Finding philsophy lessons in child-friendly places
Thursday is World Philosophy Day, a good time to get children asking the big questions
Don’t turn it into a competition
“Thinking time is an act of trust,” says Donnelly, who notes that while Lipman emphasises consensus, her focus is more on participation.
“The best analogy is play. I would see loads of educational value in play but if you mention it to some people they say ‘Play is just a very pleasant waste of time’. The wonderful thing about play is it’s child centred.”
Be alert to the dissenting voice
One story Roche has used in class is Yellow Bird, Black Spider by Dosh and Mike Archer (Bloomsbury), which explores the theme of individuality through the eyes of an unconventional bird who is being nagged by a spider about its behaviour.
She recalled one group of eight year-olds who said they empathised with the bird’s desire to “do your own thing” and be free. “I said, ‘Okay, then, when I drive up to a red light I want to go through it because I want to be free’. They said, ‘No, you can’t do that: that might hurt other people’. ‘So doing your own thing and being free is only okay at certain times?’
“The conversation continued with many agreeing that the yellow bird had the right to be himself and live life his way. Then one child said, ‘But doesn’t the spider have a right to be himself too?’ and that opened up a question of the contest of two rights. It took an eight year-old to bring that to my attention.”
School timetables are packed but philosophy can be worked into literacy and oral language classes, or alternatively RE (religious education) or SPHE (social, personal and health education), says Roche.
“What I recommend is when you sit down to plan the year ahead you block out your lessons. So, for example, I might choose a story for an English lesson about scaredy squirrel making a friend, which also covers the topic of friendship in SPHE and possibly RE. That allows me to free up time for the discussions.”
Fail, fail better
Practitioners at secondary level have adopted a similar format, using a story, or even a passage of philosophical text, depending on the age group, to spark a discussion about ideas. As teaching aids, Donnelly recommends books such as Robert Fisher’s Teaching Children to Think (Nelson Thormes) and David White’s Philosophy for Kids (Prufrock Press).
Roche left the primary sector in 2008 and now works as a lecturer in St Patrick’s College, Thurles, Co Tipperary, where she does a P4C module with undergraduates. She is now producing her own resource on how to use picturebooks “as stepping stones to philosophising” to be published mid-2014 by Routledge. She warns, however, “I do see people saying ‘Just give me a bunch of resources that I can go and teach’. But that is not being open-minded enough to think up your own questions. The bottom line is, it’s about mindset. It comes back to what John Dewey called the ‘reflective practitioner’: you have to be whole-hearted, open-minded and reflective.”