The first year I was introduced to philosophical chairs, I was amazed. It sounded too good to be true, to be honest. Getting students to talk about something controversial, without tearing each other apart cage fight style? Nah, pipe dream.
But it’s true.
Philosophical Chairs is a way for students to practice real-world communication skills, impress administrators, and enforce metacognitive skills.
What is philosophical chairs?
Philosophical chairs is an activity where students are presented with a statement beforehand, and form an opinion either agreeing or disagreeing with the topic. When the activity begins, either the teacher or a designated student helps moderate the conversation. Typically, classes will decide together what the norms in the activity will be.
A sample topic could be on something as simple but controversial as “Water is wet.” Students would go home and compile research on the topic then come to school and participate in the activity by calmly presenting their views. The fun part is that students can be and are encouraged to switch sides if they are persuaded by an argument.
I think the best part is that students can see how good they are at expressing compelling perspectives by seeing their peers move to their side. Not to mention that at the end when students need to put to paper why they were swayed or why they weren’t they get to work on those all-important metacognitive skills.
Here are some videos to philosophical chairs activities in case you are still a bit hazy on the subject.
Why does admin love this activity?
Administrators adore this activity for a couple of reasons:
- It’s student-led
- It’s a domain 4 activity
- It’s AVID approved
Administrators have been focusing on student-led activities that demonstrate domain 4 level acquisition of knowledge. In this case, philosophical chairs is a student-led activity because students research a topic, take a stance, and present it to the class. Students are not locked into a particular stance and are allowed to move and show their evolving understanding of a topic.
And that’s just it, they get to see students governing themselves and their behavior, showing their knowledge, and in some cases, students even vote on a topic themselves, so the teacher has to do less do because of relationship building that has occurred on the back end.
This activity is perfect for most evaluation as well, including evaluations based on the Danielson framework.
The first time teaching philosophical chairs
It was a nightmare. I was coached by our AVID strategist on what to do, but it just wouldn’t mesh with my students. First, I didn’t have a classroom so I had to set up desks and improvise in each class I rotated through. Second, my students weren’t the best about preparing for our activities. I would hand them the topic beforehand, instruct them to come to school with their Yes/No sheets filled out, and some additional research, but surprise surprise, only three of thirty kids would be prepared.
It’s no surprise that when I tried to actually conduct the activity there were plenty of beats of awkward silence and instances of two students just going back and forth.
How to ensure kids will participate
This starts with classroom management, like all things. I personally am a fan of pulling up laptops and putting students who have come to school unprepared without their pre-activity research email their parents about why they are unprepared. Of course, having them CC me in the email as well.
Other things you can do:
- have students write an essay on the topic
- explain the consequences of non-participation
- set up a Remind system with parents
How to set up topics
The important thing to remember about philosophical chairs is that it isn’t a debate. So all topics need to be in statement form. For example, instead of asking “Is water wet?” students should be told “Water is wet” or “Water is not wet.” A strong declarative statement does wonders for stirring up opinions in students.
Sample topics could center around class readings (“Love at first sight does not exist.” for Romeo and Juliet) or larger unit topics (“The electoral college should be abolished” for a government class.).
Feedback- Don’t skip it
In any step of the teaching process, incorporating student voice is important. And gathering feedback forms from students can be one way that you do so when performing a philosophical chairs activity.
Don’t skip the feedback. And make sure to compile feedback so that you know what areas need to improve and what takeaways students are getting from the activity. This can provide you with valuable information on a student’s understanding of a topic and their ability to communicate effectively.
Pre-Made Year Long Philosophical Chairs
If you absolutely are stuck, I have set up topics, feedback forms, and inner/outer circle tickets for philosophical chairs. Click here to take a look on TPT!