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Advice about Leading a Philosophical Discussion

Leading a philosophical discussion with children can be intimidating, especially when its your first time. It’s just hard to anticipate what they might say, and that can be pretty scary. So here is some advice on preparing for the discussion and actually leading it.

First, be prepared! This means that you have to be familiar with the material you will be teaching, both the book itself, the questions, and the philosophical issues. This takes some time. You should read the book out loud and try to put real excitement into your reading. It often helps to practice this with a partner outside of class; this could be either a fellow classmate or a friend. You should also make sure to go over the questions and figure out which ones you think are the most important, the ones you really want to ask. It’s also important to be familiar and comfortable with the philosophical issues, so you can recognize a good response and call the childrens' attention to it.

Second, show excitement! Your success will depend a lot on how the kids perceive you. Show them that you are very interested in them and are excited to be teaching them. This shouldn’t be hard, but remember not to let any fear you might have get in the way of showing them that you really are having a great time talking to them.

Third, LISTEN! In my experience, this is hard, especially at first. You probably will be nervous and you have a page full of questions in your hand. The temptation is to ask a question and then, after a kid responds, to just ask the next one. Don’t do it! Listen to what they are saying and, if no one else has a hand raised to respond, ask an improvised follow-up question. The idea is to have them discuss the question that you ask. There is absolutely no pressure on you to “get through” the questions. If you ask a question and a good philosophical discussion develops, that’s great! Stick with it. All we are interested in is having the children talk to one another philosophically. Don’t worry at all about “coverage.” Remember to be flexible and “go with the flow.”

Fourth, remember to give them “markers.” These are comments that indicate that they’ve accomplished something. In general, the more encouragement you give the students, the better they will perform. So, if you’ve had a discussion of some topic, don’t just move on to the next question. You need to mark what has occurred so that they recognized what has been accomplished and feel good about it. Even if there is a disagreement, you can say something like, “We’ve had a really interesting discussion of ---. I think we have a real disagreement here. Some of you think that xyz, while others disagree. That’s really interesting because ----. Maybe we should move on to another question now.” In addition, it’s good to just summarize where things are periodically, so that the children have a sense of the course of the discussion.

Fifth, remember to be a facilitator and not a participant in the conversation. Your goal is to get the kids to talk with one another about the issues, not tell them what you think. There are a variety of techniques you can use to keep them talking to each other. Ask, “What do the rest of you think about what Amanda just said?” Or, “Does anyone disagree with Colin, that bravery is really stupid?” Or, “Let’s go around the circle and each of you share an example of xyz.”

Finally, enjoy yourself! If you are not too nervous and focus on what the kids say, it can be a really fun and rewarding experience. I always learn something from doing philosophy with the children. Remember, they are “natural born philosophers,” so we can learn from them. And they are funny and cute, as well as intelligent. So give yourself over to the experience and enjoy!

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