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.

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