Discussing Controversial Issues:
Philosophical Chairs Discussion  
This model, developed by philosophy professor Zahary Seech and adapted for classroom use by Dale Fountain of Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, Washington, includes a movement component, which can be particularly beneficial to some students who are kinesthetic learners.

Students prepare for the discussion by reading material on an issue and deciding which position they will take; alternatively, the teacher can assign positions. The chairs in the classroom are arranged in a U shape. Students at the bottom of the U are those who are neutral or undecided. Students on opposing sides of the issue sit across from each other. Students can move at any time during the discussion (in fact, they are encouraged to do so).

A student on one side of the issue begins by explaining why he/she is taking the pro or con position. A student on the other side then briefly summarizes the previous speaker’s point before beginning his/her comments. The discussion continues with students on the two sides taking turns speaking, always summarizing the previous speaker’s point before providing their own comments. After a student speaks, he/she must wait until two students on his/her side have spoken before speaking again (this number could be raised if necessary to keep students from dominating).

The teacher can call time-out to clarify, reflect on the process or content, or refocus students.

Students in the neutral zone must take notes on both sides of the argument and can ask questions of students on either side. When students move, they should be able to explain why their views changed. At the end of the discussion, one student from each team summarizes the viewpoints presented by that team during the discussion. Students in the neutral zone must then report on whether any of the arguments they heard have caused them to take a position on the issue.

A handout for students explaining the Philosophical Chairs procedure is provided.
An example of a lesson using the Philosophical Chairs discussion model is Voting Rights for Ex-Felons (Constitutional Rights Foundation).