedness is a skill we want to develop?

Hearing the insights of my students is very inspiring to me. But the best part is reading their reflections and seeing the growth down the page: “I changed my mind because of…” or “I didn’t change my mind because…but I learned…” In her own words, I can see her growing.

About the article

Whole-class discussions encourage students to learn from each other and to express course content in their own words. While generally not conducive to covering a lot of content, interactive discussion dynamics can help students learn and motivate them to complete assignments and prepare lessons.

In this article, we discussed a framework for whole-class discussions. 

Carter Martin

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