Philosophy in the classroom: ‘It’s okay not to find an exact answer’

Young Philosopher Awards seeks to recognise critical thinking and communication skills

Every Wednesday, teacher Elizabeth O’Brien takes a double-class which has no textbook and will lead to no exams.

Over blocks of eight weeks, 30 students at Our Lady’s School in Terenure, Dublin, push the tables aside and form a circle of chairs.

“In fact, we don’t actually call ourselves a class, we call ourselves a community,” explains Isobelle McLoughlin, a student in transition year.

At the start of the first day, students must listen to each other without talking, what Isobelle describes as “paying real attention to each other”.

Conversation develops, and is mediated with the use of an orange squishy ball passed from speaker to speaker.

Should anyone feel uncomfortable about the direction the dialogue is going they can reach for another prop – a yellow duck – although to date, O’Brien explains, this hasn’t been required.

What’s going on? It’s philosophy – perhaps not as you know it. O’Brien also teaches maths and chemistry but says this subject is like no other.

“It’s different in terms of atmosphere in the room. I don’t think the girls would walk into my classroom at another time and say: ‘This is our maths community’.

For other subjects, it’s teacher-driven content, whereas this is life-driven content; this is reality-driven content–- and the concepts are bigger.

“It’s different as well in that, while it looks quite passive – if you were looking in the window it looks like they’re not doing much – and students don’t come out with bundles of paper, the one thing they all say is that they come out exhausted, as do I.”

Philosophy has long been part of the school curriculum in countries across Europe but only this year has it officially arrived in Ireland – in the form of a Junior Cycle short course that is optional under the revised programme for second and third years.

O'Brien models her class on the short course sanctioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), while drawing on Philosophy for Children (P4C) methods that are widely used in the US and UK.

The class starts with a topic or stimulus. This could be a video, or a reading from a book. Students share their thoughts and then vote on a key question on which to focus. The orange ball gets passed about and new ideas and thoughts develop. These are recorded on whiteboards, sending the inquiry in unexpected directions.

O’Brien recalls a recent class was very interested in the question of personal responsibility, “and whether you can be held responsible for all your thoughts and actions”.

To get deeper into the topic, she introduced materials and video on Hannah Arendt and her reports on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

“It’s very much student-led. Depending on their interests, and whether they are hungry to delve more in it, we might have a more research-based follow up to a topic.”

The benefits of philosophy have been documented in research overseas. A study at Durham University, which tracked over 3,000 pupils who did a one-hour weekly P4C class over the course of a year, found those from disadvantaged backgrounds improved their reading skills by four months above the norm, their maths results by three months and their writing ability by two months. Other studies highlight philosophy's ability to develop critical thinking and communication skills.

Explaining how the class has changed her way of thinking, Sarah Norris – another transition year student at Our Lady’s – says: “Now when someone asks me a question I think about it for a minute before I answer it. This way I get to process the question and give a reasonable answer but still get my point across.”

Typically in school “we learn the who, what, where, and when”, says classmate Jenny Lynch. “Very rarely are we asked to consider why, or if, or should. This is where philosophy is different.”

Lily Thorup adds: “In philosophy it is okay not to find an exact answer by the end of class. In some ways it is almost better if you don’t as it shows that there can be several answers to one question that seemed simple.”

The students from Our Lady’s spoke about their experiences at Áras an Uachtaráin last month at the launch of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards (IYPA) – a concept modelled on the BT Young Scientist Exhibition.

Secondary and younger primary students are being invited to submit entries developing an idea through visual and other media. The projects will be showcased at a festival of ideas at University College Dublin next May.

Danielle Petherbridge, assistant professor in continental European philosophy at UCD, is one of the main organisers, supported by academics, educationalists and activists in the campaign group Philosophy Ireland, whose patron is Sabina Higgins, the wife of the President.

Petherbridge hopes the award scheme will encourage more schools to offer Philosophy as a Junior Cycle short course and to further embed the subject at all levels.

Philosophy is one of 10 short courses developed by the NCCA – others include coding and physical education – and schools can pick up to four. While data is not yet available, early indications are that many schools are delaying offering short courses while the broader Junior Cycle programme beds down.

Philosophy Ireland has been running workshops in P4C for teachers. A number of initiatives are also taking place in universities aimed at boosting demand for the subject.

NUI Galway ran week-long philosophy summer camps for 9-12 year olds in August, and UCD has started a pilot project, training an initial 10 philosophy degree and graduate students in P4C with a view to sending them into secondary schools to work alongside teachers.

In designing the award scheme, Petherbridge says university philosophy students were surveyed, and “what they said is: We don’t want it to be competitive like the Young Scientist. We want it to be fairer and more collaborative and not singling out a few people as highly superior to others”. That said, she is hopeful that some of the students “will produce projects that are quite advanced, and also quite profound”.

O’Brien says she has encountered huge enthusiasm among fellow teachers for the subject but this is tempered with some apprehension about how to control the class. “This is where we need to educate people in methods like P4C. If you really know how to do this well it provides a great deal of security for teachers.

“There are teachers also worried about the ethos [of the school], and where conversations will go.” In response, she says, “we need to put a lot more faith in young people, be honest about their lives”.

While conversations about social and ethical issues do arise in religious education, “religion class is in the context of religion”. In Philosophy, “you are coming at it in a different way, and that openness is positive, not a threat”.

Philosophy is a challenge to an education system which rewards and “places value” only on what can be measured, O’Brien adds. “We need to give expression to every mode of learning. This is a challenge young people are setting for the education system. They are saying: This is meaningful to us so you have to look at what you value.”

Irish Young Philosopher Awards: how to enter

1. Decide whether you want to work by yourself, or make a group entry. You can apply through your school or from outside of school.

2. Pick a topic or question that interests you and research it, or examine it through dialogue with others.

3. Fill out and return the application form by March 23rd, 2018.

4. Prepare your entry, which should have two parts: (a) A visual thinking display (eg poster or series of pictures), showing how your ideas have developed, and (b) A project, using any medium you wish (film, podcast, essay, script, photography, cartoon, sculpture, etc.) conveying your thinking.

5. Prepare for the IYPA festival of ideas at UCD in May 2018.

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