Encouraging students to engage in philosophical dialogue can yield surprising results

Student satisfaction is often used as a proxy for teaching quality, yet it can be both limited and limiting, and may be associated with avoiding challenge. Some argue that well-being and the ability to flourish are more useful ‘metrics’ to consider when evaluating teaching and educational experiences. Research by Lynda Dunlop and her team at the University of York explores how philosophical dialogue can open up opportunities for discomfort that can develop students’ capabilities and promote happiness and well-being.

A conceptual illustration for thinking

Source: © Donna Grethen/Ikon Images

Incorporating philosophical discussion into your lessons can promote critical thinking, curiosity and deeper understanding

The nature of chemistry, in terms of its impact on us and our environment, raises a range of ethical, political and epistemological questions, necessitating a philosophical approach. However, few science students or trainee teachers encounter philosophy in their education. This is problematic, as the philosophy of chemistry can promote a deeper understanding of the subject that underpins clear communication about what chemists do and why, and Lynda and her team suggest that students at all levels would benefit from some experience of the area.

Undergraduates voluntarily participated in a project called Talking chemistry, which involved extracurricular workshops on the philosophy of chemistry. In part one, a facilitator questioned 25 students’ positions on philosophical questions, identifying the assumptions and reasoning behind their views. The answers to philosophical questions are open to informed disagreement and creating them requires reasoning, so this promotes collective reflection and discussion. The workshop delivery deliberately modelled the approach that the students would later put into practice themselves.

During part two, 11 students went on to develop and deliver philosophical workshops to introduce pupils aged 11–14 to philosophy. Some of the resources are well worth viewing.

Surveys and interviews investigated how participating undergraduates were affected by the study. The data showed that most students developed a better understanding of the relationship between philosophy and chemistry, and there were also notable increases in students’ confidence to discuss ethical issues and analyse concepts in chemistry. The data also revealed an increase in students’ confidence to disagree with others.

Teaching tips

The activities in the appendix of this research are suitable for use at school or HE level. You can use them to introduce philosophical thinking in your lessons, but you can also consider these approaches:

  • A-level students could use the resources from the supplementary materials to deliver workshops to younger students, in the same way as the undergraduates in the study. This would expose both groups to the benefits of philosophical dialogue, prompting them to reflect on and challenge their assumptions and paradigms.
  • For those teaching university students, you could use ideas from the study to devise a component of chemical communication training. This would particularly benefit those going into teaching.

Qualitative data supported the idea that focusing on the quality of arguing rather than on singular, ‘correct’ answers, stimulates new and liberating conversations about chemistry. Several participants suggested that philosophical dialogue should be a mandatory part of their degree programme, and it’s clear that the school pupils also benefited from the study.

Participating in philosophical dialogue helps students think critically by encouraging them to ask questions, identify assumptions and reflect on their position. In engaging with peers, students need to justify their views and explore other perspectives. At school level, philosophical inquiry can promote meaningful dialogue around the construction of scientific knowledge and ideas. Any teacher knows that an innate sense of curiosity is a key characteristic of a proactive, independent learner. The use of philosophical dialogue may be an effective way to pique students’ interest in the subject.