Philosophical Chairs is a versatile and engaging student discussion strategy. If your students are a little restless at the end of the year, Philosophical Chairs harnesses that energy and all that students have learned.
Using Philosophical Chairs, students will:
move around the classroom
form and share their own opinions
use evidence to support their ideas
listen attentively to classmates
respectfully disagree with others
To prepare, the teacher creates a statement that has at least two possible positions—agree/disagree or yes/no. You can also allow students to choose “undecided”. The statement doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, but is relevant to the content.
For example, in a health class, the discussion 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.”
To start the discussion, the statement is presented to the class by the facilitator—it can be either the teacher or a student.
All students spend about three minutes writing their ideas about the statement. Students then decide which position they’ll take on the statement along with their rationale; yes, no, or undecided.
Once students have had sufficient time to write down their position and rationale, divide students into the different positions; yes, no, undecided. Students move to one side of the room for “yes” responses, the “no” responses on the other side, and “undecided” in the middle.
The facilitator moderates the discussion. They read the statement, call on students to explain their position, and gently remind students to stay focused on the topic.
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.
Remind students to organize their thoughts before speaking, “I have three points to make, first…”
Throughout the discussion, the teacher should keep notes on the students’ participation.
At first, alternate speaking between the two sides. As students become more familiar with the protocol and the class gets better at listening and respecting each other, it’s normal for students to relax about the order—everyone still contributes.
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.
After the discussion, students 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.
Some reflection starters might include:
“I changed my mind because…
“I didn’t change my mind because…, but I learned that….”
Before starting any speaking and listening activity, it’s important to have discussion norms. Some class norms might 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
Gently and quietly remind others if they’re not following the norms
A good idea to help students foster conversation is to provide them sentence stems for politely disagreeing, adding on to someone else’s comments, and redirecting the conversation back to the topic. Over time, students will feel comfortable not needing these stems. (See stems below)
This protocol is typically helpful at grades 6 and higher. Younger students might still agree or disagree and include their rationale, but not have to summarize the other person’s statement.
The debate could be based on text the students have read ahead of time. Students might be required to cite textual evidence to support their claims.
Some teachers set up one hot seat to represent each side, and students must take turns in the seat.
Teachers may also opt to offer a continuum of choices, ranging from “Strongly Agree” on one side of the room, all the way to “Strongly Disagree” on the other, and have students place themselves along that continuum based on the strength of their convictions.
Give Philosophical Chairs a try during your next classroom discussion lesson–we think you and your students will love it!