Philosophy workshops in vocational high schools

1At the vocational high schools where I teach classes in French and history-geography for students who have previously dropped out, philosophy has no formal place in the curriculum. Yet it has accompanied me, in various forms, in my career as a teacher. I have managed to practice philosophy with my students in other guises, free of any constraints it would have as an academic discipline. This practice testifies to a shift. We could summarize this shift as follows: philosophical activity with my students is not a relationship with texts anymore – it is now a stance. This involves a twofold change: a change in objectives (what do you do when you do philosophy?) but most of all a change in the effect that this practice has on the class as a group. This aspect seems to be the most important one today in my view, particularly for what the word "philosophy" means for the students. One could question my use of the term "philosophy" at this point. Describing my history – the difficulties, the failures and the progress – may allow for an examination of what philosophy entails in classes where it is not typically seen as playing a role.

1 – First Attempt: Texts "Off the Beaten Path"

1.1 – Description

2When I started teaching in vocational high schools to students pursuing CAP, BEP, and "bac pro" [1] degrees, my objective was to "democratize" the access to philosophy. "Philosophy" was then the name for texts, questions, and authors not in common use at this level of instruction. It was also the name for a practice of thought that removed the boundaries between texts and their purposes, boundaries that are very rigid in vocational schools.

3We attempted to work on, for example, texts by Foucault, Swift, and Marx, but also excerpts from speeches by George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy. These were therefore texts beyond the curriculum, which also means beyond the students’ supposed abilities.

4I asked the students to perform analyses of these texts on the basis of closed-ended questions, as recommended by the institution. This means that the analysis requested, even a very simple one (identify the speaker, their aim, their rhetorical tools…), is performed according to an understanding predetermined by the teacher. It was very conventional schoolwork, performed on unconventional texts.

5For these kinds of questions, I expect the students to have mastered the categories of textual analysis, for example the construction of a line of argument: understanding arguments, identifying who is speaking to whom, when and where, etc.

1.2 – The Logic to this Approach

6This practice was motivated by a will to emancipate the students, i.e. to rescue them from being seen only as mediocre and limited to discovering a few classic and functional texts, supposedly adapted to their needs and useful to them in their daily lives.

7My goal was to have them discover other sets of questions than the ones I presumed were theirs on a daily basis, as well as other ideas than those defined by the school curriculum (both in terms of their scholastic level, but also in terms of their critical and civic capacities). [2]

8I have to admit I was guilty of some condescension in this attitude. This was useless more than anything else, as people can only emancipate themselves.

1.3 – The Limits

9The educational choice to work on these texts did not take the students’ difficulties into account. Another limit: these texts didn’t arouse any more interest or motivation than the excerpts from textbooks. Furthermore, these texts, as a result of their length and their style, posed almost insurmountable problems of comprehension. Long texts, complicated operations: what can you do with all of these lines when you have enough trouble reading one paragraph or writing a few sentences? Because I had to deal with that reality with my students as well, a reality that my approach did not change at all.

2 – Second Attempt: A Fresh Try After Leaving the Profession

10Having given up teaching for six years, I returned almost by chance to a special school, the Pôle Innovant Lycéen (PIL). [3] It offers students older than 16 who have dropped out the possibility of returning to school for a yearlong training program. The "dropouts" are students who have left school for more than six months, in general during middle school or an unwanted stint in a vocational high school.

2.1 – Description

11At the PIL, I really wanted to try a new philosophical approach, one that was freer and more probing. I devised a course lasting an hour and half, which I called "Major Texts," where we had time to read longer excerpts.

12There were excerpts from Foucault, Freud, sometimes from Nietzsche. We read Foucault’s description of the torture and execution of Damiens from Discipline and Punish, his article "Against Replacement Penalties," excerpts from Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

13Very quickly, I abandoned all preliminary questions for the main one: "What do you think of that?" There were no rules of order for speaking. Discussions were free-form, accompanied occasionally by writing exercises.

14This meant that I stopped coming to class with predefined steps for structuring arguments, but I always positioned myself as someone who would answer questions and provide additional knowledge. I’ve read a little Foucault and Freud, so I could give them information on the historical context of Damiens’s torture or on Freudian theory.

2.2 – Applied Logic

15The principle was the encounter. Through the encounter with a text, the students could come up with their own questions.

16They were somewhat surprised: they requested discussions, and even additional information. On the whole, it was positive. I have to say that the people who were the most surprised about this were my colleagues.

17But one thing didn’t change: how the students’ reasoning functioned. Those among them who spoke in class – many never dared talk about these issues, or at least in the context of a free-form discussion – kept reasoning in a binary fashion: "I agree," "I disagree."

18There was the appearance of an "I," at least. That was already something, but it didn’t get us much further.

3 – Provisional Conclusion

19These two experiments had the same limits in my opinion. In both cases, the subjectification of thought is essentially nonexistent. They are dependent on the same logic, in which the teacher’s role is to rationalize reality.

20Here, the efficacy of thought is extremely limited. At best, you prove that you know your way around the categories that you have been asked to master. That is what you have to demonstrate to get your diploma. We may wonder about the philosophical benefits of such mastery. The reality of thought does not function according to a rational order. We know this, but we persist: this is what Foucault observes in a passage near the end of Subjectivity and Truth that is invaluable for the teacher. [4]

4 – The 2017 School Year: Two Divergent Experiments

21So I did not offer the "Major Texts" class again. There followed a period of uncertainty during which I tried two things simultaneously.

4.1 – Discut+

22I tried out the "Discut+" set of playing cards developed by the PbSolving company. [5] With this game, the students carry out a debate on a question that the teacher puts forward. A small Platonic dialogue, written by the teacher, gets the discussion going. The students hold cards that they must play every time they speak. The logic is based on meta-cognition: they have to ask themselves about the thought process that they will put into words, and play the corresponding card. For example, the "Idea" card, the "Argument" card, or the "Distinction" card.

23We recognize the formal scholastic categories of argumentation, and the complexity of the playing cards increases in a rather Cartesian way.

24I tested the game according to the rules suggested by the developers. What I observed is that the students play using the operations they already master, nearly all of the time by affirmation or negation. And only those who are comfortable expressing their point of view take the floor. The interest to the game is that the teacher does not play, and so the roles in keeping the dialogue going are assumed by the students: there is the one who manages the debate, the one who can provide a quote, the one who must contribute to the debate without giving their own opinion, etc. The exercise is probably the most interesting and the most beneficial for these students, particularly the moderator. Again, we are dealing with a procedure for rationalizing reality, so either we already master the operations for playing the games, or we find ourselves in the configuration of the person who can’t play because they don’t know how.

4.2 – Discut+ v2.0

25I tried out another method, which I came up with myself because I absolutely wanted to get past the dichotomy of those who talk all the time and those who wait for the others to finish. I split the students up into teams of two. Each team had a question or an assertion to discuss (for example the claim of Holocaust deniers that "there is no proof of the extermination of European Jews," in relation to a chapter we were studying in history. Or "Is disobedience necessarily a crime?")

26I handed out very few cards to each person, two or three, different ones for each student. They then had to discuss the question by putting a card down each time, which they could not play again. The student therefore had to construct a reflection on the basis of formal rules of debate without having the choice of what thought process to play.

27The result was fairly constructive. The students were even surprised and motivated by what they had produced, even if it was rather brief. This had the distinct advantage that the teacher did not participate in any team, and every team was at work: if a team wasn’t working, this was easy to see, which was another positive result.

5 – The AGSAS-Lévine philosophy workshops

28I now come to the experiment I am still working on today, which I started to set up at the time of the Discut+ workshops. It took me some time to get going with it, because it was not obvious for me to adopt a different stance and throw myself into the unknown to such a degree. The problem is that in these philosophy workshops, you can’t foresee what will be produced, or where the group is headed, which is very unsettling for a teacher.

29These are called AGSAS-Lévine philosophy workshops. I should point out that this workshop method is included in my way of using the flipped classroom.

5.1 – The Flipped Classroom

30The flipped classroom is part of a concept developed in the US: "flipped learning." [6] It is not a pedagogy: it is a set of practices by which the students carry out the tasks requiring little cognition themselves (in class or out of it), which frees up time in class with the teacher to work on harder cognitive tasks.

31This approach lets the teacher tailor the activities and aid given to each student. The work patterns change depending on how well or how poorly the students are doing, so the objectives are not necessarily the same anymore for the whole class.

32Like many other teachers, I use a work schedule to manage that diversity. Thanks to this tool for planning courses ahead of time, each student can work at their own pace, on different tasks, with different levels of support depending on the difficulties they encounter. I’ll add that this does not miraculously increase the students’ diligence, but a student doing nothing (while waiting to be corrected, or for the teacher to ask them a question, for example) becomes easier to spot, because I teach nothing in this system: everything is produced by the student. If they don’t work, their notebook remains empty, no work is graded: this may seem a bit harsh, but it’s an excellent way to highlight work or non-work. This is very important, particularly for returning students who want to stay motivated (and for whom returning to school means showing up, which is not the same as participating actively). We are therefore in a pedagogical stance where the transmission of knowledge by the teacher is reduced to a minimum, or even nonexistent. In practical terms, this means that there are no lectures, or courses consisting of dialogues where only those who are motivated answer my questions. [7]

5.2 – The AGSAS

33The AGSAS-Lévine philosophy workshops are a product of the "support to support" groups and the association that was formed to federate them: l’Association des Groupes de Soutien au Soutien (The Association of Support to Support Groups) founded by Jacques Lévine – psychoanalyst, psychologist and researcher – in the mid-1980s. The Association is a group that analyzes teaching practices. It has developed and tested a "toolkit": the workshops. There are many varieties, whose objectives can be summarized as follows:

  • Valorizing the student’s skills and verbal communication in the school context, but through non-academic methods.
  • Enabling the class to come together in such a way that productive work is possible, by constructing an educational alliance between the students, and with the teacher.
  • More generally, helping the students grow, i.e. bringing about changes in their relationships with their peers and with adults.

34These philosophy workshops participate in the "philosophy in schools" movement. [8]

5.3 – The Workshops: How Do They Work?

35The workshops’ formal structure is fairly strict:

36There is an introduction: I ask the question "What does being a philosopher today mean to you?" The students respond freely; I take down their answers, all treated as good answers, on the board. For example: "Reading a lot, writing a lot, talking a lot." Or: "Never giving a definite answer." Or else: "Thinking, discussing, arguing."

37All of the students are invited to participate. They are seated in a circle, but those who don’t want to participate or speak can stay silent. They have to be willing to participate, and the teacher does not punish non-participants. The teacher does not participate, sitting outside of the circle and saying nothing. A question or a word is announced and suggested as a topic for ideas. For example: "dreams" or "What does it mean to be in love?" First there is a minute of silent thought, followed by a ten-minute discussion period. A baton is handed to the first speaker. Each student can only speak if they are holding the baton: they can speak as long as they like, after which they give the baton to their neighbor.

38The workshop continues. I only take notes or write down what is said. Once the ten minutes are up, I stop the workshop, then we go over it, the question being: "How did you feel about today’s workshop?" During the next class, I hand out the transcript of the previous workshop, or I put it up on the classroom wall.

5.4 – What Effect Does It Have?

39The philosophy workshop generates a lot of interest: there are many requests to do it again, and to have it last longer than ten minutes. Here are some quotes: "I really liked listening to the others and not talking"; "Could we do another one next week?" "It would have been great if the discussion lasted ten minutes longer. "There is an intermediate effect as well. This work, focused on listening and speaking, yields conclusive results since it is an arrangement where those who usually never speak in front of the class, by whatever means, and even when they are invited to speak (which is terrible for some of them!) speak when their turn comes.

40I’m thinking of J., for example, for whom speaking in front of a group was a cause for much anxiety, or T. uncomfortable with others and scornful of them. They both spoke in the philosophy workshops, whereas they had never spoken in the earlier situations.

41It’s also deeply enjoyable to listen to others. One student pointed out that "you can’t forget what the others said before, what someone said that was important and interesting. It’s hard work remembering."

42In the long run, the effect on the class as a group is obvious: a notable change in atmosphere. The students listen to each other much more, there’s less teasing. The philosophy workshop helps make the classroom a space where each person knows that they can express themselves without fear (of being laughed at, judged, etc.), which is vital in a class.

5.5 – The Underlying Logic

43This thought experiment is based on three aspects:

  • It is an "I think" experiment with the co-construction of a thought made possibleby the fact that the circulation of speech leads the discussion well past what eachspeaker would have suggested themselves;
  • The debate does not have an agonistic dimension: unprompted reactions, associations, contradictions confront or complete each other in a space that strives to be nonthreatening. But in order for each student to be able to start working in a class, it is essential that the class be a safe space where they can speak without it affecting their self-image.
  • It is a time for work and thought where the students are responsible for organizing the work, as the teacher is absent from the circle, and only there to keep an eye on the clock and guarantee the respect of the formal rules.

44Within these workshops, for the first time in my short experience as a teacher, I have heard thought processes being expressed, for example when V. said: "Even if in my head I agree with the fact that you need money to succeed […] I want to think that you can live without it."

45Operations that connected ideas together also occurred, for example this comment on happiness: "Happiness is what leads to pleasure." This would have been highly improbable in a context where the students were reasoning in binary terms.

46Finally, for me this was an experience of the fundamental questions: "Who thinks? Who has the right to think?", like when J., for example, asked the group: "Yes, but who defines each person’s happiness?" This experience, this subjectification of thought, was precisely my objective. For me as for them, this was a surprising discovery during these workshops, I think.


47For some, perhaps, this practice of reflexivity is not philosophy. Ultimately, if this is a dispute over nomenclature, it doesn’t matter much to me. What does matter to me, on the other hand, is the use and the sense that is made by the moments for thought during the AGSAS-Lévine philosophy workshops, as they are incorporated into my flipped classroom. In my view, they have a clear effect, both for the students as individuals and for the class as a group. The workshops give rise to a sustained desire for thought, in the framework of a research community. They contribute to the construction of a class community that gets to work, following a formal protocol, for a limited time, that guarantees a space conducive to free exchange. The workshops then make it possible to construct an educational alliance between the students and me, and between themselves. There are many "battle classes," i.e. groups where there are always students who come to class with an "I don’t feel like it" attitude, always for very personal reasons. Alongside them, there are others whose position is "I’d like to, but…" [9] And then there are the very few, always the same in every class, who do feel like it. The philosophy workshop, like the other AGSAS workshops and the flipped classroom, allow for a change in these attitudes.

48This is because the practice of workshops provides the student with a status they’ve never had before: they institute the student as a "valid interlocutor" (to borrow Michèle Sillam’s concept). [10] In the workshops, the students can sense that they are thinking, and that the others are thinking, which is an experience quite foreign to schools, it must be said.

49The desire for thought, the freedom to speak and ask questions, a research community, a maxim for action whereby "the answer is the death of the question": for me, the philosophy workshops are philosophy in action.

figure im1

50In conclusion, I think that we could also look at the philosophy workshop from another angle, in relation to its psychoanalytical framework, as a "technique of self" as Foucault defined it. This would probably make it possible to assess the changes that these brief moments bring about in class. These workshops are a way to work on oneself in a group and to construct a place for the students, a place that is not for a student-who-doesn’t-know, but rather one for an interlocutor and a thinker, as well as a place in the group that enables the group to construct itself differently from a traditional class.


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: CAP = Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle; BEP = Brevet d’études professionnelles. Both certificates are obtained after two years of study; the BEP is generally more advanced than the CAP and is also used as an intermediate step before obtaining the (bac)calauréat (pro)fessionnel, the three-year vocational diploma.
  • [2]
    "The teaching of French in the preparatory classes for the baccalauréat professionnel maintains the requirements for teaching French at the middle-school level: mastery of oral and written expression as well as the assertion of a cultural identity founded on the sharing of knowledge, values and languages. […] In conjunction with the teaching of history, geography, civics, modern languages, applied arts, and art history, the teaching of French participates in the enrichment of the shared culture through the knowledge of movements and works, through attendance of various artistic productions, through the practice of cultural activities." From the law of 10 February 2009 establishing the program for teaching French in preparatory classes for the baccalauréat professionnel, on the website of the French government,
  • [3]
    The Pôle innovant lycéen (PIL), "Cluster for High School Innovation," is a part of the Paris school system allowing students who have dropped out to re-enroll. It is a public high school with a special status: the students attend voluntarily, enrolled upon approval by the teachers. There is no minimum level of schooling required: students attend for one year only, taking classes from teachers who have been trained specifically for this institution.
  • [4]
    "We know full well that […] reality does not function according to a rational order. Reality, at least if one means [by this] human practices, is always inadequate, always poorly adapted; it is always in the interstices between laws and principles on the one hand, and real behavior, effective conduct on the other, it is always in this interplay between the rule and what is not in accordance with it that things happen and things hold." Michel Foucault, Subjectivité et vérité (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2014), 247 [Subjectivity and Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1980-1981, ed. Frédéric Gros, François Ewald, Alessandro Fontana and Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2017), 244-245].
  • [5]
  • [6]
    Translator’s note: in English in the text.
  • [7]
    In France the community of "flippers" was created and organized by an association, Inversons la classe!, founded in 2014, which has developed a large space for exchange and joint training. There is an annual convention, a week of flipped classrooms (where the classes are open to all), and encounters on the academic, national and international levels. There are flipped classes on all levels (higher, elementary) and in all disciplines. The community is also a network of teachers, researchers, and enthusiasts, who work with the active educational approaches and share their innovations.
  • [8]
    The AGSAS is thus a co-partner of the UNESCO Chair on the Practice of Philosophy with Children. In this movement, there is also Michel Tozzi’s concept of the "philosophically-oriented discussion" (discussion à visée philosophique), whose modes and goals differ greatly from the AGSAS approach.
  • [9]
    Having changed schools in 2018 in order to return to a vocational high school, I am still holding the philosophy workshops, but in a very difficult class context: as every framework and every rule are impaired, the issue of the workshops is an urgent one in my opinion, but also a stumbling block. I will discuss this further in a future article.
  • [10]
    Michèle Sillam is a founding member of the AGSAS and co-author (with Jacques Levine) of the reference work on philosophy workshops: L’Enfant philosophe, avenir de l’humanité? Ateliers AGSAS de réflexion sur la condition humaine (ARCH) (Issy-les-Moulineaux: ESF Editions, 2014). She is a retired mathematics teacher and trainer. For more information, see her blog (