The Spectrum Game


Students compare and contrast different philosophers they have read in the course by locating them a spectrum based on various criteria.

Introduction: In preparation for their second paper, which required comparing two philosophers, the instructor used this interactive and dynamic spectrum activity to stimulate student interpretation of the different positions of the philosophers they had read in class. It served as a review activity for course material and helped students appreciate the pros and cons of trying to position philosophers on a spectrum with binary endpoints. It also energized students by getting them onto their feet.


  1. get students to review prior course material by comparing and contrasting different philosophers;
  2. get students thinking critically about when that comparison becomes difficult and how imposing binaries can sometimes conceal more than it reveals; and
  3. get students moving around and working collaboratively, stimulating the energy in the room.

Procedure- Before Class:

Instructor: Obtain pieces of paper, and write the names of the philosophers the class has read so far on them.

Students: Students were required to read Xunzi in the course textbook.  In addition, they were expected to have completed the readings from earlier in the course (Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, The Inward Training, Laozi, and Zhuangzi).

Procedure- During Class:

  1. The instructor asks for volunteers to hold the signs for Xunzi, Mencius, and Confucius.
  2. Individual students hold signs to indicate that they are representing a particular philosopher and stand at the front of the room.
  3. The other students choose some dimension along which to arrange themselves on the spectrum (e.g., human nature) and determine its end points (e.g., human nature is bad vs. human nature is good).
  4. The philosophers insert themselves at a location on the spectrum based on their stance on the issue. Students in the audience are expected to help them out/direct them where to go, so the students holding the sign do not have to decide where to stand on their own and don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of their philosopher

The instructor began with only three philosophers (Xunzi [whom the class had read that week], Mencius, and Confucius) but added more after every two or three spectrums. She added them in the following order: Mozi, Laozi, Inward Training, and Zhuangzi. She repeated a few spectrums as she added more philosophers.

Post-Activity: The class debriefs and discusses the pros and cons of spectrums. An example of a con that came up was that some of the philosophers the class had read had views on human nature that didn't fit neatly into good/bad binaries, which very quickly led to confusion when students tried to position them on the spectrum (every student had a different idea of where they should stand). The class discusses questions such as the following: What are the benefits of arranging philosophers on a spectrum like so?  What are the downsides?  What is revealed?  What is concealed?

The instructor emphasizes the importance of this debrief at the end of the activity for getting students to think critically about their ways of categorizing and arranging information. The more an instructor can elucidate categorization schemes that students may not be conscious of, the more productive the activity will be.