Students (10th-12th) discuss where to place each philosopher they’ve studied on a continuum of statements about ethics, epistemology, human nature, and metaphysics.
On any topic, in any language, whether we understand what’s being said or not, we know a great conversation when we see one.
People make eye contact. They lean in. Their faces are expressive. Their hands and their pacing convey some urgency: they want to be understood and to understand. There are visible indications that they are trying out new ideas: silent pauses, scrunched up brows, tilted heads. There is nodding to indicate common ground, and there are upturned palms and pointed fingers to mark disagreements. There’s almost always laughter.
These are the conversations that draw us in from afar. We crave these unpredictable and rich human interactions, hoping they will remind us that we matter and are worthy of being heard, hoping they will free us from our unthinking routines and narrow expectations of what’s possible.
Conversations are great when they help us experience the joy of discovering other ways of seeing and being in the world. Great conversations are opportunities to encounter and make sense of new information in partnership, to think in parallel alongside other human beings who care as much as we do about finding the truth. Ultimately, by both challenging us and fulfilling us, great conversations remind us who we are and who we want tobe.
Most of us, of course, have been trained to expect rote, shallow, and procedural talk in the most important spheres of our lives. Students arrive in our classes with much the same expectations we bring to faculty meetings: an authority figure has set an agenda, and we must get through it. Well-intentioned administrators face the same challenges we teachers do: how do we break people out of these low expectations? How do we create the conditions for our students to have great conversations?
I’ve been thinking about these questions this semester as I watch my colleagues and my students and reflect on my own practice.
Here are three insights I gained from my experience so far.
1. Find great content.
Madame Carraway and Katie (10th) discuss a French vlog about violent video games.
For a few years now, I’ve subscribed to what I like to call the Big Daddy approach to teaching (and parenting). There’s a moment in that 1999 movie in which Adam Sandler’s character, a man completely unprepared for fatherhood yet fostering a young child, tells his new son:
From now on, you do whatever you wanna do. I’ll show you some cool s___ along the way. That’s what it’s all about.
The eminent biologist Rachel Carson expresses this idea a bit more eloquently in this beautifully illustrated excerpt from her writing. She writes:
If I had influence with the Good Fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gifts from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.
In this model, the teacher or parent becomes a guide, showing the child all that is worth wondering about in the world, and sharing those experiences as the child makes sense of what she notices. By introducing kids to what’s best and most breathtaking about their discipline, teachers become curators who get to re-live the sense of wonder that brought them to their academic field in the first place.
That’s what I saw in my colleague Carmen Carraway’s one-on-one French class with Katie (10th). She selected multimedia French-language resources exploring various sides of a question adults have been passionately (and sometimes sanctimoniously) debating for generations: does consuming violent cultural production make people more likely to be violent?
Madame Carraway chose polarizing and emphatic content produced by writers who, through their range (from a formal journalistic article to a quirky amateur’s video blog), showcased the rich and varied ways French speakers can use this language to persuade. Her expert curation inspired Katie to delve more deeply into the writers’ and speakers’ linguistic choices – Katie was asking questions, evaluating the structure of the arguments, and laughing at the speaker’s eccentricities. The relevance of the question (and the enthusiasm on display in the texts) drew Katie into exploring the language’s beauty.
I saw something similar in my middle school seminar on “Great Books and the Problem of the Western Canon.” We’re reading Lord of the Flies (and other commonly-assigned texts in an effort to decide why we read certain books and not others). This particular class has been very curious about the novel’s insights into human nature, so I’ve shared relevant ideas from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, and the kids are piecing together their own sense of what it means to be human.
I’ve tried to be a Big Daddy-esque curator for this class, “showing them some cool [stuff] along the way” and then discovering alongside them. Last week, they had the opportunity to make sense of what they’ve been learning: I asked them to work in groups to visualize a key insight about human nature that explains the underlying roots of the conflict between Jack and Ralph.
Evalynn and Christi (both 7th) try to visually represent the psychological and philosophical roots of a conflict in Lord of the Flies.
Kids had demonstrably great conversations in my classroom that day because the content was worthwhile. They were reading an engaging and relevant text, and they had been exposed to some of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.
When helping students have discussions that matter, there’s no substitute for meaningful content.
2. Identify the constellation.
In his seminal work exploring how children learn, cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget emphasizes the importance of mental representations: a way of assimilating new information into evolving and flexible structures. Great content is fine, in other words, but we have to have someplace to put it if we ever hope to truly know or use it. Content can seem meaningless and forgettable if students lack a framework that helps them see its relationship to other ideas and texts.
I liken this framework to a constellation: a field of knowledge has a particular shape that becomes apparent to students if they know what they’re looking for. Those of us lucky enough to grow up seeing stars (not many were visible from my childhood home in Queens) likely remember the delight with which intelligible shapes emerged when someone finally showed us what to look for, and how impossible it was to ever look up and see a random and meaningless collection of stars again.
When teachers identify the broader structure that the specific content fits into, they reveal to students all the different things they can do with the content. When we identify the constellation, we show students what is possible.
Philosophy continuum: each emoji sticker represents a different philosopher. Students place them on the continuum between two opposing philosophical poles.
“Identifying the constellation” can take many forms, depending on the discipline and learning goals.
In our philosophy course, Kevin Oliveau and I sketched the contours of the field by identifying five polarizing issues that differentiate the thinkers we’ll study. We placed each pole at either end of a continuum. For example, on one end we wrote “the universe has a purpose,” and on the opposite, “the universe is a place of random interactions and emergent behaviors.” On the first day of class, kids drew dots on each line representing their personal philosophy.
Now that we have studied twelve different schools of thought, we wanted students to begin considering how these thinkers relate to one another. We printed copies of the continuum, distributed emoji stickers, and decided which sticker would be best to represent which philosopher (a hilarious activity: Stoics are the grimace because of their restrained approach to emotional pain; Epicureans are the doughnut because of their devotion to desire and happiness, although some students pointed out that they would describe the donut as a “vain desire” and discount its pursuit altogether). Next, students worked in groups to decide where to place each sticker. The video above shows part of one group’s conversation. (It’s so difficult to film students without making them nervous and shy!)
The “constellation” doesn’t always have to relate to content; it can also be a framework to practice a particular skill. This is most obvious in language instruction: teachers provide grammatical structures that students can use to contain new vocabulary words and practice syntactic variety.
In Spanish 2, Vanessa Moreno introduced the structure “cuanto tiempo hace que…?” (for how long…?). Her students were able to place all the words they had learned during this unit within that syntactic frame. The structure enabled students to take the content they had learned and put it into action, discussing activities of interest and sharing parts of themselves with their peers.
Sra. Moreno provides grammatical structures for sharing favorite activities and asking how long students have been involved in them.
These structures allow kids to do something with what they’re learning, which of course is the ultimate goal.
3. Step up and step back.
“Step up and step back” is a collaboration norm used at High Tech High. It’s a beautiful and efficient way to remind kids that when they’re working with their peers, they should bring something to the table, but they should also make space for other people to participate.
This is good guidance for teachers as well. Once we’ve shared great content with our kids and identified the disciplinary constellation within which the content fits, we have “stepped up” enough. It’s time to step back. Kids need the time and space to make sense of the content on their own terms, without relying too heavily on the teacher’s expertise.
The video clip above is from a whole-school advisory we designed around the following scenario:
It’s 2067, and Elon Musk has made possible his vision of colonizing Mars and “making humans a multi-planetary species.” Because of scientific innovation and the construction of an interplanetary infrastructure, it is now economically and technologically feasible to send one million people to Mars to establish a self-sustaining city. This is an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild human society, using our wisdom and experience to avoid the suffering that has long seemed inevitable on Earth. A global council is convened: twelve people who represent the human condition in all its diversity. This council is charged with the creation of a Bill of Human Rights on Mars, a set of ten principles by which to organize society for the promotion of human dignity and flourishing. What are those principles?
This is great content. It’s a worthwhile question that asks kids to draw on all they’ve seen and done in the world so far.
We also made sure to “identify the constellation.” We had kids brainstorm a list of ideas they’d want to take to Mars, and ideas they’d hope we leave behind. We cut out each item and asked students to work together in small groups to choose the most important five to take with them, and the most important five to erase from human history altogether. We included blank pieces of paper so that students could write in their own ideas, too. Kids placed their group selections in envelopes and included a rationale; they had to articulate the principles they relied on to make their selections.
(With one exception, an especially contentious group that required a faculty monitor), these conversations happened without much teacher direction at all. It was time for us to fall back and let the kids figure it out for themselves.
Students shared their reflections afterward. Shailee (10th) noted:
We as a society don’t really believe in redemption. How do we build a society that self-corrects, that helps us improve, that doesn’t treat people like animals?
Elling (9th) shared:
I was surprised by how different each person’s thoughts were – things I didn’t expect people to disagree on.
And Ben (10th) noted that the exercise was a great opportunity to generously understand our differences because, although we were talking about specific issues that seemed polarizing, doing it this way helped everyone explain the principles on which their ideas rested. He said:
I learned a lot about what other people value.
Because we provided great content and identified the constellation, we could step back. Kids had challenging, nuanced, memorable discussions during this activity, and they came to conclusions they never would have arrived at with superfluous teacher interference.
Here is a word cloud that collects all the kids’ responses from the day’s activity:
This word cloud represents each student’s explanation of the ideas and institutions they’d want to bring with them to Mars. The bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared.
Looking at this word cloud and thinking about all my students said and learned during this advisory, I know why teachers put so much effort into preparing kids for meaningful discussions.
Great conversations help us build the kinds of relationships that make ourselves better people and the world a better place.
Find out more about the great conversations we have at LSG here.
Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage (not to mention compelling classrooms).
But before kids can appreciate why a given skill or content area matters in the world, they first need to see what it looks and feels like in the world. They need to see the abstract take concrete shape.
Great teachers do this across the disciplines, giving their students direct sensory experience with what otherwise would be intangible. One of my earlier posts showed what this looks like in an AP Physics course: our science teacher David Romero used roller skates and a jump rope to help his students feel “in their bones” the way “the universe works.”
Here are four more examples from math, philosophy, science, and English at LSG.
The concrete-repesentational-abstract instructional sequence is a “best practice” in math education for good reason: research shows the approach helps students develop their own mental representations of mathematical concepts.
In my colleague Rita Lahiri’s Algebra I course, students experienced the coordinate plane as a thing they could inhabit with their bodies.
Rita asked a student, Sera, to leave the room as the rest of the kids hid a piece of paper. When Sera returned, she had to close her eyes. Her classmate Evalynn guided her with directions: two steps forward, three steps to the right, etc. The other kids watched (and giggled), taking down their observations. After a few minutes, Sera found the paper – it was placed inside a textbook on one of the shelves.
The class repeated this experiment several times; kids eagerly volunteered to be the “finder” and the “guide.”
Once students got to see their peers move through the classroom toward a specific point, Rita gave them the chance to reflect on their experience by thinking and writing about two questions. She asked:
Each of you guided your person differently. Was one way more efficient than others?
Why is this relevant? Why are we doing this in class?
As the kids reflected, they made sense of the concept in light of their direct experience. In subsequent lessons, when her students encounter the coordinate plane as a pictorial representation, they will remember watching kids walk through space toward a fixed point.
The new, abstract concept will build on something they already had seen and understood.
The study of philosophy is often beautifully and infuriatingly abstract. What kinds of instructional approaches can make these ideas accessible and meaningful in students’ actual lives?
Here is a really cool article that wrestles with just that question. It’s about teaching philosophy to teens in Brazil’s favelas after the nationwide mandate that all secondary students learn philosophy. Check out this relevant excerpt:
But can philosophy really become part of ordinary life? Wasn’t Socrates executed for trying? Athenians didn’t thank him for guiding them to the examined life, but instead accused him of spreading moral corruption and atheism. Plato concurs: Socrates failed because most citizens just aren’t philosophers in his view. To make them question the beliefs and customs they were brought up in isn’t useful because they can’t replace them with examined ones. So Socrates ended up pushing them into nihilism. To build politics on a foundation of philosophy, Plato concludes, doesn’t mean turning all citizens into philosophers, but putting true philosophers in charge of the city—like parents in charge of children. I wonder, though, why Plato didn’t consider the alternative: If citizens had been trained in dialectic debate from early on—say, starting in high school—might they have reacted differently to Socrates? Perhaps the Brazilian experiment will tell.
Kevin Oliveau and I are co-teaching a course called “Philosophy Wars” this semester, giving students the chance to engage competing ideas about ethics, human nature, epistemology, and metaphysics. We want students to understand what it means to see the world through the lens of these various philosophies. We hope that the course helps us all develop the capacity to break out of our own particular, entrenched perspectives, finding ways to generously imagine alternate ways of seeing and being in the world.
One of the ways we encourage this is by conducting regular role-playing exercises during class. We pose a question: in the case of the video above, the question was, “Does material reality exist?” We require that students argue from the position of various philosophers rather than their own perspective. Sometimes, this means they draw an index card of their choice with the name of a philosopher, and respond in the way they think he or she would. In the video above, certain students were designated as “skeptics,” others as materialist George Berkeley, and still others as Renee Descartes.
This exercise in intellectual empathy is in the same vein as the “stakeholder wheel” approach to journalism education explained in The Elements of Journalism and the “Offend Yourself” challenge I tried with my students in 2015. These structured assignments force students outside themselves to explore the world from other vantage points.
The discussion took on a particularly concrete application right around minute 1:10 in the above video. Michael, who is supposed to be a skeptic, notices that his peer Enoch drinks mistakenly from his mug. As Michael argues against the existence of things outside ourselves, he calls out Enoch:
Michael: As a skeptic, almost like a Descartes type argument, you could say that – that’s my glass
Me: How do you know that’s your cup?
Kevin: Aha! What was the problem there? I sensed a problem. You put the cup down rather quickly, didn’t you? Why was that? You knew it was his cup!
Enoch: I did not!
The dispute about the mug revealed precisely the concrete stakes of what it would mean to sincerely doubt that things outside our mind exist in the real world. If Enoch truly entertained such metaphysical doubts, he’d have no problem drinking from Michael’s mug.
Since that exchange, the mug has become a shorthand for understanding concretely what it means to doubt. Role playing offers an engaging and memorable way to test the real-world implications of abstract ideas.
Research typically focuses on moving gradually from concrete to abstract — for example, this piece describes evidence supporting the “concreteness fading” method in STEM instruction. But my colleague David Romero points out that in his physics courses, students study abstractions so that they can better understand and describe the physical world. In other words, sometimes the concrete is the target.
An activity in his middle school science class helped students observe and experience the concept of relative motion. (Check out the video above to see part of the lesson in action.)
David sets up three groups of students on wheelie chairs and designates the other students “pedestrians” meant to observe and record. He gives these instructions:
We can run through this once or twice, and if you have a question for one of these people, feel free to ask.
We’ll have time to talk about what we’re seeing.
Both David and Rita’s lessons reveal the crucial interaction between enactors and spectators: by asking some students to experience relative motion, for example, and others to observe it, David ensures that the class works collaboratively to piece together an understanding from different perspectives. The insights of those who sat on the chairs augment the observations of those who stood and recorded what they saw.
The comments of Aidan, an eighth grader and “pedestrian” during the activity, illustrate this well:
David: Pedestrians, you want to describe what happened, what you saw?
Aidan: I saw that there was two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor, and then two chairs, Matt and Nadia, floor. So I saw chairs, Matt, and Nadia move this way.
David: Oh and you’re using the floor to compare.
In this case, students are moving from abstract to concrete: David had introduced the concept of relative motion in an earlier lesson; in this later activity, students were able to use key terms and definitions to describe what they saw in the physical world.
High school students cut up Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” to piece together the story’s chronology.
My students are usually blown away when I explain to them that the “full story” – told in all its detail from beginning to end, with no narrative gaps – is a thing that does not existoutside their own minds.
But they think about it quietly for a bit and realize: of course it doesn’t. No story takes the reader through all the excruciating minutiae of human existence. Our narratives – whether written or oral, literary or gossip, and everything in between – contain pauses, omissions, flashbacks, flash-forward, and repetitions.
Time in narrative is complex. And temporality, as a literary concept, is also highly abstract.
Russian formalists have a complicated theoretical language that distinguishes, for example, between the order in which events are narrated (the sjuzhet) and the “actual” order of the story (the fabula – as in fable, or a thing that is not real).
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is useful for illustrating the nuances of narrative temporality. The story flashes back and forth to reveal the deep roots of the titular character’s unhappy marriage and the more recent catalyzing incident: Macomber’s seemingly unredeemable cowardice at the lion hunt.
To help students see the impact of nonlinear temporality on narrative, I ask them to cut Hemingway’s story into pieces.
I print out four copies of the story and ask groups of kids to physically separate each scene from the next: make a cut where the temporality shifts to flash backwards or forwards. Then, students rearrange them chronologically along a series of desks or cubes. As the photo illustrates, this is a get-out-of-your-seat-and-work-with-your-hands activity.
Students invariably come up with different ways to order events, revealing that part of what non-chronological structure does is to render the reader an active participant in the collaborative construction of meaning.
Like the activities in math, philosophy, and science, the act of cutting up Hemingway’s story helps students see what crucial abstract concepts look and feel like. This is an indispensable first step in making classroom content relevant and personally meaningful to all students.
David Tow, a California-based teacher-researcher, wondered whether requiring his students’ unquestioning compliance with class rules was at odds with his otherwise inquiry-based instructional approach.
How could he encourage his kids to take risks and pursue truth in their academics while expecting mindless adherence to convention in their behavior?
At the same time, he understandably worried that abolishing rules could lead to chaos in the classroom. He didn’t want to tear down the old way of doing things without first envisioning a new and better approach to stand in its wake.
He decided to start with first principles: what sort of classroom community does he want to build? What are the values that shape this vision?
The entire article is worth reading, but the four first principles he sketches are particularly inspiring.
Be respectful to yourself because it sets the context for being able to participate in a community; to others because it is hard to be a student and everyone’s struggles merit your respect; and to the teacher because although it is a position of authority, the teacher should also be vulnerable and learning.
Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.
Be prepared, because informed conversation requires prepared members, and preparation transcends just the work that is assigned—and is closer to deep thought, sincere skepticism, and a general willingness to interrogate assumptions.
Be courageous, because learning requires acknowledging that there are things we don’t know, skills we lack, and ways in which we might still be foolish—which is a scary prospect for everyone in the class, teacher included.
I love the way each begins with a particular orientation toward the world – “be respectful,” “be engaged,” etc. – and then clearly justifies that orientation, showing how it contributes to a thriving and just community.
Through this model, as Tow notes, student infractions become opportunities for the student, peers, and teacher to reflect on how the behavior might detract from the sort of community they had all decided they wanted to build.
In other words, what used to be simple, top-down interventions (the teacher calls out student behavior and possibly imposes a consequence) are now sophisticated, student-generated metacognitive and collaborative reflections. Students become responsible for noticing and regulating their own actions, and they do so because they feel empowered to actively create classroom culture.
The article makes me wonder what other kinds of “first principles” students and teacher might converge around in additional communities and contexts.