Methods for dialogue: How can I help my students become philosophers?

In a high school classroom, students may have strong opinions but little sense of justification for them or of the value of submitting opinions to a careful and caring analysis. Too often the atmosphere is divisive, with different groups vying for dominance or simply ignoring one another. In the satiric movie, Clueless, the heroine gives a tour of her well-to-do Californian high school to a new student and points out the various stereotypical groups, each keeping with its “own.” This humorous scene is actually close to the truth! Moving beyond group identity as the major source of one’s world view is an important challenge for many students.

Although high school students have already experienced nine to ten years of schooling, they often do not know how to frame questions, listen to others (especially to one’s peers within a class situation), accept or give criticism of ideas without interpreting critiques personally. Given the strong rule of the peer group, high school students may be particularly reluctant to risk embarrassment or ridicule by disagreeing with one another or the teacher. A course in philosophy can be a lesson in communal as well as individual reflection and can help them transcend the strict social and ideological categories that rule many American high schools.

A careful reading of Ann Margaret Sharp’s and Laurance Splitter’s Teaching for Better Thinking will offer excellent ideas for teaching methodologies which address both these social and intellectual concerns. The “Philosophy for Children” movement as developed by “The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children” focuses on the nature and role of a community of inquiry as the key methodological form of nurturing philosophical reflection. A community of inquiry develops over time and is always open for revision and refinement. Its essential notions comprise:

* the coming together of a group of individuals who may include varying social and intellectual perspectives;
* questions which emerge from the interest of the group itself, not simply imposed by the teacher;
* a constant self-awareness of respect for others and responsibility for one’s own ideas;
* a willingness to listen to others, whether we share their view or not;
* a willingness to explain and justify, as well as amend and change, one’s own ideas according to the community criteria of reasonableness; and
* an eagerness to submit ideas to careful scrutiny but within an atmosphere of care and concern for the persons within the community.

As you develop or implement a course or segment in philosophy keep these ideas in mind and be attentive to providing structured opportunities for your students to think for themselves but at the same time to develop a willingness to demand intellectual honesty and rigor. Philosophy should not be a lecture course, even if you are teaching the works and ideas of the great philosophers. Make time for them to think through the ideas they encounter and to test their own ideas against them.

Guidelines for Writing

(Developed by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth)

Writing should be a central component of education in philosophy. Even in those courses where critical and analytical skills are developed through discussion, debate, translation, or other exercises, writing should be a frequent and integral activity. In addition to experiencing and learning new information, our students must be afforded the time to articulate their ideas and opinions in writing. Ultimately, the writing process will not only reinforce learning, but also contribute to a student’s ability to argue a position and critically analyze an issue.

Depending on the age and experience of your students, you may have to devote more or less attention to the “nuts and bolts” aspects of the writing process. It is important that all students, regardless of age, thoroughly understand your expectations concerning all aspects of a writing assignment. For example, an introduction to the research process itself, as well as to issues concerning proper citation and academic honesty, will help students avoid potential pitfalls once they begin working. Providing your students with a detailed account of your methods of evaluation before they begin the assignment is another useful way to prepare them for the task ahead.

There are a number of different types of formal and informal papers you may ask students to write. Here are some suggestions of writing assignments we have found effective for philosophy courses:

Position Paper: Students are asked to argue a stance on an issue. They are required to support their positions with evidence and information they have collected in class and through research. An interesting adaptation of this assignment is to have students write a paper in which they are forced to argue a position with which they disagree. This can be a very powerful assignment as it challenges students to rely only on critical thinking and analytical writing as they attempt to express an opinion that contradicts their own beliefs. Be aware that some students may be hesitant to undertake this kind of writing, as you may be asking them to support an extremely unpopular position or argue against a deeply held, personal belief. You should therefore consider carefully the kinds of positions you are asking students to defend.

Compare and Contrast Piece: In this format, students objectively describe two or more competing stances on an issue discussed in the course. They are required to synthesize the various arguments or logic behind a group’s or individual’s position and then evaluate the different accounts.

Traditional Research Paper: Students work with primary and secondary sources and are asked to form an original argument/thesis based on their findings. Variations of this type of paper may include a critical research paper in which students focus on the argument/thesis of one primary work and develop their own counter-arguments or a review of a scholarly paper or article.

Close Reading Exercise: Students narrow their focus on a short piece of primary text (a verse, quote, short passage, etc.) by analyzing and interpreting it in their own words with or without secondary resources. They should find support for their interpretation by paying close attention to the different dynamics of the passage like figurative language, diction, tone, literal content, etc. to explain the meaning and theme(s) of the text as a whole. This exercise is also good for fueling discussions when students share their individual thoughts with one another.

Creative and Free Writing: While there are a variety of writing exercises that might fall under this category, past CTY instructors recommend assigning students to write newspaper editorials, speeches, shorter response to arguments, or daily journal entries as other methods to reinforce course material.

Guidelines for In-Class Debates

(Developed by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth)

Although these guidelines are meant as suggestions only, and may need to be modified to meet the specific needs of your class, they cover topics that are essential to any successful debate (including the basic elements of a debate, the necessity of a feedback session after the debate, tips for students, etc.). In-class debates represent a significant time investment for both the class and the instructor; before you begin preparations for the debate, please ensure that you can devote sufficient attention without sacrificing other aspects of your course. [The following text is adapted from “General Debate Information” by the Communication Within the Curriculum Department at the University of Pennsylvania.]

What is debate?

One way to characterize a debate is “a discussion in which reasons are advanced for and against some proposition or proposal.” Although similar to argumentation, debate sets itself apart insofar as it is more rigidly structured; instituting clear goals and processes allows for a more thorough and objective consideration of the reasons presented.

Why debate in class?

The process of debate allows participants to analyze differing viewpoints, so that the audience can understand where opinions diverge and why. Debate is also an excellent way to model the analytical and communicative processes that students are learning whenever they examine course material. In-class debates challenge students to think critically about course material and provide a forum for them to develop the art of expressing their ideas.

We recommend that you remain focused on the analysis of the issue that emerges during the debate and allow the students to reflect on what constitutes a successful argument, which often becomes a debate itself. It is important to keep in mind that each debate should be followed by an exhaustive discussion and evaluation of both the issue discussed and the debate itself. In addition to giving students an opportunity to reflect on the different positions presented during the debate, this feedback session will allow them to consider more carefully the defining features of good argumentation.

Setting up an In-class Debate

The most important aspect of any debate is the topic. For a good debate you or the students will need to create a statement, called a resolution, that people can either affirm or negate. Instructors should provide a clear interpretation of the resolution during the preliminary stages of the debate so that students can focus their research efforts and develop strong, succinct arguments. Ideally people will be able to affirm or negate the resolution for a variety of reasons, with many possibilities for constructing sophisticated positions on each side. It is also important to guard against framing a resolution that allows people to focus on unproductive, tangential questions. Most instructors require students to research the topic that they are debating. Often instructors guide students to good sources so that they are using the best information when they present to the class. Lastly, the instructor should be aware of the maturity level of the students and choose a topic that is appropriate both for the individual class.

Debate begins with research. If it is possible at your site, consider devoting class time to research in the library. Although more time and labor intensive than providing students with pre-selected research material, conducting their own research (with your supervision) will give students both the opportunity to hone their research skills and a greater sense of responsibility for the arguments they put forward in the debate.

Based on their research, students should construct cohesive arguments in support of their positions. It is important to understand that a position is what each team is assigned (either as the affirmative or negative in relation to the topic) but arguments are a way of supportingthat position. A thesis is a statement that captures the main argumentative points that the team will present as support for their position. A thesis should be more than “I disagree with the resolution that ‘the United States government should abolish the estate tax,’” since this fails to capture the way in which each group will support its position. A thesis such as “We should retain the estate tax because it prevents the development of dynasties, which are economically inefficient” is more desirable because it succinctly captures the main threads of argument that you will develop throughout the debate.

Each group should compose a complete persuasive speech that supports its thesis. (Notice that for the above example the speech would have to argue, at a minimum, that the estate tax prevents dynasties and that dynasties are inefficient). Once each team has a good idea of how it will argue its position, attention should be turned to anticipating the arguments of the opposing team. What sorts of arguments can be made in support of the opposing position? Are there problems with the opposing team’s arguments? What arguments might the opposing team construct for their rebuttal? Should these potential arguments be preempted by addressing them in the opening speech? How should the group respond if such arguments are brought up in the course of the debate?

The logistics of creating a format that allows everyone to participate without taking too much class time can be tricky, but here are a couple of rules of thumb to consider. You can have students debate one-on-one or in teams. Teams of more than 3 people may pose difficulties that require the instructor to plan accordingly. For example, each student may have a different idea of the direction the group should take. On the other hand, working with peers who may have a different perspective from oneself can be a rewarding experience for students. If you choose to have students work in teams it is a good idea to select the teams yourself, allowing you to place students with differing viewpoints on the same team.

Each debate should consist of four to six speeches and each debate requires 30-50 minutes of class-time. Post-debate questions and discussion is often very lively and very useful, so you should build in time for these activities. Without a post-debate feedback session students may not grasp the deeper significance of the debate nor focus on the skills which the debate, and the preparation leading up to it, helped instill in them. It is also useful to solicit evaluations from observers external to the debate, whether they be other students in the class who were not involved in a particular debate or other members of your school community (if there was a larger audience for the debate).

Debate Format

**Note: What follows are suggestions for structuring the actual debate. Depending on such factors as the nature of your course, the maturity level of your students and time constraints, you may need to deviate from the plan below. However, one thing that should remain constant for all debates is that the instructor be a strong supervisory presence at all stages, from guiding research efforts to stepping in during the actual debate to make sure that time constraints are followed, that students stay on-task, that the speeches are appropriate, etc.

Each speech in a debate has a different purpose. Typically each side will present three speeches during the debate. Each side can be represented by one person or a team. For the purposes of this explanation we’ll assume that people are debating in teams. Although students should be taking notes on the opposing side’s arguments throughout the debate, it may be useful to have each side submit their opening speeches in writing to the other team to facilitate a more focused rebuttal.

The first speech, called the “opening,” introduces the argument of each team. In the second speech, or the “rebuttal,” each team critically analyzes the opposing team’s argument. The third speech is a “summation” in which each team pulls their strongest arguments from all the previous exchanges and makes their strongest appeal to the audience. Sometimes a question and answer period is substituted for the “rebuttal,” or is an additional period inserted into the above format. Question and answer periods require swift thinking as each side is given equal time to ask direct questions and to quickly and succinctly answer the questions posed to them. Often 1-2 minutes of preparation time are given to debaters between speeches. One possible debate structure is as follows:

PRO TEAM-Opening 5 minutes

CON TEAM-Opening 5 minutes

Break (prep. time) 2 minutes

PRO TEAM-Rebuttal 4 minutes

CON TEAM-Rebuttal 4 minutes

Break (prep. time) 2 minutes

**Optional: Q&A Period 6 minutes

**Optional Break 2 minutes

CON TEAM-Summation 4 minutes

PRO TEAM-Summation 4 minutes

It is possible to have the entire class debate in a class session by alternating short speeches by members of the class. In this format it is also possible to debate a question with more than two positions. Debates can also be made more complex by having each speaker both analyze the opposing team’s argument and defend their own in every speech. The above debate structure does not account for time spent reflecting on the debate in a feedback session.

Debate Tools for Students

Providing students with the following tools for effective debating will help to ensure that the discussion remains focused and productive.

Signposting: Signposts are just labels for each idea in a speech and give clarity to any sort of oral communication. In debate they are especially important because they help the audience understand how the argument is put together. You can be a little more obvious about your signposting in debate than you would in a typical speech to make sure people are following it. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “My first point is…”

Consistent vocabulary: Use the same word each time you refer to a particular concept. If you use synonymous words or phrases when referring to the same concept, some members of the audience may think you are embarking on a new and different concept. Likewise, highlight subtle differences between concepts by using different vocabulary when speaking about them.

Listening: When you debate you will spend as much or more time listening as you spend speaking. It is your listening skills, not your speaking skills that will determine the quality of your performance in the round. You will need to listen actively to understand your opponent’s argument so that you can develop a proper response. Some elements of active listening:

* Come to class prepared
* Listen for the main ideas that organize each speech
* Distinguish between the content of the speaker’s argument and the logical structure of the argument
* Take notes
* Ask yourself how each part of a person’s speech supports (or does not support!) their thesis
* Identify gaps in your understanding of the speaker’s argument. Are they due to incomplete understanding on your part? Are they due to flaws in the speaker’s reasoning or communication?
* Wait until the speaker has completed a thought before you evaluate it
* Give great attention to the particular words a speaker chooses. The meaning of vocabulary chosen by the speaker can have great effect on the meaning of an entire argument
* At the end of each speech ask yourself whether the speaker supported all the claims they made in their thesis
* Demonstrate that you are listening attentively by making eye contact and responding, (verbally or non-verbally), where appropriate.

In Summary

Debate can be a powerful teaching and learning method if used properly. Key elements to the debate include:

* The goal/rationale for the debate in the context of class content (why are you doing the debate – what do you want the students to get out of the debate)
* A clear topic/resolution for debate
* Clear debate structure procedure (length of debate and pro/con speeches)
* Time for proper research and position development
* Time for debriefing, discussion, reflection, etc.

Helpful Links (General index of classroom debate resources) (On using debate in the classroom)

(Sample rubric for debate assessment)