This post follows on from my previous one on what I learned from a HEF-organised weekend seminar on critical thinking and leading group discussions.
Whilst the first post concentrated on some of the theory I learnt and on how to formulate the right questions, in this post I’m sharing some of the practical tips I picked up on initiating and leading a philosophical discussion. These tips also go together with my pedagogical tips and tricks post from a little while back.
Morten Fastvold and Hans Christian Nes (pictured above) shared their materials from the seminar, which I've embedded below. (Warning: they in Norwegian.)
Getting a philosophical discussion started:
1. Make sure everyone understands the question – ask participants to for clarify what they think the question is and, as I suggested in the previous post, perhaps describe some of the initial assumptions and limitations together.
2. Get the participants to write down their first impressions on a bit of paper. One short, clear sentence – not a brainstorm/dump.
3. Get them to read their statements out:
1. If they haven’t formulated a clear sentence, get them to do so before moving on. If they list many ideas, get them to state which they think is the most important/which they thought of first.
2. Repeat and clarify what each person has said, either yourself or choose someone else in the group.
4. Get the group to summarise overlapping themes and ideas and write them down.
5. You then have several ways to get the discussion going:
1. Take each theme in turn.
2. Start with the theme voted most interesting by the group.
3. Take up a particular point put forward by someone during the initial round of suggestions.
Things to think about during the discussion:
Whilst it is important that everyone agrees on the topic at hand, try not to let the conversation get fixated on pinning down exact definitions, The ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions can be much more productive than the what.
Keep your focus on the questions, not the answers. See below about what to do when you get ‘the wrong’ answer.
Ask everyone to keep their hands in their laps. I wrote in the pedagogical tips post about the same idea. Asking people to put their hands up when they want to say something means that they ending up focusing on what they want to say rather than listening and perhaps updating their comment in response to what is being said.
Think about the ‘Wait Time’. Allowing more than 3 seconds after asking your question (as opposed to the average of 1.5 seconds of silence) apparently increases the length and correctness of responses and number of volunteered, appropriate answers by larger numbers of students. The point isn’t to maintain awkward silences, but to make sure you allow people time to think.
Keep a slow, steady pace by asking participants to reiterate what others have said, whilst at the same time ensuring that everyone is keeping up.
What to do if everyone agrees:
There may be times when the conversation comes to a stop because the group agrees on an answer. If this happens, here are three general questions to get people thinking and talking again:
1. What would be a good opposing argument?
2. What would it take to change your mind?
3. What are the consequences of what you’re saying?
What to you do if you get the ‘wrong’ answer:
In his talk on the first day of the critical thinking seminar, children's philosopher, Øyvind Olsholt, gave an informative example of how you can be thrown by being given the ‘wrong’ answer, or one that you weren’t expecting, and still turn it into a learning experience. To kick-start a discussion with a group of 4 year olds, he showed them a picture of a group of children and asked them what they saw, hoping that the answer would be the upset child, thereby initiating a conversation about emotions and relationships. Instead, one of the children caught him off guard and said ‘frog’.
Here, the typical response – and certainly my own too – would have been ‘yes, but what else can you see in the picture?’, fishing for the ‘right’ answer. Instead, he asked the little girl how she knew it was a frog, to which she answered ‘because it’s green’. He then followed up by asking whether all things that are green are frogs and turned the discussion to one not about emotions, as he was expecting, but categorisation, a fascinating aspect of developmental psychology.
This isn’t always easy to do, and Øyvind Olsholt is a seasoned professional at leading philosophical discussions with children, but I think the story is a valuable lesson in not letting your expectations lead the conversation. With these types of philosophical discussions, the aim is not to answer the question that you have set beforehand, but to guide the discussion whilst letting it develop as organically as possible.