Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teens Talking about Knowledge and Virtue

In my Philosophy for Teens class, the students have been learning about the skills necessary for good conversations; listening, clarifying, paraphrasing and elaborating ideas with examples.  They have also been introduced to Socrates' dialectic; teasing out weaknesses in arguments using only questions instead of statements.  The Socratic method is the ultimate teaching tool because the 'student' themselves comes to understand that they had the 'knowledge' all along, even if the knowledge was that their initial assumption was flawed and now they must re-examine their argument.

Conversation is essential to learning and students love to talk!  In Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, teachers can find many great ideas for integrating these important skills in any subject area.  I shared the five core conversation skills with the students in the Philosophy for Teens class and asked them to come to class with their ideas mapped out on a graphic organizer I had prepared.  Then, in pairs, they tackled Plato's idea  from Protagoras about knowledge being the greatest virtue.  The students were introduced to the  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum's assertion that compassion is the greatest virtue. Their conversations were recorded and I chose one to launch what I hope will be our very first podcast!  This is the fourth year I have taught this class and from the beginning I have wanted to record our amazing conversations.  The greatest obstacle was their understandable hesitance about being recorded.  But for the first time in four years, I have a group who is willing to share their incredible mental meanderings, authentic questions and positively wonderful conversations with the world.

In this nine minute conversation, you can hear Marie-Lise skillfully get Brandon to agree that his argument needs some attention.  She does a Socratic 'slam dunk' on him by about minute six where you can hear other students giggle and Brandon moans audibly.  They did a great job trying out their skills and hats off to Brandon for his honesty.  He actually changed his mind and agreed with Marie-Lise.  How many adults do you think could learn from him?

Have a listen for yourself.  The students would be thrilled if you left a comment!

(This is cross posted at


  1. Well I have no words to describe how important this is! putting aside the vast knowledge and expression skills both pupils demonstrate (which are amazing for themeselves), the fundamental understanding that in a discussion there might be two winning sides is beyond magnificent. Those pupils managed to overcome a debator's number one drawback- ego; instead, they argued only in quest for knowledge and sharing. For that I have regained hope in humanity. Needless to say the catarzis in the seventh minute is sophisticated and shows deep levels of analyzis from both sides: Marie-Lisa and her notion, and at the same time Brandon's quick understanding of this brilliant move and! accepting it rather than blindly diminishing it.
    Thank you for this broadcast, and I'll be waiting for more.
    Asaf Uriel (the kid from Israel)

  2. Well done - I like the respect that Marie-Lise and Brandon have for each other. I can only comment from my viewpoint as a writer, and I think that compassion is something we are born with (innate) which can flourish or be diminished as a result of our experiences. Knowledge is acquired after we are born, and over time. Neither is a virtue (in the true definition of the word) unless it gives rise to specific behaviour. The podcast is a perfect example of this - both Marie-Lise and Brandon are applying compassion to the process of discussion, in order to share their specific knowledge with each other. Bravo! It's difficult to discuss concepts, but amazing how each perspective is valid. I would love to hear more of these discussions.