8th Graders Use Philosophical Chairs to Explore the Justice System

The middle and high school civics course requirements specified that students engage in current and societal issue discussions to prepare for their role as citizens in our constitutional democracy. Two of the driving questions for deliberation on the theme of “Contemporary Debates and Possibilities” in the Educations for Democracy Roadmap are:

  • What are key current events and policy debates in our constitutional democracy?
  • What values and principles underpin different positions on them? How do people engage with issues they care about?

Great discussions on such questions rarely “just happen.” They take time, intention, and planning. At their best, student voice is at the center of these conversations with clearly established norms for discussion created and maintained by all members of the classroom.

Niamh Burke, an 8th-grade teacher at Sidney Sawyer Elementary School in Chicago, recently asked her students what contemporary issue they would like to discuss related to justice. The class chose capital punishment. Without structure and a civil, brave, and reflective classroom climate, this topic could be fraught. Niamh was prepared to meet the challenge and opportunities of this topic.

Niamh was a participant in the Guardians of Democracy Winter Microcredential cohort, earning her Silver Badge in the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions. Facilitating student-to-student discussion provides students an opportunity to deliberate essential questions facing their community. This is an authentic practice to build and practice rigorous and relevant content knowledge aligned to standards, civic skills, and dispositions per the Illinois civics course requirements for middle and high school.

We asked Niamh to share her reflections on engaging her students in a current and controversial issue discussion with the strategy of Philosophical Chairs. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. 

I used the prompt: Should the U.S. Supreme Court make capital punishment illegal? This is an open and relevant issue for students because it is not something that our country agrees with unilaterally. On one hand, our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but many states have determined that the punishment is justified depending on the crime. It’s not a question with one right answer and different students have different opinions based on their own beliefs and values. 

What strategy did you use for this discussion? Why did you choose this strategy? 

I chose to use philosophical chairs for this discussion for several reasons. First, it was the protocol I had the least experience with and thus felt the least comfortable. I wanted to push myself. Secondly, I thought that it would be a good chance for students to practice making persuasive arguments since we had previously looked to explore a topic more in-depth with several rounds of Socratic seminars. Third, I thought this would be a good topic to use with this protocol because it’s something that my students would have different opinions on (compared to other open issues where they might be more aligned).

How did students gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion? 

In order to gain the background knowledge necessary for the conversation, I found a pretty comprehensive reading that looked at the pros and cons of the death penalty relating to various topics and perspectives. All students read the article and had a chance to create a list of arguments for and arguments against the death penalty. Students were welcome to look up additional sources.

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

This activity addressed many of my learning standards. First, it forced students to be prepared for a specific style of whole group discussion where they needed to make arguments to support their ideas. This is important because my population has a large number of English language learners, so having a chance to speak about their ideas and create arguments verbally helps prepare them for the argumentative writing tasks they need to do later in the quarter. Lastly, this activity allowed students to explore different perspectives on a relevant news issue and practice several social studies standards. 

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

This project helped deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community because it gave them a chance to reflect on their values and take a position. They were also able to see how their beliefs compared to their classmates as they listened to each other and had the opportunity to change sides if their ideas changed. Although it might not have been a topic that many students considered before the activity, it was a chance to explore and develop more nuanced beliefs. Most importantly, they were able to see that opinions can change and evolve over time.

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this issue?

Students really enjoyed the philosophical chairs protocol and have been looking to repeat the activity with a new topic. Something related to the death penalty, but even more related to our students is the concept of gun violence. This still relates to violence and continues to explore the application of the Bill of Rights by exploring if our government should put limits on Second Amendment rights in order to reduce gun violence in our communities.

Do you have any reflections from students that illustrate what they learned from this dialogue?

The most interesting thing was when one student said that they should abolish the death penalty because there are doctors that go to the place of the death penalty and see if they are doing everything correctly and he said that they should save lives instead of killing people. I think this was the most persuasive because the doctor’s job is to save lives but then they have to watch the people with the death penalty die.

Other student reflections included:

  • “Philosophical Chairs, It’s fun to see what everyone has an opinion on.”
  • “When we did the Philosophical Chairs, that improved my learning and understanding of how to convince someone, and on how to drag my point across and make people join my side.
  • “One time that I found a discussion/conversation productive or useful to my learning was when we were doing the Philosophical Chairs on the death penalty. I found it productive/useful because we would just go back and forward and the conversation kept going and it didn’t end until they said that it was over.”

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?

I would encourage them to poll their classroom about topics that may be interesting to students or give students some options before finalizing the topic. I would also encourage teachers to try discussion protocols that they are less familiar with so that they can expand their teaching toolbox

If you are interested in participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program, registration is now open for the May-June cohorts. For more information, including course syllabi, visit https://guardiansofdemocracyteachers.org/.