Successful Pre-College Philosophy Sessions Require a Good Foundation!

It’s important that the teacher/facilitator always keeps in mind that the whole point of doing philosophy with young people is to help the students develop their own thinking! The role of the teacher/facilitator is guide the discussion without attempting to control its content. In other words, do not plan to dictate the substance of the discussion, but rather provide the tools and structure for the discussion to take place among the participants/students.

Remember it’s a balancing act between helping students achieve philosophical clarity and depth and refraining from imposing on the conversation your own preferences for subject matter. This requires sensitivity, skill and practice; push too hard and you’ll monopolize the conversation, but if you do not provide enough structure the students can end up following tangents at length or simply engaging in an opinion-sharing exercise, and making no progress!

To assist you in getting started, we have compiled a list of things to do and not to do that we have found helpful for new and experienced philosophy educators alike.

Things To Do

Hint: Let the discussion flow from the students’ questions and ideas. After reading a story or doing an activity, ask, “What questions did this make you think of?”

  • Encourage the students to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Show the students that what they say makes you think.
  • Encourage the students to speak to one another.

Things Not To Do

  • Tell the students their answers are right or wrong.
  • Plan to teach the students some philosophical argument or point.
  • Insist on your own views.
  • Be uncomfortable with or try to fill-in intervals of silence.
  • Give a definitive answer to a philosophical question.
  • Permit lengthy discussions of relatively unimportant issues.
  • Monopolize the discussion.
  • Resolve issues for them.
  • Try to show the students how philosophically sophisticated you are.

Good leading questions to ask in a philosophy session:

  • “What did you mean when you said . . .?”
  • “That’s an interesting idea. Can you explain what you were thinking when you said that?”
  • “When you said . . . , did you mean . . . ?”
  • “How does what you just said relate to what ____ said a moment ago?”
  • “So if what you just said is true, is ____ also true?”
  • “When you said ____, were you assuming ____?”

For more thoughts on how to facilitate pre-college philosophy sessions, read this article on “The Cultivation of Philosophical Sensitivity”