“Philosophical Chairs” is a strategy used for class debates. There are many resources available to support students and teachers before, during, and after the debate. I have found great success using many technology tools to help give students a more equitable voice during these debates as well as organize their ideas. From personal experience, you CAN have a successful fully virtual philosophical chairs debate. It’s important to note that you will want your classroom climate to be in stages 3 and 4 of relational capacity prior to having a class debate on a controversial topic. With that said, you can certainly warm students up with lighter topics like “would you rather.” To see more about the stages of relational capacity, visit AVID’s Four Stages of Relational Capacity on AVID Open Access.
Before the Debate
Determine a Topic
- Choose a topic from a list. Here is a list of 120 Debate Topics for High School and Middle School.
- Select a relevant topic that your students are already learning about. For example, my 8th grade students read “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. The story has the topic of animal testing, so the debate was centered around whether or not animals should be used for medical testing.
- Allow students to select a topic and post it on Padlet. Students are going to have more buy-in and passion for a topic they select. One way to gather their ideas is through the use of Padlet. Create a Padlet with the “Wall” template. Have students work in groups or on their own to decide on one topic/central statement they would like to debate. Allow them to post to the Padlet.
- Get an idea about where your class stands on the issue(s) to ensure you will have a strong debate. The next day, change the Padlet feature (mentioned in the previous bullet) to “upvote.” Ask students to read through each idea and give a thumbs up 👍 or down 👎 to agree or disagree with the central statements. This will allow you to see the most controversial topics.
- Finally, allow your class to vote on which topic(s) they feel will be the most controversial. I created a Google Form to do this.
Prepare for the Debate
- Provide students with resources to help support their stance. ProCon.org has a list of pro and con topics and resources. An idea for digital marking of the text is to use the Print Friendly & PDF. You can take anything from the web and put it in a PDF document. You can then upload this to Kami. Giving students a checklist of what to make is helpful. Here is an example:
- Ask students to find their own source(s) to support their claim. This can be a great research lesson about credible sources.
- Give a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts. I created an organizer that asks students to look at the counterargument and rebuttal as well create a Claim Evidence Reasoning (C.E.R.) response.
- Review some rules of engagement. There are several ideas out there. Here are some:
⭐ Understand the central statement
⭐ Contribute your own thoughts, offering your reasons as succinctly as possible
⭐ Respond to statements only, not to the personality of the person giving it
⭐ Change your mind about the statement as new information or reasoning is presented and change sides
⭐”Three before me” allows three people to speak before you take your next turn
⭐ Support the mediator in maintaining order and helping the discussion to progress
⭐ Reflect on the experience via the closing activity or assignment
During the Debate
- The teacher is the “mediator” and chooses who goes. Students can quietly raise their hands once a student has shared their stance.
- Physically or virtually divide your class into two sides for “agree” and “disagree.” This can be with a line outside if they’re standing, but seated in desks is preferable so they can have a space to work on. If you are virtual, use Jamboard to have students virtually move their digital stickies from one side to the other.
- Use “Talking Chips” to allow for equitable voice in the room. You can physically give students three items like plastic chips, sticky notes, pennies, or anything else that may serve as a tangible “chip.” Once their chips are out, students are out of a turn. However, they can still share their ideas by helping others in the “team huddle” round (below). For the Jamboard, I used an emoji 🔵 and gave each student three. Once they talked, I asked them to take the circle off.
- Allow for a “team huddle” in the middle of the debate to give students an opportunity to help others, especially those quieter students, think of things to say.
After the Debate
It’s very important to give students time to reflect on their position and overall participation. I love using “glow,” “grow,” and “goal” to help organize their thoughts. I also like to have students self-assess their participation. My shy students sometimes don’t speak during the first debate, so this is still a way for them to voice some of their opinions. You can also consider creating a Padlet with shelves for “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” Students can post their final top three reasons on the Padlet shelves so all voices are heard. If you are tight for time, this is another way to have a type of virtual debate. Students can comment on other posts with the comment feature. Another option is to create a discussion thread using your Learning Management System.
I’ve compiled the preparation sheet, Jamboard, and reflection sheet into a package. The product is listed on TpT. I hope this helps to inspire many class debates, whether they are fully in-person, hybrid, or virtual. You would be surprised how many future lawyers could be in the room!