Philosophical Chairs : Facilitating Student Discussion

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SWBAT actively participate in a class discussion using philosophical chairs.

Big Idea

Students participate in philosophical chairs to discuss the use of STEM cells.


5 minutes

Philosophical Chairs is a format for classroom discussion and an activity that can be used each year in your science class. While this activity uses a format similar to debate, it is dialogue that we value in science classrooms. The benefits of this discussion activity include the development of students’ abilities to give careful attention to other students’ comments and to engage in dialogue with one another to gain a greater understanding of the topic presented. (SL.7.1 - Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.) 

Like Socratic Seminars, Philosophical Chairs uses the Writing Inquiry Collaboration and Reading (WICR) strategies in lesson planning. Inquiry and collaboration are inherent in Philosophical Chairs, and writing and reading are easily incorporated into a plan that results in the integration of the four components of WICR. Additionally, this activity makes a great pre-writing activity as it allows students to gain and develop a variety of ideas about a topic.

Philosophical Chairs differs from Socratic Seminar in that it is not dependent on a text, but the reading of some text before engaging in the activity can only enhance the process. Philosophical Chairs focuses on a central statement or topic that is controversial.  You should also develop statements that are relevant to both your students’ lives and grade levels. Current events make great Philosophical Chairs topics.

I have attached a list of possible Philosophical Chairs Topics that you might use to introduce strategy. 

Guided Instruction

10 minutes

To introduce students to Philosophical Chairs I show students the Philosophical Chair Introduction.

The powerpoint introduces students to the rules of engagement for Philosophical Chair and it includes the central statement.

For the purpose of this lesson the central statement is:

Human embryos should be used to create Embryonic STEM cells for medical research.

In terms of context this Philosophical Chair occurs in the middle of my STEM Cells lesson. In this lesson students have read STEM Cell Debate Articles which contain both a PRO and CON perspective to the issue.  Students can use articles as a reference when participating in Philosophical Chairs. (SP7 - Engaging in Argument from evidence)

I have included a video below that reviews the Rules of Engagement, which you may show students either before or after the Philosophical Chair Introduction .

Philosophical Chairs

30 minutes

Classroom Setup

Chairs/desks are set up facing each other with about half facing one way and half facing the opposite way. 


  1. A statement is presented to the students. This statement might be based on a reading or might be a stand-alone statement. Either way, the statement should be one that will divide the class into those who agree with the statement and those who disagree with the statement. Be sure that the statement is written on the board for reference during the activity. (Note: Allowing for a group of students who are undecided is addressed later in these guidelines.)

  2. Those who agree with the central statement sit on one side and those who disagree sit on the other side.

  3. A mediator who will remain neutral and call on sides to speak is positioned between the two sides. (This role is usually filled by the teacher in the beginning or middle school years. Eventually, students should take on this role.) In addition to facilitating the discussion, the mediator may at times paraphrase the arguments made by each side for clarification. It is important that the mediator always remains neutral.

  4. The mediator recognizes someone from the side of the classroom that agrees with the central statement to begin the discussion with an argument in favor of the position stated. Next, the mediator will recognize some- one from the other side to respond to the argument. This continues throughout the activity, and part of the job of the mediator is to ensure participation by as many students as possible and to keep just a few students from dominating the discussion. The mediator may also put a time limit on how long each side addresses the issue on each turn.

  5. In addition to speaking in the discussion, students may express their opinions by moving from one side to other. Anyone may change seats at any time. Changing seats does not necessarily mean that a person’s mind is changed, but rather that argument made is compelling enough to sway the opinions. Students may move back and forth throughout the discussion. (SL7.1d Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.)

  6. The discussion and movement go on for a designated period of time—usually one class period. The mediator may bring the discussion to a close at any time. Each side may be given an opportunity to make a final state- ment on the issue. If time allows, each participant states his/her final opinion and may also tell which arguments he/she found most convincing.

  7. An additional piece to this activity can be to have a few students observe the process and take notes instead of participating. These students will debrief their observations to the class at the end of the activity. You may have students who were absent or unprepared to participate fulfill this role. 


Leave time at the end of the period for students to reflect on the activity. Use one of the activities included in this unit. Students may begin the reflection in class and finish it for homework.


It is recommended that you begin this activity with just two sides. If students have difficulty choosing a side to begin, encourage them to sit on the side that they agree with the most even if they do not completely agree. Once students are accustomed to this format, you may choose to add this additional component: You may add a third section of seats with a few chairs for students who are undecided. This section is placed between the two opposing sides. During the discussion, you may allow students from the undecided section to participate or you may require that they take a position before participating. Students may move from the sides that agree or disagree with the statement to the undecided section if they wish. Before you end the discussion, require that all students still seating in the undecided zone move to one side or the other depending on which they believe made the most compelling arguments. 

Reflection and Evaluation

10 minutes

It is important for students to reflect and evaluate both their participation and the overall Philosophical Chair process.  To accomplish this each student receives the following two handouts:

1)  Philosophical Chairs Report - students use this tool to report on both their initial and final position on the topic, along with recording the number of times they change their position during the discussion.  In addition, students self-assess on how open-minded they are during the discussion and note/reflect on what their thinking is during the process.

2)  Philosophical Chairs Written Evaluation Report - students use this tool to answer the following questions:

  1. What was the most frustrating part of today’s discussion?

  2. What was the most successful part?

  3. What statements led you to change your seat or to remain sitting in your original position?

  4. What conclusions can you draw about how you form your beliefs based on today’s discussion?

  5. What would you change about your participation in today’s activity? Do you wish you had said something that you did not? Did you think about changing seats but didn’t? Explain.