Category Archives: Peter Worley

Response to Dennis Hayes in Spiked Online

Dennis Hayes wrote in Spiked Online, ‘Philosophy for children’ isn’t real philosophy.

(So that I don’t simply repeat myself, go here for my response to the issue of philosophy’s own value: Aeon, should children do philosophy? Also read my response to Tom Bennett’s, Philosophy. For Children?)

My Response to Dennis Hayes

‘Surely the worst, most instrumental reason for doing philosophy is that it might improve your skills in other areas, like maths and reading, while also boosting ‘cognitive abilities’ and pupils’ self-esteem.’ [Dennis Hayes.]

Why?

‘P4C is a popular method of exploring concepts such as fairness or bullying in small group discussions. By claiming that P4C might help all primary-school pupils — especially those on free school meals — to do better in other disciplines, the EEF report does a serious disservice to philosophy.’  [Dennis Hayes.]

Why?

‘The problem today is that children are being taught bits of philosophy, in their circle-time activities. They should be taught more. Why not start with the classical Greek philosophers? Teach your charges about Socrates and Plato and Aristotle! Let them rehearse the arguments of all the great philosophers.’  [Dennis Hayes.]

Why?

‘Childish whining is not philosophy; reading books, even difficult ones, and then having proper classroom chats about them is.’  [Dennis Hayes.]

I agree, childish whining is not philosophy. I don’t see much childish whining in my philosophy classes, because I always ask them to say ‘why?’ When someone complains about something without providing good reasons, that’s what I call ‘childish whining’.

‘The EEF report also said teachers don’t know enough about philosophy and aren’t confident enough to teach it. Yet as we wait for a drive to recruit more actual philosophers into primary schools, which we should do, teachers can easily teach some of the history of philosophy in history, and some of the works of philosophy in literature. Even in nursery rhymes there are challenging topics. Why was Humpy Dumpty on that wall? And a burning question for all young girls: Does kissing frogs work? These are potential philosophical sticklers, and can be addressed without the dumbed-down approach of P4C.’  [Dennis Hayes.]

I agree that many teachers don’t know enough about philosophy. Whether a discussion of bullying and fairness are philosophical is all in how it’s approached. A discussion around whether it’s right to bully people (where the teacher holds the view that it is wrong) probably won’t be, but a genuinely open discussion around what bullying is, that leads to conceptual progress in the children’s views as a result of this analysis (see the response to Tom Bennett ‘progess in philosophy’) is much more likely to be philosophical. I have recommended that teachers be trained in what it is they need to be able to run good dialogues with their classes. And what they need – as a minimum, in my view – is an understanding of what a conceptual discussion is and how to facilitate it. For more on this see my response to Tom Bennett ‘It’s (not?) what you know’.

‘The EEF report has been widely welcomed, but largely as a convenient shortcut away from serious teaching in favour of therapeutic talking shops. If we really want the best education for children, then we should ditch classes on jargon and go back to teaching real subject matter — including sometimes difficult, philosophical subject matter.’  [Dennis Hayes.]

Again: Why?

I agree, there is a danger that philosophy is used as a ‘therapeutic talking shop’, but this is purely down to proper education and training about what philosophy is and how it works. Philosophy is not therapy. When working with teachers I sometimes have to explain that ‘feel’ is not a synonym for ‘think’, as it is sometimes used in the classroom. This may have something to do with the fact that teacher training is saturated in psychology and its accompanying jargon. This can be addressed with proper training. For a glimpse (not exhaustive by any stretch) into the kind of facilitation techniques I’m talking about, then go here:

The Philosophers’ Magazine: how to philosophise with children

In conclusion, Dennis Hayes, has an incomplete view of what philosophy is. He clearly thinks that philosophy is ONLY a subject; one that engages students with the classic debates. Let us take, probably the most famous example of a philosopher from the great canon, Plato. He demonstrated, through his dialogues, that philosophy is more than thinking about the canon. Yes, during his dialogues, the characters sometimes engage with the philosophers of the past, but most of the time, they are engaging with each other, with no reference to the canon. But in almost all cases, Plato is showing us how to philosophise, and also providing models for doing so (for example – and it is just one example – the much discussed Socratic method). My approach to philosophy (with adults, children or whatever) is to facilitate a discussion so that it resembles the kind of discussion we might see in a Platonic dialogue. (I do NOT mean: so that it is identical! – Before you write to say ‘do you entrap people like Socrates did?’) I simply mean: so that it contains a similar dialectical structure with similar dialectical aims. This is philosophy as ‘methodology’ that sits next to philosophy as ‘history of ideas’. (There’s also Hegel, Descartes, Spinoza, Aristotle and so on, who also provides methods for conducting philosophical enquiry, all of which are dialectical.) There are even those that say, along Socratic lines, that studying the history of ideas can be done while doing no real philosophy, where philosophy is understood to be an attempt to show whether real-life example X is a genuine example of category Y. Philosophy was practised long before it became a subject at school.

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Response to Tom Bennett on TES blog ‘Philosophy. For children?’

Philosophy has been in the news a good deal this week due to some very positive research by EEF into SAPERE’s model that notes improvements to reading and maths. Tom Bennett wrote a piece responding to the P4C buzz yesterday: Philosophy. For children? When thinking requires thinking about something. This is my response to that piece, piece by piece.

Philosophy’s value?

‘The value of Philosophy doesn’t lie in its contribution to literacy, or indeed indirectly to any other perceived good.’ (Tom Bennett)

Should ‘philosophy with children’ be measured according to its instrumental benefits? Does philosophy have its own value? If something is good for its own sake, there’s not a great deal more to say about it than that: music’s good, because it’s good. About philosophy, I might say that it’s good because it comes from what it is to be human: to respond, to reflect, to reason, to re-evaluate, and – arguably – these are among the best things about what it is to be human. But all I can hope for here is that you agree with me; that you share my values.

Or, I might show you research that demonstrates how doing philosophy is good for other things (see link above for an example of this kind of research).

It’s a good thing, as Tom says, that ‘philosophy for children’ (or P4C) can be shown to improve literacy and numeracy, but I’m interested in what it is philosophy offers in and of itself. I am also interested in whether children can get better at it. ‘But why’, objectors may say, ‘should we be interested in what philosophy offers unless it’s the instrumental stuff – that which improves reading, writing and arithmetic, SATs results etc.?’ Because, if there is a correlation between doing philosophy and improved literacy and maths results then surely we want to know why – we want to know the cause.

What I’d like to suggest is that philosophy offers ‘intellectual virtues’ and that these are good in and of themselves, as well as being transferable. They may well be the qualities that confer the improvements identified in research. For instance, if philosophy engenders structured, sequential thinking then this may well be what improves performance in maths. So, what do I mean by ‘intellectual virtues’? Let me make some suggestions (though, in no way final or exhaustive). Those doing regular philosophy may learn and practise…

  • How to respond to others in an intellectually appropriate way (whether to be critical, logical, sequential, structural, semantic and so on).
  • How to respond to others in a socially appropriate way (with sensitivity, with respect, with confidence, tentatively and so on) that is also intellectually sensitive.
  • How to discern and select what is the appropriate response, either to a question, problem, or peer.
  • They will gain some insight about how their peers think and learn to approach problems from thinking with their peers.
  • They will practise how to appropriately oppose each other while working collaboratively to address controversies and problems.
  • …How to structure their thinking well.
  • …How to give expression to their thinking so that others may understand them and therefore respond appropriately.
  • …How to make appropriate use of empirical knowledge in their argumentation.
  • …How to abstract when necessary.
  • …How to engage critically with their own ideas as well as those of others.
  • …How to judge when to re-evaluate (revise or reject) and when to defend their own ideas. (A good philosopher only defends the defensible.)
  • …How to offer reasoned support to a peer when the peer is unable to see good reasons that they may be able to see.
  • …How to recognise controversies and problems for themselves.
  • …How to judge for themselves when to be open-minded and when to make a judgement on an issue or question.
  • …How to evaluate, discern – and in some cases eliminate – ideas and opinions shared in a discussion.
  • …They will practise resilience in the face of other’s opposition to their own ideas and resilience to demonstrations made by others of shortcomings within their positions and arguments.
  • …They will practise a willingness to re-evaluate.
  • …They will practise reflecting on the quality of their own reasoning and how to improve it.

It is because of these (and other) virtues, as practised by the Ancient Greeks (notably Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) that ‘the scientific method’ came about (also logical, structured and sequential), to take just one important example. This is exactly the sort of stuff that can be bottled and integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

The Philosophy Foundation is about to begin a project with King’s College London into this aspect of philosophy. The aim will be to establish what kinds of virtues might be described as ‘philosophical virtues’ and to establish whether philosophical progress can be made, and in what ways we might begin to try to measure such progress. No doubt, this will include the drawing up of some criteria of what philosophy is. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

It’s (not?) what you know

‘This is why philosophy is a particularly hard thing to do with a group of very young children, or those with little knowledge about philosophy. Can you imagine a discussion about Shakespeare if nobody had ever heard of the man? Or a debate about Danish modal verbs populated only by Yoruba speakers?’ (Tom Bennett)

The examples of Shakespeare and ‘Danish modal verbs’ are disanalogous. If we think of philosophy as ‘the history of ideas’ then the analogy might work (though, presumably, one could have a discussion about one of Shakespeare’s plays without knowing who he is or even that he wrote it), but the focus of philosophy in schools is on the process of philosophising, not the history of ideas. Consider the following questions:

‘If something is moving then is it doing something?’

‘If fair is ‘getting the same amount’ then is it fair for Ted to get more cake than the others on his birthday?’

‘Can you make a deliberate mistake?’

‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’

‘If something changes can it be the same thing?’

‘If you take something that you don’t know belongs to someone else then is it stealing?’

To engage in discussions around questions of this sort the children do not really need to know much at all; all they need is some notion of the concepts involved and a notion of the relationship between them. Very often the discussion will be fuelled by the fact that the children have different notions. For instance, some children will think that fair simply means ‘getting the same amount’ and others will think that it has ‘something to do with desert’ while others, that ‘it depends on the situation’. In other words, philosophy discussions in the classroom will – or should – be conceptual, or at least include it. And in many cases, it won’t be a discussion about ‘what something means’ but rather ‘what something is thought to mean’ and the conflicts that arise from the different notions present within the discussion. (We recommend our facilitators ask ‘What do you mean by X?’ rather than ‘What does X mean?’)

This also means that progress can be made (an oft-overlooked aspect of doing philosophy with children) because, for example, a class may begin a discussion thinking that fair is ‘getting what I want’ and later on understand, through arguments put forward by members of the class, that this leads to problems, such as that there are many situations where it is impossible for everyone to get what they want if, for instance, what they want is not available to all. This is conceptual progress; the class (or some within it) now has a more sophisticated, nuanced conceptual understanding of fairness.

You would only need to know something about philosophy (as ‘history of ideas’) if the questions were:

‘What is Thomas Hobbes’s response to the problem of The Ship of Theseus?’

‘Does Descartes’s think that the mind is the same as the brain?’ etc.

But these are not the kinds of philosophy questions that are asked of primary-aged children doing philosophy.

When we run our Stage 1 training course – where we train graduates to facilitate philosophy in the classroom – the first thing we do is run an enquiry for the trainees. We usually run an enquiry around the perennial philosophical favourite, ‘The Ship of Theseus’ thought-experiment (the idea is: if something’s parts are replaced gradually over time then can it be considered the same thing?). What is interesting about this is that when we take them through a discussion around the same stimulus had by able 10-year-olds, the graduates are often astonished at how similar the conceptual moves are, differing only in sophistication. The reason this happens is because the facilitation is such that, in both cases, it focuses on the conceptual dimensions of the issue.

Conceptual treatment of non-philosophical topics

You may think that a question such as ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ must be an empirical discussion – it must be a science question. But even empirical discussions have conceptual dimensions. For example,

FAC: ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’

Child A: ‘Yes.’

FAC: ‘Can you say why?’

Child A: ‘Because the mind is inside the brain?’

FAC: Is there anybody who has anything to say about the last speaker’s idea?

Child B: ‘But if a coin is inside a piggybank that doesn’t mean that the coin is the same as the piggy bank.’

FAC: [Turning to child A] Would you like to reply to that?

Child A: ‘Yes. But it’s more like plasticine.’

FAC: Can you say a bit more about that?

Child A: If one bit of plasticine is in the middle of a bigger bit of plasticine then it’s the same. The mind is like that: the mind is in the middle of the brain.

The issue here is conceptual: it is to do with whether if something X is inside something else Y, then can X and Y have a relationship of identity? You don’t need to have any neuroscience to engage in this conceptual aspect of the discussion. To facilitate this successfully, however, one needs to understand what a conceptual discussion is and how it differs from an empirical discussion, or how an empirical discussion can be treated in a conceptual way (for example, with a hypothesis such as ‘Is there an object in the box’ a conceptual discussion might be: ‘What do we mean by object?’ or ‘What do we mean by in?’). This is where, I would argue, expertise is needed. Either someone with this understanding is necessary for a genuine philosophical enquiry, or teachers need to be formally trained so that they are equipped with this understanding and the tools to facilitate it.

‘What [philosophy] might be doing with children might be good practise for debating, or general discussion, and I certainly wouldn’t strike it off the curriculum.’ (Tom Bennett) 

Where does philosophy go in the curriculum?

I’ve never really liked the expression ‘P4C’. When I do philosophy with children, teenagers, adults or dogs, I facilitate philosophy. Just philosophy. And they respond as children, teenagers, adults or dogs respond. The dialogical method I use with each of them is basically the same. However, when I train teachers I don’t teach them to do philosophy because I believe – as did the originator or the P4C movement, Matthew Lipman – that it requires specialist knowledge and training in philosophy. I train teachers in something more like what Darren Chetty has coined ‘D4C’. Or, what I might call just dialogue. This does not exclude discussions of a philosophical nature, but neither does it demand them. So, at TPF, we train philosophy graduates to do philosophy in schools; we train teachers to do dialogue with their classes. The difference between philosophy and dialogue is the content. Sometimes discussions using dialogue is philosophical, but it doesn’t have to be; it could be a discussion about how many decimals there are between 1 and 2, what symmetry is, or what growth is or friction. These discussions may become philosophical. For instance, while discussing what goes between 1 and 2, a discussion about the nature of numbers may occur. But it may not. As a ‘visiting philosophy specialist’, when I do philosophy with a class, my job is to make sure that the discussions are genuinely philosophical; that, as far as the class is able, they pursue philosophical lines of enquiry further than they would have if I was not there, and that they continue to pursue intellectual lines of enquiry when I’m no longer there, yet deeper than they would have had they never met me.

There is a place for philosophy, then, as a stand-alone subject, somewhere classes can practice conceptual thinking outside of specialized subjects and therefore free of the need for subject knowledge, but where the same structures of thinking are practised for application in the curriculum subjects. There is also a place for a dialogical treatment (both philosophical and non-philosophical) within curriculum subjects. So, the debate about whether philosophy should be ‘integrated’ or ‘added on’ is a debate premised on a false dichotomy. It’s both.

Peter Worley is the CEO of The Philosophy Foundation charity, president of SOPHIA and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He is the author of numerous books on philosophy with children including The If Machine, and his latest book is 40 lessons to get children thinking: philosophical thought adventures across the curriculum (published by Bloomsbury and available from September 2015)

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Philosophy GCSE

Over the last year The Philosophy Foundation has been supporting the Philosophy in Education Project (PEP), run by Dr John Taylor and A. C. Grayling, along with SAPERE, A Level Philosophy and a host of well-known philosophers including Angie Hobbs, Simon Blackburn, Nigel Warburton and Tim Williamson.

This is a response by Peter Worley to ‘why there shouldn’t be a philosophy GCSE‘ by Miss AVE Carter, who has started an important open debate about the newly proposed philosophy GCSE by PEP.

Carter’s argument is premised on an incomplete understanding of philosophy. She says,

‘One thing which makes philosophy sessions so wonderful is that they go some way to breaking the mould of educating children on factory lines. They are set apart from any lesson anywhere in the school. Children get a chance to just wonder, to think, to discuss to learn, without writing anything down at all. They are engaged with the biggest questions ever dreamt up, questions which they may have never considered. I judge my lessons to have been successful if, and only if, pupils continue to talk about the material when our 40 minutes are up.’

I agree that doing philosophy with children (especially very young children) is often more successful when they do not write things down, but it would be wrong to conceive of philosophy as something that is – or must be – done without writing things down; or, for that matter, without reading texts, or without learning about philosophers and philosophers’ ideas. The way many practitioners do philosophy with primary-aged children in particular (myself included) is just the beginning of how philosophy is done. Miss Carter seems to think that it is the beginning and the end. The evidence for this claim is in this line:

‘I judge my lessons to have been successful if, and only if, pupils continue to talk about the material when our 40 minutes are up.’ [My italics]

Remember: ‘if, and only if’ means ‘under no other circumstances’ (I would ask Miss Carter: does she really think there are no other circumstances under which she would consider a lesson to be successful?); it is a very strong claim. Even when working with younger children, I think this is an incomplete conception of philosophy. This view of philosophy confirms my more general worry that philosophy is seen to be nothing more than a sharing of opinions, an involved chat. But, as I have argued elsewhere [TEDx ‘Plato not Playdoh’] philosophy is evaluative and re-evaluative; and this means – and many will not like this – that it is judgmental. By this, I mean that philosophy includes evaluative judgments (albeit provisional) about the arguments that have been made, based on the quality of reasons given. I will fall short of saying ‘if, and only if’! This conception of philosophy invites criteria: criteria for what makes good reasons. And these criteria would be good candidates for a marking criteria for a GCSE, and I see no reason why we should have a problem with this per se.

This argument about why there should not be a GCSE is also premised on a false dichotomy: that either education initiatives are:

a) box-ticking, knowledge-heavy, test-driven ‘factory’ models, or they are

b) exploratory, dialogical, engaging ‘discovery’ models.

Surely, the preferred place is in between? And a well-put together GCSE would, ideally, inhabit this space. At this point we reach the question of whether a GCSE would be well-put together and whether it really would inhabit this space and how we might ensure that it does. In this respect I am sympathetic to many of Miss Carter’s worries, and that is why PEP have gathered together academics as well as philosophy in school practitioners and teachers, but that discussion is for another day.

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Socrates, Philosophy & Black Friday

‘Look at all these things I don’t need!’ the philosopher Socrates is said to have declared as he stood before the many stalls filling the marketplace of Ancient Athens. In contrast to the stalls in the agora (Greek for ‘marketplace’), and by engaging the citizens there with big, philosophical questions, Socrates offered an exchange of a very different kind. His currency was ideas; a wiser, more reflective person housed within a life well-lived his aim. This anecdote shows how one can trace the origins of philosophy – as we know it in western Europe at least – back to shopping.

We can perhaps identify with Socrates here as we too stand amid a dizzying marketplace – albeit a much larger, global one – bombarded from all sides by promises of a better life from ‘pedlars of wares’. And we too may feel the need for an alternative kind of shop as an antidote to the pressures and promises of the modern-day agora – one that guards against the many ‘snake-oils’ on offer by insisting on an ‘account’ or ‘reason’ or logos in Greek. Perhaps we need an alternative shop such as this in order to reach that ‘better life’ by other than financial, consumerist means.

The Philosophy Shop book stands as Socrates to the reader: sometimes beguiling, humorous and inspiring; other times irritating, like a gadfly, goading us into wakefulness, and sometimes frustratingly circular or inconclusive. But always – it is hoped – stimulating.

Taken from the preface of ‘The Philosophy Shop

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Working with Concepts

From Peter Worley’s new book, 40 lessons to get children thinking, published in September 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. incredible_shrinking_man_englandTo 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

aliceinwonderland

Alice in Wonderland

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. Session Plan: 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. SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe Doing Statue  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? Nested Questions:

  • 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:

  1. Sitting
  2. Sleeping
  3. Being dead

This is a good place to do the Break The Circle activity on ‘do’ (see Critical Thinking Tool above). Extension activities:

images

Is the ball doing anything?

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. Related Resources: 

  • The Philosophy Shop: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (page 200), Ooops! (p. 202), Not Very Stationary Stationery (p. 191), Lucky and Unlucky (p. 198), The Good Daleks (p. 203) Immy’s Box (p. 20)
  • Picture Book: Let’s Do Nothing by Tony Facile
  • The If Machine: Thinking About Nothing (p. 135)

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Stoic Week Philosophy Session Plan

Here’s a lesson plan for Years 6 and up (and able Y5s) on Stoic-related themes for Stoic Week. Draw from it what you want. Taken from Peter Worley‘s forthcoming book, 40 lessons to get children thinking [September 2015].

Equipment needed and preparation: a glass of water, half-filled; handouts or a projection of the extract from Hamlet (optional)

Age: The ‘glass of water’ section is suitable for 7 years and up, but the ‘Hamlet’ section is suitable only for 10 years and up.

Key vocabulary: optimism, pessimism, positive, negative, good, bad

Subject links: literacy, Shakespeare, PSHE

Key controversies: Is ‘good and bad’ a state of mind or a state of the world?

Key concepts: attitude(s), perception, value,

A little philosophy: Stoicism is a branch of Hellenistic (late ancient Greek period from approx. 323-31 BCE) philosophy that derives its name from the ‘painted porch’ (Stoa poikile) in the marketplace of Athens, under which many of the early Stoics taught. The school of Stoicism is said to have begun with Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE) and been further developed by Cleanthes of Assos (330-230 BCE) and Chrysippus of Soli (279-206 BCE) but the most famous of the Stoics is Epictetus (55-135 CE), originally a slave who later became a free man because of his philosophy, Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), tutor and advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero, and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), himself an Emperor of Rome (who features in the film Gladiator). The word ‘stoic’ has entered the English language and means ‘to accept something undesirable without complaint’. The key ideas of stoicism are as follows:

  • All human beings have the capacity to attain happiness.
  • Human beings are a ‘connected brotherhood’ and, unlike animals, are able to benefit each other rationally.
  • Human beings are able to change their emotions and desires by changing their beliefs.
  • Stoics care less about achieving something and much more about having done one’s best to achieve it.
  • Stoics attempt to understand what is in one’s power and what is not, to act, when necessary, to change what it is in one’s power to change, and to accept stoically (see above) what it is not in one’s power to change.

Quote: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.’ (Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous)

emperor-penguin-habitat

Emperor Penguin

Critical thinking tool: Examples, counter-examples and falsification – Examples are often used to illustrate a claim whereas counter-examples are examples that are used to refute a claim. Counter-examples are very useful for falsifying general claims:

Child A: All birds fly.

Child B: A penguin is a bird but penguins don’t fly, so not all birds fly.

In this case, because the claim made was a general claim (‘All Xs F’), only a single example is needed to refute it; it is quite unnecessary to mention ostriches or kiwis for the refutation to be successful. Hamlet’s

glass_water-1

Is the glass half full, or half empty?

Session Plan: Part One: The Glass of Water

Half fill a glass of water and place it in the middle of the talk circle so all the children can see it. Then ask the following task question:

Task Question: Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty?

Nested Questions:

  • Is there an answer to this question?
  • Is it a matter of opinion?
  • Can it be both?
  • Is it good or bad that the glass is only half full/empty?

Allow a discussion to unfold around this question. At some point it may become appropriate to introduce the following words:

  1. Optimist
  2. Pessimist

Find out if anyone has heard these words before and see if anyone can explain the words to the class. Provide the following starting definitions if they don’t do so themselves:

  1. An optimist is someone who sees things in a positive way; someone who often sees the good side of things.
  2. A pessimist is someone who sees things in a negative way; someone who often sees the bad side of things.

Questions:

  1. Which one, the optimist or the pessimist, would see the glass as half-full? Why?
  2. Which one, the optimist or the pessimist, would see the glass as half-empty? Why?

Task Question: Is it better to be an optimist or a pessimist? 

hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Part Two: Hamlet’s Prison

Part one makes a good session by itself. Here is a second part that is more advanced and can be approached in one of two ways: either use the full extract from Hamlet and allow the class to unpack it or simply skip straight to the central Hamlet quote (‘For there is nothing…’). The previous enquiry around the glass of water should give the class what it needs to approach the quote on its own. I recommend not explaining how the two parts link; give the class the opportunity to make the link. Because you want to get to the thinking aspect of the session I recommend not having members of the class read out the extract. I usually ask them to read it, dramatically, in pairs to each other; I then read it properly to the class as a whole and ask them to raise their hands if:

  1. There is a word they don’t understand.
  2. There is a phrase they don’t understand.
  3. They would like to say what they think the entire extract is about.
  4. They would like to say what a particular part means.

Give out the handouts or project the extract on the IWB then read the following:

This extract is taken from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare – it’s the one that contains the line ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. This is another extract from the play that is less well-known but really good for thinking with.

HAMLET Denmark’s a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ Then is the world a prison?
HAMLET A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.
HAMLET Why, then, ’tis no prison to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ Why then, your ambition makes it one; Denmark is too
narrow for your mind.
HAMLET I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

Once you have spent some time unpacking the extract write up or project the following claim made by Hamlet: 

HAMLET Why, then, ’tis no prison to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

(If you are skipping to the single quote then write up just this:

HAMLET                                    …for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…)

First of all ask the class: What do you think Hamlet means by this?

Then ask the following task question:

TQ: Do you agree with Hamlet – is it true that there is nothing either good or bad, but that thinking makes it so? 

Ask the class to come up with some examples of things that are good or bad whatever you happen to think about them.

What about these situations (use these examples only if the children do not find their own):

1) You fail an exam.

2) You win the lottery.

3) Your family forget your birthday.

4) Your tattooist misspells a word in your tattoo.

5) Your favourite pet dies.

6) You discover that you have become addicted to something.

7) You are diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Take some quotes from below and ask the children to respond critically to them. This is done by simply asking them if they agree or disagree with the quote. I sometimes ask for ‘thumbs up’ if they agree, ‘thumbs down’ if they disagree and ‘thumbs sideways’ if they think something other than agree or disagree.

Epictetus

Epictetus

Epictetus

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

“People are not worried by real problems so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.”

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

Seneca

Seneca

Seneca

“Most powerful is she who has herself in her own power.”

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

“Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”

“A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer’s hand.”

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful.”

TQ: Can one agree with Seneca and also believe in God?

Marcus Aurelius

imgres

Marcus Aurelius

“You have the power of your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…”

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Extension activities:

Here is a new Thoughting that could be used for, during or after this session that will introduce the children to some more isms.

(Preparation: half fill a glass of water and place in on a table in front of your class. Then, as you reach the part where the speaker in the poem says ‘cheers!’, pick up the glass of water and drink it. Half fill it once more and replace it before beginning the discussion.)

The Glass of Water

The pessimist says it’s half empty

The optimist says it’s half full

The sceptic says, ‘Now, hang on a minute!

Do we know that it’s there at all?’

The cynic says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t drink it!’

The paranoiac says, ‘Who put it there?’

Then, looking round, adds, ‘And why?’

The psychologist says that you think it,

The realist: ‘Without it you’ll die.’

And while all the company debate it,

Over the din no one hears,

When – feeling somewhat dehydrated – I say,

‘Cheers!’

Questions:

  • If you don’t already know, can you guess what each of the ists and so on means from the context of the poem? E.g. What’s a pessimist? What’s an optimist? A sceptic? A cynic? And so on.
  • Are you any of them? Why or why not?

Related Resources: 

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The Question X Revisited

We read this blog ‘Closed Question Quizzing, Unfashionable Yet Effective‘ by Andy Tharby the other day. The virtues of closed questioning are well known to The Philosophy Foundation as they are central to our philosophical questioning approach, so we wanted to share this extract taken from a chapter entitled ‘If it, Anchor it, Open it up: A closed, guided questioning technique‘ that Peter Worley has written for the forthcoming book The Socratic Handbook ed. Michael Noah Weiss, LIT Verlag, 2015. Some of these ideas were first written about in The Question X published in Creative Teaching and Learning and available here: The Question X. In this blog Peter has developed some of the ideas written about in The Question X.

Plato’s Socrates asks many closed questions – questions that elicit a one-word or short answer such as ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘Paris’. Dip in to any of the dialogues and you will very likely witness an exchange between Socrates and an interlocutor that is made up of closed questions and single-word/phrase answers such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘absolutely’, ‘without doubt’ and so on. However, the well-known Socratic Question – of the form ‘What is X?’ (e.g. ‘What is Beauty?’) – is an open question.

Socrates_Once Upon an If_©TamarLevi_5

Socrates by Tamar Levi (tamarlevi.com) ‘Once Upon an If’

When I ask those I train which of the two types of question they should favour during an enquiry almost invariably they will say, ‘Open questions’. When I ask them ‘why?’ they say something along the following lines: ‘They invite the children to say more than a closed question does and closed questions only elicit one-word answers.’

Before I explain my recommendation of which question-type to favour I would like to make a distinction between two kinds of open/closed question: 1) a grammatically open/closed question and 2) a conceptually open/closed question. So, ‘Do you like jam?’ is both grammatically and conceptually closed because the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and once it has been answered there is nothing more to explore; there is no further contestability. Even if you ask ‘why?’ the answer is likely to be no more enlightening than, ‘because I do,’ or words to that effect. A question such as ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ is grammatically closed in that the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but conceptually open in that any answer given will remain contestable – there’s still plenty more to explore and say on the matter.

With this distinction in mind I recommend that the best question type to favour during an enquiry is the closed question – just as Socrates does – even though one is exploring an open topic such as ‘What is the mind?’ Having said that, there are some qualifications I will add that I think improve on the Socratic way of using closed questions that appeals to another Socratic principle – that of eliciting ideas/knowledge from the person that is questioned (see Plato’s Meno for more on this).

The reason why we use (and should use) closed questions is because they are incredibly focused and specific. The virtue of this is that closed questions keep the line of inquiry sequential and logical, something that I claim is essential in a philosophical enquiry. We might represent the shape of a closed question as follows:

Closed Question

Fig 1. The shape of a closed question

But, many will point out, they are too focused so that they bring conversations to an end, or, as we see with Socrates, if the conversation doesn’t dry up completely then the questioner has to do a great of the work to allow the conversation to continue, possibly in truth only conducting a conversation with themselves, such as the following very plausible questioning situation:

(Context: The story of Sindbad and The Valley of The Diamonds [available for free download on Guardian Teacher Network] has been told [see Once Upon an If] in which Sindbad is trapped in a valley filled with diamonds on an island inhabited only by snakes of all sizes. At one point Sindbad is so filled with despair that he considers allowing a giant snake that has been sniffing around his tree at night to find him and eat him.)

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

CHILD: No.

FAC: Okay, thank you. Anyone else got anything to say? Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

Here is a classic case of the problem of closed questions. If the facilitator carries on in this way the discussion, we might very well imagine, will soon dry up.

So instead, the facilitator could have made use of an open question. This is what most people think they should do. Let’s try a few out:

  • Why should Sindbad not have let the snake eat him?
  • What do you think Sindbad should do?
  • What’s going to happen next, do you think?

But none of these are satisfactory. The first is a classic example of a leading question: it has assumed that it is wrong for Sindbad to let the snake eat him when this is surely one of – if not the – central issue around which the debate will hang. The second is too open and is in danger of digressions that move away from the ethical problem that faces the main character of the story; the issue the teacher is likely to want the students to consider. (I’m especially thinking of practical recommendations such as what he should do to escape from the island or to protect himself and so on). And the third question is much more concerned with the narrative than the ethical problem. A discussion about the ethical problem may follow from these questions, but it is likely to move off track. We might describe the shape of an open question like this:

OpenQuestion.002-001

Fig 2. Open question shape

Now, I’d like to return to the closed question approach that I dismissed earlier. Let’s rewind:

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

CHILD: No.

All the facilitator need do here is say ‘Why?’[1] to solve the problem of the closed question. It is as simple as that; the question simply needs to be opened up. The questioner now has the best of both worlds: focus and specificity from closed questions and the invitation to say more that you get from open questions. This helps discussions flow, it helps discussions to continue developing whilst remaining structured and disciplined without being restrictive. The shape of this style of questioning can be represented as an X (The Question X), visually capturing the shape and character of both styles of questioning:

QuestionXDiagrams.003-001

Fig 3. The question X

However, I need to say something about ‘the why question’ here. It is often suggested that ‘why?’ is an aggressive question that puts a student ‘on the spot’ making him or her feel that there must be an answer and that they will be considered stupid if they don’t have one and so on. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water; we must not dispense with ‘Why?’ This is even more the case in discussions that are philosophical in nature; justification is so central to philosophy that philosopher’s – or those engaged in philosophical discussions – cannot do without it. But I do agree that we need to deal with the problem of ‘why?’s possible aggression. As long as facilitators are careful about how they use the question ‘Why?’ then we can – and should – continue to use it. So instead of ‘why?’, pure and simple, I recommend the following expressions of the ‘why?’ question, at least until a class is comfortable enough to deal with a straight ‘Why?’:

  • ‘Would you like to tell me the reasons you have for that?’
  • ‘Would you like to tell me why?’
  • ‘Would you like to say why?’

The key point here is that you should invite the students so that they know that they don’t have to answer until they are comfortable doing so. I would argue that any philosophical discussion implicitly demands reasons, because the nature of philosophy contains a demand for justification, but a facilitator does not need to make the demand explicit. One should also make sure that one’s tone is neutral so that ‘Why?’ doesn’t sound like a weapon.

One should be aware that ‘why?’ does not only serve a justificatory (reason) role. ‘Why?’ can also be explanatory (causal) or even provide an account of motivation (purpose). The context usually makes it clear which kind of response (reason, cause or purpose) is required but some further questioning or clarification may sometimes be helpful to a student. Part of the reason for engaging in philosophical discussions, especially if the aim is educational, is to give the student practice is selecting what kind of response they need to give, as determined by the context. This is essential in order for a thinker to develop his or her autonomous reasoning.

So, to return to the main discussion, ‘Why?’ is just one way in which a questioner can ‘open up’ a closed question. I have identified the following main ways in which a question can be opened up. They are:

  • Justification (E.g. ‘Would you like to say why?’)
  • Clarification (E.g. ‘Could you tell me what you mean by…?’)
  • Elicitation (E.g. ‘Can you say more about…?’)
  • Exemplification/counter-exemplification (E.g. ‘Can you give an example(s) of…?’/ ‘Can anyone think of an example where not X?’)
  • Explanation (E.g. ‘Can you explain how?’)
  • Implication/entailment (E.g. ‘What does that tell us about…?’)
  • Conditions (E.g. ‘What do you need for…?’)

I tend to find that during philosophical discussions number 5 (Explanation, or the ‘how’ question) is needed less often than the other four but, of course, if using the opening up strategy in science, for instance, asking for explanation will be very important if not unavoidable. When using clarification questions during philosophical enquiries very often it is important to say ‘you’ as in: ‘Could you tell me what you mean by X?’ because it is less important what the term X means and more important that we know what the speaker intends to use the term for. In other words, we are after their meaning and not the meaning. Of course, there will be situations where the general meaning is also needed but in my experience it is not usually necessary in philosophical discussions.

Ending note: of course, some students/clients open themselves up:

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

CHILD: No because…

And under these circumstances closed questions don’t offer any problems, but the strategy I’ve described above is useful for those shy, unsure students, or those lacking in confidence you find silenced simply by the grammar of a closed question. After a while, and particularly with groups I’ve been working with for some time, I open up with simple prompts like ‘…because…?’ or ‘Go on…’ after an answer while I circle my hands to indicate that they continue in whatever capacity they see fit, if at all. Sometimes I simply motion with my hands ‘to go on’ saying nothing at all.

Intuitive responses[2]

I have found that there is another good reason to use closed questions: they elicit intuitions. This is important in a counter-intuitive way, or, ‘the first rule of philosophy club is don’t think about it!’ I have said elsewhere[3] that the philosophical process has the following structure:

  • Reflect (‘What is X?’)
  • Reason (‘I think X is/is not … because…)
  • Re-evaluate (‘But is that right? Because…)

And now I would like to add another R to the list that precedes them all: 0) Respond. That is to say that the philosophical process begins with intuitions – notions we have about something before we have gone through a reasoning process. A philosophical problem arises when there is conflict between or within our intuitions. For instance, ‘I think that the ship before me is the same ship because common sense tells me it is but I also think that it is not the same ship because it has changed over time,’ (see The Ship of Theseus in The If Machine) might be an example of a starting intuition that contains conflict: it is both the same ship and not the same ship. The conflict lies in the fact that there appears to be a contradiction (P and not P). Necessarily, one must have something to reflect on, to reason and re-evaluate about, so a response to some kind of cognitive conflict is essential to begin the philosophical process. There needs to be a puzzle.

Closed questions prompt a response in the manner of a reflex action.[4] Open questions are quite the opposite and it may be that something like a similar misconception about how philosophy works is at the root of why people tend to think that open questions are to be preferred when philosophizing or enquiring into something: ‘open questions require me to think so they must be better for thinking’. But, for the reasons given above, it is sometimes – I would argue: often – quite the opposite. Here’s a typical exchange:

FAC: So, [turning to a child who has not yet spoken] would you like to say anything? [Child shrugs shoulders to indicate something like ‘No,’ or ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’]

FAC: That’s okay. [Pause] Do you think the prisoner is free?

CHILD: No.

FAC: Would you like to say why?

CHILD: [After a while of some thought…] Because he can’t go out of the prison even if he wants to.

Sometimes, especially when the anchoring technique is used in this way, and also especially if the response is an intuitive one and not a reasoned response, then the child may have nothing more to say. At least they now have an intuition so they have something to start with, in this case, ‘No, he is not free’. Conflicts that come out of intuitions may not arise until other intuitions (from other speakers) are voiced. Sometimes, as with the ‘ship’ example above, conflicts arise out of a single intuition from a single person and other times they lie between intuitions had by different people.

[1] To many this will seem too obvious to mention but it is worth pointing out that it is one of the most commonly overlooked moves that we, at The Philosophy Foundation, notice when we conduct observations of teachers and graduates training to run philosophical enquiries.

[2] In his book Provocations Philosophy Foundation specialist David Birch endorses our use of closed questions in enquiry when he says, ‘…all that a closed question is asking of the pupil is whether they accept or reject something, whether they swallow or spit. It is appealing to taste rather than reason.’ (See Provocations: Philosophy For Secondary Schools by David Birch, page 6.) In this section I try to explain in more detail why philosophy begins with tasting.

[3] As part of a Tedx Talk: Plato Not Playdoh (TedxGoodenough College)

[4] This reminds me of the Bridge of Death scene in the Monty Python film The Holy Grail in which one of the characters is asked by the riddle setter ‘What is your favourite colour?’ The character is caught off-guard and says, ‘Blue. No, red!’ and is then thrown into the chasm below for failing to answer one of the three questions he had to answer in order to be able to pass. In this example the closed question prompted a reflex response such that he got his favourite colour wrong – something one would have thought you can’t get wrong!

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