“What’s Your Reason?” Game
If one of the goals of philosophical inquiry is to help us better articulate the reasons we have for our judgments, then students should be encouraged to practice citing their reasons for whatever positions they take on an issue. I believe that this applies whether their position is a normative one or not. In this exercise, therefore, I give students a chance to explore not only their own reasons for what they believe to be the case, but also the reasons of their classmates. I do this is a way that seems to be fairly fun and engaging for the students; in any case, they tend to be loud and enthusiastic in performing the exercise.
Here’s how it works.
I hand out four note cards (or note-card sized pieces of paper) to each student. They are asked to write down, on each of the four cards, one claim they believe in, for a total of four. I ask that at least one of these be a normative claim and that at least one of them be a false claim. We have talked beforehand about what normative claims are; I’m interested in having them write down something they believe people ought or ought not do. The reason I also ask them to include a claim that’s false is merely to reinforce for them the notion that we also have reasons for believing the things we take to not be the case.
Once they’ve written down the claims, I ask them to write down, on the other side of the paper, three reasons they have for believing the claims to be true—or false as the case may be. (Writing down reasons for the false claim can be quite challenging for some kids. They tend to say things like, “How can I have reasons for it if it’s not true? This has occasionally led to some interesting discussions about how we can—or if we can—have knowledge that something is false.) They have about fifteen minutes do to this and can appeal to whatever outside sources of information they want to during this time.
One student, for instance, was developing reasons for the claim “not all grass is green.” She went outside, pulled up some dry brown grass and taped it to her notecard. Another student, defending her belief that murder is wrong, went to the library and brought back a bible with the Ten Commandments printed in the front.
I now divide the students into two teams. (There are lots of ways to do this. Sometimes, I just split the room down the middle. One of my favorite ways is to divide them by birthdates; everyone born before June 30th on one side, everyone born after on the other; then, I tweak the date up or down to get even numbers.)
After the teams have formed, I collect their index cards, making sure to keep the cards from either side separate.
The exercise now proceeds sort of like a game of charades. The goal is for students to be able to guess what the claim is from the reason(s) cited for believing it.
Starting with Team One, I pick the first student in line and read him or her one of the three reasons from the first card in my pocket. I have tried this two ways; either reading cards from the other team or from the same team, (in which case students have to be honest about whether the card I’m reading is theirs); it seems to work better the latter way. I believe this is because it heightens the incentive to give good reasons.
If the student can guess the claim from the first reason, his or her team gets 3 points. From the first and second, 2 points, from all three, 1 point. If the student can’t guess, the other team gets once chance to guess; if they do, their team gets 1 point.
The game is fun and pretty lively. Students enjoy trying to guess claims from the reasons offered for them. And they generally do a pretty good job of it.
Sometimes disagreements arise about whether a reason offered for a claim is a good one. This is great and I encourage discussion about it. For instance, in one class, a student was providing evidence for the claim that “stealing money from your mom’s purse is wrong.” One of her reasons was “it’s against the law to do so.” Other students objected to this on two grounds. First, they argued that it wasn’t against the law to steal from your parents. This was (more or less) resolved by other students pointing out that most parents probably wouldn’t press charges against you if you did steal from them but that, if they did, you could go to jail. Second, and more interesting from a philosophical standpoint, several students pointed out that something’s being illegal doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. (I thought this was a pretty sophisticated observation for 5th and 6th graders.) As an example, one student said that if he had to steal a car to drive his injured friend to the hospital, it would be illegal—first because it was car theft and second because it would be driving without a license— but that, as far he was concerned, anyway, it wouldn’t be wrong. Another student observed that killing is wrong but that in war, for instance, it isn’t illegal. This led to a discussion about the difference between something being illegal but not wrong versus wrong but not illegal; (at least some) students were able to see that the former, but not the latter counted as an objection to the evidence that the original student had cited in favor of her claim.
In any case, it’s been my experience that this exercise does a good job of teasing out students’ perspectives on the role of reasons in support of their views. I think that it helps them develop a better sense of how we employ reasons to defend our beliefs and I find that it usually gives them some opportunity to practice doing so.