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Primary Education News
News A guide to philosophical enquiry in the primary classroom
"Miss, are we here for a reason?" Lisa Naylor explains how she encourages her primary students to debate life's big questions
I was first introduced to the idea of Philosophy for Children (P4C) several years ago when, as an inexperienced newly-qualified teacher, I observed a practitioner facilitating a philosophical enquiry with my very first class. The practitioner played the children two pieces of music: a natural sounds piece with bird song and trickling water and a chaotic piece with office sounds and distorted voices. The two pieces prompted the children to ask "what is music?"
My relationship with philosophical enquiry began that afternoon, where I witnessed children who barely spoke English and children from incredibly difficult backgrounds debating fervently whether the sound of rain on the window was or was not music.
This is what I had been looking for, a forum for children to share original ideas and to discuss issues that were important to them. They were speaking from their own personal experiences and everybody was not just listening, they were responding and building on what was being said with their own insights. Following the dramatic impact of this initial experience, we decided as a school to embrace this approach wholeheartedly.
Along the way, I've learned a lot too, so here are some useful guidelines on how to facilitate your own philosophical enquiry.
Start each session with a warm-up game
Children need to be encouraged to answer creatively and not just respond with the obvious. A good game for groups new to philosophy is Ask the Bag a Question: put a familiar object in the middle of the circle (a bag, pair of shoes, a chair, a pencil, a globe, and so on) and everybody takes it in turns to ask the object a question.
It's really good practice for formulating questions. It also encourages children to move beyond the obvious (for example, "Bag, where were you made?") to think in a more abstract and where possible, more conceptual, way ("Bag, do you know that you're a bag?").
Set clear ground rules
Ask the children what they need to have a good discussion. It's a good idea to record and display the rules agreed by the group. They might include: don't talk when someone else is talking, look at the person talking and listen until they finish. My first class was incredibly challenging, but within a few months, students' ability to listen and respond appropriately improved almost beyond belief. They began to show respect for each other as contributors and empathy began to be displayed both in the classroom and the playground.
Choose an interesting stimulus
Schools are full of interesting books, objects, images and music that will stimulate rich enquiries; anything that raises questions for you is bound to raise questions for children. The BBC films What Makes Me, Me? are a fantastic stimulus as they draw from stories and ancient parables rooted in philosophy, and provide children with ideas and concepts that lead them to engage in real philosophical discussion. You can also consider using picture books, short film clips, music, artwork, quotation, news articles, and interesting or unusual objects.
Encourage open-ended 'thinking' or 'wondering' questions
Ask children to list 'big ideas' or 'juicy concepts' to support their question making. It's a good idea to build up a bank of 'big ideas' to dip into; an A to Z list works well (so animal rights under A, beauty under B, childhood under C, and so on). I usually start by encouraging children to consider the main themes running through the stimulus and then ask children to draw out the big ideas from the themes. Children are surprisingly good at thinking conceptually (often better than adults!) and once they have been taught to identify 'big ideas', they quickly become skilled in doing so.
Last week, after showing a year 2 class an abstract sculpture, they were quickly able to generate a long list of interesting concepts including: light, peace, shape, materials, which led them to generate the question "Why does art make us feel peaceful?". I think what makes this so special as an approach to teaching and learning is a focus on both thinking and interpersonal skills. Since we introduced philosophy at our school, we have seen standards across the school, including key stage 2 SATs results rise consistently and this year we have been recognised as one of the 10 most improved schools in the whole country. We believe the children's ability to link ideas from different curriculum areas and tackle problem- solving issues (in numeracy, literacy and science) has improved dramatically, raising standards across the curriculum.
In time, children will learn to think in a less literal and more philosophical way
Children new to the subject may at first respond very literally in a philosophical enquiry. Encourage children to probe deeper and over time, they will learn to think in a more philosophical way. It was in a lesson last week when a seven-year-old child posed the question: "Are we here for a reason?" that I was reminded why I am a teacher and why I hold to my belief that all children are entitled to a forum to discuss questions that really matter to them (and not questions that the national curriculum says they should discuss).
Encourage children to respond to each other
Asking if they agree or disagree with previous speakers and probing for examples or reasons are good ways of helping children sharpen their capacity to think critically and build on each other's thoughts during the enquiry. Our children have displayed significant development as critical thinkers and regularly express original and creative thoughts.
Facilitate the enquiry
Giving children the tools, the language and the opportunity to discuss issues that are really important to them and their lives, is perhaps one of the most important skills we can give them. Some useful things to say to facilitate the enquiry could include:
• Do you agree or disagree with what you have just heard?
• Can you clarify what you mean?
• What I think you are saying is … Is that right?
• Can you give an example to support your argument?
It is quite rare, in enquiry, not to be wowed at some point by a child's contribution. Recently a child in a reception class with a number of development issues spoke for the first time in four months when she described what she thought magic would look like if we could see it. It is often quieter children or children who don't access the curriculum as easily, who often surprise me in enquiry with how insightful their contributions are. I think that for children who do struggle academically, the philosophy sessions are incredibly liberating as there are no 'wrong' answers.
Allow time for a final round
Allow everybody in the circle to share a final brief point, either adding to what has been said during the enquiry or commenting on how the session went. Encourage children who have made little or no contribution to the session to share, without rushing to finish the lesson. This approach has had a huge impact on all the classes I have taught and I have witnessed changes I didn't think possible in very difficult classes. I have seen a huge rise in self-confidence, self-esteem, levels of articulation, not to mention increased vocabulary, enhanced problem-solving ability and a willingness to take risks.
Lisa Naylor teaches at Gallions Primary School in Beckton, East London. She consulted on a series of films entitled What Makes Me, Me? And Other Interesting Questions, five short films for BBC Learning providing stimulus for philosophical discussion in the classroom.