Building a Community of Philosophical Inquiry Online
By Debi Talukdar, PLATO Program Director
One of my favorite things about teaching online, besides the fact that I get to wear pajama bottoms, is that my students are often from all over the country, and sometimes, the world. Pre-pandemic I could have never imagined doing philosophy with kids from California, New York, Canada, and Colombia – all in the same room. The students love it, too. Last year I had the opportunity to work with a colleague from Ukraine, Yuliia Kravchenko, who was facilitating online philosophy classes with instructors from all over the world for Ukrainian children during the war. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
I remember feeling a sense of dread when all my philosophy for children classes had to pivot to online platforms at the start of the pandemic. I was anxious for days. How could I effectively facilitate a community of philosophical inquiry online? Would it feel the same? Was it even possible? I wasn’t so sure. Fast forward to three years later and all the philosophy sessions I facilitate are almost exclusively online.
Here are some things that helped.
Start each session with connection. Being little squares on a screen makes people feel much less connected than if they were physically in the same space together. I invite everyone to turn their cameras on and explain how that small step helps us feel more connected. Most kids are happy to do so or tell me they can’t (which is totally acceptable). I also spend the first 5 minutes of class with my students being social. I either ask a low-stakes icebreaker question or we share something fun from our week. A few easy questions to ask are “Describe how you are feeling using a weather metaphor” or “If you were a food/game/plant/furniture/instrument, what would you be and why?” or would-you-rather questions like “Would you rather eat your one favorite food every day of your life or try something different everyday?” The goal is to get the students to learn something about each other.
Get students to respond to each other. When we are together in a classroom and sitting in a circle, it is much easier to have students speak to each other instead of just speaking to me. This is more challenging to replicate online and needs to be done intentionally. A simple way to do this is to get anyone who has something to share to raise their emoji hand, and have the student who is speaking call on the next person they see with a raised hand. When they call on each other they are much more likely to respond to each other’s comments than to something I said. This helps us build a stronger community. Small group discussions in break-out rooms are also a great way to get the students to work together. I typically assign a task like “rank these items 1 through 5 based on how important you think they are” so they can reason collaboratively and come to a consensus.
Zoom is your friend. Getting to know the ever-expanding set of features on platforms like Zoom is an investment worth making. Basic functions like the whiteboard, breakout rooms, screen-share, polls, and even the hand-raise function can help structure your classes by utilizing different learning modalities. Jamboards, Google Slides, Google Docs, Padlet etc. are other online tools you can integrate into your teaching. A note about using the chat – some people find this distracting and others use it to supplement the discussion. I encourage my students to use it as a place to respond to what is being discussed and park their ideas so they don’t forget them. It’s also great for students who are shy or those that need more time to think. The chat tends to mostly stay on-topic though some side conversations are inevitable!
Videos make great prompts. A lot of my work with younger students involves reading picture books and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to use them online. Wrong! Youtube and Vimeo have many high-quality, read-aloud videos of popular picture books that are great to use as prompts. Additionally, being online allows your group to easily watch animated shorts, which make wonderful prompts. Some of my favorites include Alike, The Present, and Mind Games. Videos are also great ways to introduce thought experiments like the ethical dilemma of self-driving cars, the Ship of Theseus, and the Experience Machine.
It is important to recognize that access to a reliable internet connection, a computer, and a private space for learning is a privilege that many young people don’t have and for these students online learning can be challenging. However, students who have access to resources that allow for online learning can absolutely create a wonderful community of philosophical inquiry online. The community might look and feel different from what you might co-create in person, but with some preparation and intentionality you can experience the same kind of high quality discussions and a sense of community.
How has facilitating philosophical discussions online been for you? Feel free to comment below or write to me at debi[at]plato-philosophy[dot]org.