Friday, September 29, 2017

Big Questions and How We Answer Them


I developed this activity a couple of years ago and often use it in the early part of the school year. I have found that it engages most students and leads to interesting conversations, often lasting 2-3 class sessions. Part of the activity is based on an exercise created by Matthew Lipman and Ann Gazzard in Getting Our Thoughts Together: Instructional Manual to Accompany Elfie, 2003.

The activity begins by grouping students into groups of three or four. Each student is handed a blank index card. Then each group is handed an index card on which is written one of the following questions:
  • Do you have to see, hear, or touch something in order to believe it exists?
  • Are you responsible for the environment?
  • Are mistakes good or bad?
  • Should you always agree with your friends?
  • What is more important, to be happy or to do the right thing?
  • Are numbers real?
  • Is life fair?
Each group is given a different question.
Next, the students are asked to answer the question given to their group by writing their individual answers on their blank index cards, without talking to anyone else. At this point they do not need to give reasons for their answers.
Once the students are done writing, tell them to listen to all of the instructions before they do anything.
Instructions:
  • If you think that the answer you wrote down is completely true, put your head down on the desk.
  • If you think that your answer is mostly true, stay seated.
  • If you think that your answer is only slightly true, raise your hand.
  • If you no longer think that your answer is true, stand up.
After they’ve done this, ask the students who are standing why they decided that their answers were no longer true. Facilitate a brief discussion about this.

Then ask all the students to sit back down with their groups. Give each group another blank index card. Each student will then share with his or her group their answers to the question the group was given, and the group should decide on an answer with which they all agree. Then they should choose one student to be the group’s scribe, and that student will write the group’s answer(s) on the group’s index card, along with 2-3 reasons the group comes up with to support their answer.

The next part of the activity works best if the students can come together in one circle, with each group sitting together.

Start by asking one of the groups to read their question and answer, along with the reasons for their answer.
Then instruct the other students:
  • If you are completely convinced by the group’s reasoning, put your head down.
  • If you are mostly convinced by the group’s reasoning, stay seated and do nothing.
  • If you are only slightly convinced by the group’s reasoning, raise your hand.
  • If you are not at all convinced by the group’s reasoning, stand up.
Ask the students who are not at all convinced why this is so. Then facilitate a brief discussion with the whole group about the question and the reasons for answering it in various ways.

Repeat this process with each group, spending time having a discussion about each of the questions. If there’s time and the students are engaged in these discussions, this can take two or three sessions.

Time permitting, it’s nice to end with a reflection question to which the students can respond in writing, in philosophy journals or just on paper, such as:
Did your view or your reasons change as you discussed the question with your group and then the whole class? Why or why not?
Students often struggle to come up with good reasons for their views, and working with a group to explain to the class why they think a given answer is a good one helps them think more deeply about what they believe and why. The whole class discussions about each question are deepened by having the group of students who have already thought about the question lead off the conversation. This activity is reliably engaging for students and allows every student to be involved.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Do I need this or just want it?


Distinguishing between what we need and what we want is challenging for all of us, children and adults. One of my colleagues at the Center for Philosophy for Children, Karen Emmerman, has developed a great classroom exercise for thinking about the differences between wants and needs.



Step One: Identifying Wants and Needs
Give the students a handout with the following questions:
1. What are some things you want?
2. What are some things you need?
3. What is the difference between what you want and what you need?
4. Do all people have the same wants?
5. Do all people have the same needs?
6. What should we do if what one person wants conflicts with what another person needs?
Give the students sufficient time to think about their responses and write them on their handouts. 
Step Two: Distinguishing Wants and Needs
When everyone has had a chance to think about the above questions, facilitate a large group conversation, using two lists on the board: Wants and Needs. This generally spurs a discussion about the difference between wants and needs and whether something that is a want for one person could count as a need for another. 


It is likely that you will not get through the whole list of questions in one session, so you can pick up where you left off in a later philosophy session. This exercise could take a few sessions to get through if you find you are having rich discussions.
Step Three: Ranking Needs
Provide students with the following list of needs (make any adjustments you’d like) and a blank numbered list from 1 to 10. Ask them to rank the needs with 1 the most important and 10 the least important. 


• Safe shelter
• Food
• Education
• Water
• Family (it’s helpful to clarify you don’t mean literally having parents since clearly we need to have had parents in order to exist; this is more about having people who love you and help care for you)
• Friends
• Clothes
• Medical Care
• Pets
• Ability to pursue projects or interests that help define who you are (depending on the age of the children, you may want to alter the language here; this item is aimed at the sorts of life projects that give life meaning and make it worth living, like working to become a poet or being excellent at sports).
It is helpful to have the students work in groups of 4-6 for step three. These allows them to think together and work through any disagreements about the rankings.

When the groups have finished ranking the needs, pull the class together as one group and ask each group to report what they put first through fifth. This works better than going through their lists one number at a time. 
Finally, facilitate a discussion about the differences in the rankings. Why do some groups think food is more important than education? Why did other groups think medical care is most important? After this discussion is over, go through their rankings for sixth through tenth. 
These discussions should lead students (and teachers!) to think more carefully about what constitutes wants and needs, and how to distinguish between the two.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Philosophy Warm-Ups


As we head back into classrooms after the summer, I thought the topic of warming up to philosophy would make for an appropriate first fall blog post.


When I am regularly in a classroom facilitating philosophy sessions, I try to develop a consistent structure for the session. This does not involve an attempt to control the content of the philosophical topics explored in the sessions, as it is my view that student ownership of the questions is deeply important. However, in my experience, putting into place a coherent and reliable framework helps to create a space ripe for philosophical inquiry.

I like to begin sessions with a meditative or quiet activity. This can be as simple as asking students to sit in silence for a couple of minutes, to suggesting that we all sit quietly and try to hear the farthest sounds we can, to a brief journal writing or art activity. After that, some kind of philosophical warm-up activity is an effective way to help students move into the mode of philosophical thinking, before then moving into the prompt, philosophical discussion and/or activity, and then a closure activity.

This summer my colleague David Shapiro and I put together a list of philosophical warm-up activities, which can be found here: https://depts.washington.edu/nwcenter/lessonplans/range-warm-activities-philosophy-sessions/ We thought it would be helpful to organize them by topic  ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc.  but any of them can work for any session.

Frequently, particularly in the early part of the school year, these warm-ups can launch the students into an extended conversation that takes up most of the session, and then you can follow that up with some kind of closure exercise. I will write more about closure activities in a later blog post.

Looking forward to another inspiring year of philosophical conversations with young people.