What is philosophical chairs?
Philosophical chairs are an activity that gets students to take a stance on a blanket statement and try to convince their peers to move to their side. For example, a topic might be “Water is wet” and students must decide if yes, water is wet, or no, water is not wet. They use argumentation and reasoning skills to sway their peers.
How do they benefit students?
What students don’t like debate type activities? While there are no winning sides in philosophical chairs, students get engaged and involved by trying to persuade as many of their classmates to their side. If you pick a particularly hair trigger topic, like water being wet, or pineapple on pizza, you get students advocating strongly for their beliefs. In today’s world, it is important for students to learn how to communicate differing points of view to each other without ostracizing each other. Philosophical chairs, therefore, is a great way to communicate speaking and listening skills, analysis skills, and reasoning skills.
How do they benefit teachers?
One of my favorite things about philosophical chairs is that it is completely student run. Teachers stay off to the side to moderate only is absolutely possible. For the most part, students are chosen to help facilitate, while teachers observe and take notes. At the end, students reflect on the conversation, whether they were moved to switch sides, and evaluate their overall participation.
Administrators tend to love this activity, too. It is considered the height of classroom management because students are regulating each other based on predetermined behavior norms. I have even had a few administrators tell me that this activity was the key to scoring a 4 on their Danielson rubric for teacher evaluations.
How do I conduct philosophical chairs?
First, you need to set up class norms. Ask students what they believe is acceptable behavior, what isn’t acceptable behavior, and how they will regulate each other. A few sample rules may look like:
- No talk over each other
- No yelling
- Two people must talk before you talk again
After, you can provide students with a blanket statement, and then they brainstorm 3 reasons to answer yes and three reasons to answer no. Then, they generate an opening statement. See an example below.
Once students finish speaking, which can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on how much time you have allotted, they reflect and respond. I usually have a set of three different sheets with leveled questions. You can also choose to bring students to the front or rotate and ask them individually how they did and what they think they can improve.
What if the activity goes off the rails?
And trust me, sometimes it does go off the rails. The best way to stop it from going off the rails is by setting clear guidelines. Explain to students what the consequences are if the rules are broken, if they start yelling, if they can’t take turns. Does the activity stop? Do they lose class points? Or do they lose the privilege of conducting philosophical chairs for a week? These are things you need to discuss with them before hand.
When the activity goes off the rails, maybe because its getting closer to a break or students are just ready for lunch, I insert myself, let everyone know that I am ending the activity. I explain why the activity is ending, and make them reflect on their behavior and how they will improve it for next time. If it is only a few students I will pull them to the side and either pull out a behavior contract or chat with them about consequences and why they were behavior inappropriately.
What topics can I use?
Some good ones I have used are:
- Pineapple belongs on pizza.
- Vaccines should be mandatory.
- Water is wet.
- Vaping should be illegal.
You can also ask students for topic ideas. At one point, I had a small wall where students could put up their ideas for philosophical chairs as they came in, so we always had a fresh set of topics to choose from.