It has been many months since my last blog post. This is in part because this has been a busy time for me and I have been involved in some interesting projects. This is one of them.
I teach a class of children with severe learning difficulties aged 11 to 14. Last year we took part in a project to deliver Philosophy for Children (P4C) to these children. The project was delivered by Gina Mullarkey of Cumbria Development Education Centre (CDEC), who displayed both enthusiasm and creativity in making the topic accessible to my pupils. Some staff had the benefit of P4C training prior to the project. The children did not. But it soon became clear that the children were more open to the ideas than some of those staff who had not received training and were equally new to the concept. The opening sessions were about establishing baselines for pupil knowledge and perceptions, (in this case we chose Africa) in order to challenge those perceptions and gauge how well the children were able to respond to these challenges, to think for themselves and maybe change their ideas. This process was more important than any learning outcomes measured against fact based criteria of true or false.
The children took part with great enthusiasm. The task was open ended. There were no right or wrong answers, only interesting ones. We were asking children to demonstrate what they thought in order to ask them, “Why do you think that?” and not to tell them they were wrong. The staff, or at least a significant number of them, were uncomfortable with this at first. Their usual role is to assist children to succeed, which usually means, “Getting it right,” or “Doing it well.” They tried to do this, valiantly attempting to persuade children to adopt the right answers. But there were no right answers and it was instructive to watch children listening when staff disagreed with each other.
Education is largely driven by measurable outcomes that tick boxes: knowledge gained, skills acquired. But the third element in the pedagogy of the National Curriculum, “understanding,” is less easily measured and defined. This is where P4C comes in. Can children use their knowledge and their skills to make informed choices? Can they generalize their learning in order to apply it to novel situations? Can they be persuaded to change their minds and not just change their answers in order to please their teacher?
Children are very good at working out what we want even if it makes no sense to them. Here I am reminded of an experience many years ago. I was a student on teaching practice. One of our assignments was to assess conservation of number by presenting primary age children with a line of objects. Then we would alter the spacing and ask the pupil if there were more or less or the same number. Children who had not yet acquired the concept of conservation of number would answer, “More,” or “Less,” depending on the spacing. One of the more able children got the test right. But then I heard him say to the next child in line, “We know that there’s more when he moves them. But tell him they are the same. That’s what he wants.”
One advantage of working with children with learning difficulties, especially those on the autistic spectrum, (who make up at least a third of my pupils) is that they are less skilled in divining our expectations and less inclined to meet them anyway. But it does not follow that they are less capable of independent thought. They are by no means more capable either. They just are more likely to tell us exactly what they are thinking rather than what they think we want them to say.
I must say that staff became more adept at facilitating the process rather than influencing the outcome as time went on. I would love to continue with P4C in the future with the following proviso. As well as challenging children’ ideas and encouraging them to think, we, the staff, should enter more fully into the process and be prepared to expose our ideas to challenge and give children the opportunity to change the way we think.
THE PROJECT IN CONTEXT
P4C will achieve little if it is treated as a discrete project rather than an attempt to change the way we expect our children to work across the curriculum. Of course the rules for spelling or arithmetical facts are not up for debate in the same way that concepts of fairness and justice are. But even here we can make some changes to positive effect.
I used to teach rules for spelling and then teach the tricky words that broke the rules. One pupil, who happened to be autistic, was deeply distressed. Words that broke the rules! How could that be? Now I teach that there are different rules for different words and there are different rules because our language is a mix of different languages, each with their own rules for spelling. Sometimes they even have different alphabets. Children learn that the rules are contingent upon the historical circumstances in which they arose, although I do not use those exact words when I teach them.
How is this related to P4C? Children are introduced to morality via rules. Young children accept rules and apply them rigidly. What happens when rules collide or contradict each other? Honesty is the best policy. So should you betray your friends by always telling the truth? What if you are captured by the enemy during wartime? Do you lie to your captors? (A particularly apt analogy for my war obsessed teenage boys.)
So P4C has encouraged me to always explain rather than just tell, even when imparting apparently value free information about spelling. The children on the P4C course now routinely challenge me with philosophical questions and I always take time to explore the answer with them.
I am delivering a presentation on evolution. “Please, sir. Do animals think?” “What happens when you die?” “Will we be extinct one day?”
We are learning about Greek myths. They ask, “How do we know if stories are true?” “That’s silly. Why did the Greeks believe that?”
We are comparing beliefs in religious education. They ask, “Does every religion have a different god?” “How do we know which one is true?” And then a child says there is no God and I talk about my atheism in a way that still respects the faith of believers.
These are conversations with children who have severe cognitive and developmental delays. Fantastic!
THE PROJECT IN ACTION
Thus the children are doing P4C. What about me? I have not tried to carry on with sessions like those that Gina from CDEC delivered during the project. I did not want P4C to become another subject on the timetable. Rather, I have sought ways to use it across the curriculum. Story time has lent itself to this in a big way.
Like P4C, story time gathers the children together in a circle. Last year we gathered beneath a P4C wall display which celebrated the activities with photos of the children taking part, their written and drawn responses and some of the key points made by Gina. Sometimes the display functioned as an aide memoire. Who is talking? Who is listening? How do we take turns? More often it signified that we were in the thinking corner and encouraged a philosophical approach to the activity.
This was especially the case with a collection of stories, “The Story Giant.” by Brian Patten. The narrative link was that the story giant was the custodian of all the stories in the world but now he was dying because there was one story that still eluded him. And if he dies all the stories in the world die with him. He gathers together 4 children from very different backgrounds from around the world, summoning them from their dreams. In the course of the book each child understands more about themselves and about their companions. They come to terms with their own internal conflicts and, thus strengthened, overcome their differences in order to unite in an attempt to discover the missing story and save the giant. Read the book to learn if they succeed.
This book totally gripped my children. It is structured around the narrative device of each child and the giant telling a series of stories. Dramatic tension comes from the physical decay of the giant’s castle as it crumbles around them and the growing weakness of the giant himself as he nears death. Meanwhile the stories themselves, many of them traditional folk tales, provoke ambiguous and sometimes contradictory responses from their audience. Perfect for P4C! And perfect for my children too.
After every chapter we engaged in discussions that would not have been out of place in Gina’s P4C sessions. Sometimes discussions were passionate. I would point to the wall behind me and remind them of the rules we had agreed. These rules were enabling rather than restrictive. As I wrote in an earlier piece of feedback on P4C and Autism:
The beauty of these rules was that they were not intended to restrict pupils. Instead the rules enabled them to work together and make discoveries about themselves, their friends and the world around them.
This is the essence of P4C: rules that help you choose; not rules that take away choice. This is a perfect fit for my own philosophy of education. P4C is P4Me.