Sam Harris on Free Will (Upper-Intermediate Lesson Plan)

ESL/EFL Level: Upper-Intermediate (B2/C1)
Lesson Topics: determinism, free will, moral responsibility
Skill Focus: Speaking, Reading, Vocabulary
Approximate Class Time: 2.5 hours
Lesson Plan Download: free-will-upper-intermediate-lesson-112023.docx
Lesson Overview:

  • After warm-up questions, students read a 211-word passage that introduces Sam Harris's argument that free will is an illusion (this is "Part 1"). Note that his theory is hard to distill in a short(ish) lesson plan, hence the longer length of the lesson. After discussing two thought experiments and reading a few more paragraphs of explanation,  students answer comprehension and follow-up questions.
  • Part 2 begins with a 163-word explanation of the implications of Harris's theory. This is followed by a roleplay about a criminal case. Next, the final passage attempts to explain Harris's argument for how a deterministic world would not lead to apathy.
  • This is followed by comprehension questions and a vocabulary-matching activity. Students then ask each other questions using the new vocabulary.
  • For speaking activities, the first is an alternate history activity that has students review the third and mixed conditionals. Essentially, students consider what would have happened and what the world would be like now if several historical events had not occurred.
  • This is followed by an activity taken from Harris's book on moral responsibility. Students are presented with five scenarios and must judge the moral and legal gravity of each and discuss how they differ.
  • After several famous quotations on free will, students then engage in a fun role-play activity about a teenager who wants to become a rapper despite his own inborn (pre-determined) shortcomings.
  • The lesson ends with a final vocabulary review, final discussion questions, and a review of collocations.
Note: This lesson is much more extensive than usual. The lesson contains some heavy themes, particularly in Part 2 of the reading passage which mentions the murder of a family (which has not been described in detail). This is followed by a mock trial where one student must represent the murderers. Furthermore, the activity atop page four has students consider the legal and moral responsibility in the case of five different murders. Therefore, only use this lesson with mature students. As usual, please pre-read the document. Because it is quite extensive (six pages), you will likely need to omit some activities.

Members, I hope you enjoy this lesson. I enjoyed researching the topic. Please leave your comments below.

A train track changing paths

UPPER-INTERMEDIATE (B2/C1) EFL Lesson Plan on Free Will

Warm-up Questions

  1. Why are you studying English? Is it by choice?
  2. What does it mean to have free will? Do you believe that you have it?
  3. Do you like studying philosophy? Why or why not?

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-- Lesson plan on Sam Harris’s view of free will written by Matthew Barton of (copyright). ChatGPT was used to check for errors, suggest revisions, and generate answer keys. Site members may photocopy and edit the file for their classes. Permission is not given to rebrand the lesson, redistribute it on another platform, or sell it as part of commercial course curriculum. For questions, contact the author.

Possible answers to comprehension questions:

  • Harris believes that studies of the brain indicate our decisions are determined by unconscious brain processes before we are aware of them. He suggests that the conscious experience of making a decision is merely an awareness of a choice that has already been made by the brain.
  • The thought experiments are trying to demonstrate that the choices we believe we make consciously may actually be produced unconsciously. They aim to show that we do not have control over the thoughts and motivations that arise within us, which challenges the concept of free will.
  • Harris hopes to illustrate that even in the face of heinous crimes, if we accept that free will is an illusion, our approach to moral responsibility and legal punishment should be reconsidered. He suggests that criminals may not have had true control over their actions and that understanding the underlying factors (such as past abuse or remorse) should influence how they are judged and rehabilitated.
  • Harris's view is that life isn't pointless without free will because our experiences, skills, relationships, and actions still influence the course of our lives. They matter as inputs that shape the future, even if we do not control them in the sense of free will. This deterministic view suggests that while we might not have ultimate control, our actions are still significant in the chain of events that define our lives.

Vocabulary Answers: 1-d, 2-f, 3-a, 4-e, 5-j 6-b, 7-k, 8-i, 9-c, 10-h, 11-g

Vocabulary Review Answers: See original passage

Collocation Answers: 1-d, 2-a, 3-c, 4-b, 5-e, 6-h, 7-g, 8-f


2 comments on “Sam Harris on Free Will (Upper-Intermediate Lesson Plan)

  1. TeachDel (Posted on 11-18-2023 at 00:42) Reply

    I’ve found this lesson plan detailed and nicely articulated. Not to mention that it gives food for thought and the level of challenge for the students is just right.
    Simply impressive.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 11-18-2023 at 08:28) Reply

      I’m glad you liked it. I spent about four days writing it. If you are looking for lessons like this, please consider a membership! (only $15USD/a year).
      All the best!

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