The traditional model for philosophy sessions in schools involves verbal communication, typically in the form of large group conversations, often in a circle. While this method of leading philosophy sessions has much to offer, not every student is immediately comfortable with this approach. The larger the class size, for example, the more challenging this model can be for many students, especially at the inception of a philosophy program.

Alternatives to large group discussions can inspire more students to engage in philosophical inquiry. Philosophy discussion can start with small group work or turn and talk” exchanges (in which pairs of students share their reactions to a prompt with each other). The use of silent discussions” is a structure in which students communicate solely in writing, which gives students who are less comfortable with the give-and-take of a fast-moving verbal philosophical discussion access to a philosophical exchange that proceeds more slowly and deliberately. Bringing in art, music, movement, and games can help reach a wide variety of learners.

What constitutes participation in a philosophy session? Should we expand our understanding of what counts as participation? Are there avenues for students to participate silently? Can active listening count as participation? How do we view the silence of students?

When a student is silent, there are likely to be multiple reasons for that silence – personal, social and cultural. Given this, rather than making assumptions for why a particular student is not participating verbally in discussions, the facilitator can approach silence as an inevitable aspect of philosophy sessions, and ensure that the range of options for participation demonstrates attentiveness to the multiplicity of student communication styles.

Three approaches in particular can be useful for responding to silence. 

First, the group can understand silence as a powerful aspect of a philosophical discussion. When the facilitator allows silence to linger, this makes space for students who are not the first to jump in to fill that space with speech and allows for the development of a collective comfort with silence as part of inquiry. 

Second, the nature of silence can be a subject for philosophical investigation with students. Ask students about how and when participation can occur through silence, inquire about the meaning of silence, and analyze the differences between choosing silence and being silenced. 

Finally, silence, involving listening and reflection, can be understood as one form of participation in the classroom experience. When silence is accepted as a form of participation, space opens up for more students to engage with philosophical topics. A student in one of my classes commented, This is the first class I’ve ever been in where I didn’t feel uncomfortable about being quiet most of the time and where I really wanted to speak when I did.”

When students who need more time for reflection before speaking have a choice whether to participate verbally, this allows them to take that time. This does not mean, however, that we allow students to disengage from what is happening or that we accept student invisibility. Silence as a form of participation must be coupled with related strategies that encourage and support a wide range of participation styles, including various small group practices. 

Another effective strategy is to employ writing as a regular part of philosophy sessions, particularly in third grade and up, while utilizing art in earlier grades. The use, for example, of philosophy journals as places for students to record their questions and reflect about texts and class discussions is an effective way to take into account varying student communication styles. Writing provides a comfortable means of expression for students less comfortable with speaking in large groups, with the classroom’s dominant language, and/or with the pace of fast-moving philosophical discussions. The quiet space that journal writing creates also gives students time to grow comfortable with the give-and-take of a philosophy discussion. From time to time, the philosophy teacher can collect the journals and respond in writing to students directly, providing another means of developing trust and furthering philosophical conversation with individual students.

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