From Peter Worley’s new If book, published in 2015.
Philosophy is not part of the curriculum so why on earth should anyone spend time doing philosophy with their class? Philosophy might not be part of the curriculum but inevitably thinking is. Philosophy helps children think. It allows them to practise the kind of thinking they already do in class in their other curriculum subjects but it also opens doors and allows the children to think in new ways about new things. One of philosophy’s central concerns is understanding. When doing philosophy one has to understand what the other is saying in order to respond appropriately, one has to understand what one thinks oneself in order to be able to give expression to the thought, one needs to understand the problem that has been presented in order to even begin trying to solve it, but perhaps most important of all, one needs to understand what it is that is not understood by oneself and by others in order to improve ones understanding. This is an important aspect of what is sometimes known as meta-cognition or learning to learn.
To help with this I have tried to identify the key concepts behind each session so that you can use the session to help do two things: 1) to observe the class’s grasp of key, relevant concepts before being taught the relevant module and 2) to assess the class’s application of the key concepts once the module has been taught or during it being taught. These sessions, therefore, can be used before, during and/or after a teaching module. For instance, if you are about to teach a module on dissolving then The Incredible Shrinking Machine could be run in order to see how the children approach thinking about the microcosm. Do they think that something that can’t be seen still exists or not? Which children think what? Do those that recognise that ‘not being able to see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist’ make a convincing case to the others? Who has relevant knowledge (atoms, evaporation etc.)? By keeping a record of the answers to these and similar questions the philosophy sessions can help you plan your teaching of the module and to deal with such things as differentiation and peer-to-peer support in the class all based on the conceptual understanding of the class with regard to the relevant key concepts for the module.
A word about misconceptions
Philosophy sessions are a great way to address common misconceptions that children have in and around subjects and topics. An example of this kind of misconception has been alluded to above: that ‘not existing’ means ‘not being able to see it’ or that ‘not being able to see something’ means ‘that it is nothing’. But I’d like to offer two words of warning about diagnosing misconceptions. First of all, children do not always mean exactly what they say and they do not always say exactly what they mean (think of Alice in Wonderland: ‘Is saying what you mean the same as meaning what you say?’) so, a misconception is not the same as a simple misuse of language or referring term and, similarly, a misconception is not the same as being mis-informed. Your questioning should involve a great deal of eliciting in order to avoid pre-interpreting and possibly misinterpreting children’s words. Secondly, also look out for your own misconceptions, either of the issue or with regard to what the children are trying to say. For example, in The Disappearing Ball Trick you may be using the session to address a misconception about matter: that matter doesn’t cease to exist is simply transforms into something else (what is known as the conservation of energy principle in physics). The question in the session is ‘How would you make the ball no longer exist?’ You may have something like the following notion in your head: ‘You can’t, because of the conservation of energy principle’. But, because you have this fixed notion in your head it is possible that you may miss a more nuanced position that a pupil is trying to express: ‘though the particles the ball is made of cannot cease to exist those particles may no longer configure to make a ball as a ball if the particles are scattered across the universe.’ The philosophy sessions are not only good for the children to improve their understanding of themselves, each other and the issues they’re thinking about, philosophy is also good for you – the teacher – to improve your understanding of yourself, your pupils and the issues and topics the philosophy sessions engage you all with.
An edited session extract from Peter’s new book, showing how philosophy can help with conceptual understanding in the curriculum.
Equipment needed and preparation: talk circle; a ball (use the talk ball)
Age: 5 years and up
Key vocabulary: nothing, something, doing, anything, verb
Subject links: literacy, science (forces)
Key controversies: Is it possible to do nothing? Can something without a will or the power of agency perform an action?
Key concepts: nothing, doing, verbs, agency, will, action, event, intention, force.
Possible misconception(s): that verbs are only ‘doing words’ when in fact verbs cover not only actions but also occurrences and states of being; that ‘not doing nothing’ is not equivalent to ‘not doing anything’.
Critical thinking tool: Break The Circle (see any of The If Books) on ‘do’ –
Say: I would like you to say what ‘do’ means but without saying the word ‘do’ or ‘doing’ in your answer. Begin by saying ‘It is…’ so you don’t have to say ‘Doing is…’
Do: Give the class a minute or two to talk with each other about what doing is. Then write up their ideas as a concept-map in order to discuss the answers. If someone accidentally says ‘do’ or ‘doing’ ask them to think of another word or phrase they can say in place of the word ‘do’. If they can’t, ask someone else to help them.
Say: Today I have a task for you. The task is this: do nothing. Talk to each other in pairs to decide how you will attempt to do nothing. Then when I hold the ball in the air put up your hands if you think you can perform the task: to do nothing.
Do: Give the class a minute to think through how they might do nothing. Then put the ball up in the air. Remind them that they should be ready to show the class how to do nothing.
Say: Everyone stand up and make a pose like a statue. Hold it and stay absolutely still for 20 seconds.
Task Question: Do statues do anything?
- If statues stand and stare then are statues doing anything?
- Do statues stand? Do statues stare?
- If someone pushes a statue and makes it fall over has the statue done something?
- What is it to do something?
- What is doing?
- What is a verb? Are verbs only ‘doing words’?
Are the following words doing something:
- Being dead
This is a good place to do the Break The Circle activity on ‘do’ (see Critical Thinking Tool above).
The Doing Ball
Roll a ball to someone (X) in the class. Ask the following two questions:
1) Did X [insert student’s name] do something?
2) Did the ball do something?
Here’s an argument given to me by a 7-year-old-girl:
Rolling is a verb;
Verbs are doing words;
When a statue rolls, it is rolling;
So statues can do something.
Present this nicely structured argument to the class and invite them to critically engage with it: ‘Do you agree with this idea?’ The girl’s argument rests on a belief that verbs are only ‘doing words’ (see Misconception above). This presents a nice opportunity to teach the children that verbs are more than doing or action words.