Through the Philosophical Lens

This experience will never cease to amaze me, just when I think I cannot possibly have another ‘light bulb’ moment it strikes yet again! Today it occurred during a Philosophical Enquiry session at Kailua High School. The first thing I must explain is that this module and the associated curriculum has been constructed from scratch by Dr Makaiau, Dr Miller and a member of staff from the school. It is a dynamic method of teaching pupils social studies through a philosophical enquiry based approach. As you can imagine this has been no mean feat and they are currently in the first academic year of piloting the programme and in the midst of formally getting it recognised as a subject at High School level. I have had the pleasure of attending a number of classes and each time I have attended, I have left feeling awe inspired.

Today was no different and each member of the community was asked to share an example of a life experience, memory or event and link it to the various philosophical lenses: aesthetics, culture, economic, epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, politics, social, interactions between humans and the environment. The experience that I chose to share was my current research visit to Hawai’i.

Starting from the most obvious choice for this beautiful part of the world, I peered through the aesthetic lens and considered the immense beauty of the islands, their people and culture. I thought back to my first moments here and just how genuinely blown away I was by my surroundings. I was equally intrigued by the cultural aspects of my environment and love the general tone and warmth I have received from the people here. My earlier blog posts are a testament to this and I have internally deliberated how much of the effectiveness of the P4C model of Hawai’i is culturally influenced. From my perspective, the cultural values of the island embody the spirit and essence of P4C and it is this unified blend of cohesion that is one of the major contributing factors to the success of the movement. Economically, I have become absorbed in the way organisation of P4C time is distributed through the curriculum and how these decisions are made. The leadership of schools is managed in a comparatively dissimilar fashion to their English counterparts and this has a direct impact on the way in which P4C is cultivated and grown. The role and function of SAPERE in UK is not that different however, the way in which they approach the promotion and subsequent development of P4C does differ. My belief that epistemology lies at the very heart of P4C practice has only been further heightened during this visit. The excitement and underlying tone of eagerness, curiosity and intrigue are sparked by the notion of how do I know what I know and what is knowledge. Relating this to a school context, it is the idea that we are encouraging pupil to push the boundaries of their own and conventional societal knowledge that enthuses me as an educator. This throws up all sorts of big ethical questions and dilemmas that have led me to question what is essentially the right approach for schools to take to educate the future generations? This includes the contemplation of policy, curriculum, content and the desperate need to explicitly link all of these areas to the betterment of the individual pupil and cohorts. Is it time for an educational revolution? And is the education that we currently provide essentially right for the time we are now living in? I cannot claim to have made much headway with regards to possible solutions and outcomes but without a shadow of a doubt, I can certainly proclaim that these fundamental questions and thoughts will influence my future choices and judgments.

Whilst investigating interactions between humans and the environment I could not help but wonder just how much the physical and cultural environment relate to the level of sincerity and friendliness people display. I am sure we have all experienced an increased level of happiness and array of smiles when it is a warm sunny day as opposed to the dull, grey weather we are so often frequented with. There is just something about the extra dosage of Vitamin D that puts an extra spring in one’s step. I classify myself as a deeply logical thinker and I have always found the need to understand why things happen, how they fit together and subsequent consequences and actions. I inherently refuse to take things at face value without having some sort of deeper, underlying understanding. Perhaps this is the reason I find myself so strongly drawn to P4C and all that it represents. Conversing with the P4C team here and developing a detailed insight into how and why they operate the way they do makes absolute logical sense to me. I believe this is one of the primary reasons our working partnership has developed such a strong bond in a relatively short period of time. From a social perspective this has helped me to connect and cement our relationship. Sharing the same ideologies, beliefs, values and thinking has ultimately had a powerful impact on my life. In short the familiarity is like looking at a mirror image.
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The political dimensions of this visit have not been overlooked in the slightest. Although this is a personal, professional blog I have had to be mindful and considerate of the comments I make and think carefully about the ramifications they can have and at the same time remain true to myself and the purpose of the visit. Being here and empathetically sharing the bureaucratic pressure teachers have to face has raised the issue of politics, policy and implementation. In essence the nature of teachers is similar to ‘the nature of children’ (refer to earlier blog post). They face the same challenges and pressures and essentially they share the same love, care and passion for making a positive contribution to the lives of their pupils. It is a universal hallmark for good teaching!

Ultimately, I would like to end this reflection from a metaphysical perspective. Aside from waking up and finding myself on this idyllic, paradise like island and pinching myself to have the realisation that I am actually here, I think about the future and wonder if one day this will all seem like a distant dream. I certainly hope not and I intend to strengthen these bonds over the coming years and decades. I get the distinct feeling that it is just the start of a great big adventure …

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Grass Roots

grassrootsI wanted to start the post today with this poignant image because it is my shared belief that change is most effective when it is developed at grass roots level. This has always been my personal mantra and philosophy which has permeated to all aspects of my life. In a professional context, I have always endeavoured to cultivate a whole team perspective. My leadership style is reflective of this and I strongly believe that people are more motivated by a shared understanding and ownership of initiatives as opposed to a dictator style top down approach.

In my advisory capacity I have had experiences where I have gone it to consult on various initiatives, be it whole school or working with individuals and I have initially encountered a sense of ‘You are so young, I have more teaching experience than you have of being alive so what can you teach me?’. Admittedly, it was not always easy to combat this attitude but I never took it personally or took offense to it in any way, shape or form. I embraced it as an opportunity to build a new relationship and challenge myself a little further and do you want to know the one common denominator that has always helped me to achieve this? … The fact that I can still relate to the teachers or ‘front line troops’ as I call them. When I start to build the foundations of our working relationship, I stress the fact that I have no intention of bombarding them with theoretical jargon that I have read about in a book or an article. Yes, academic literature is fantastic and really helps us move forward but in my opinion, it is the ability to blend the theory with the practice that helps me earn my stripes and gain their trust and respect. I can advise on these areas because I have real life experience of going through the same trials and tribulations. I can empathise with the very immense pressures they face and most importantly I understand that behind data and statistics you find real faces, real children. So when I sit there and scrutinise data, I am ever mindful of the fact that there is a story behind that peak or trough and I make it my personal mission to further understand why. This is why I am fiercely protective of my time in the classroom and although I have extremely high ambitions and dreams for my professional future, I am adamant that I don’t want to lose sight or experience of where all the real work happens, in the classrooms.

So, it is with this backdrop that I would like you to consider the following thoughts. Since I have been here in Hawai’i I have had extensive conversations centred around the theme of policy being put into practice. It echoes the same themes as many of their counterparts in the United Kingdom. In many different contexts there are very real tensions and pressures experienced by teachers that they do not feel are valued. Teacher moral can be driven considerably low because they feel decision makers and people with influence over educational policy do not fully appreciate and comprehend their role. I am sure there are countless teachers who would like to say ‘walk a mile in my shoes before you expect me to jump through yet another hoop’. My observation is that one of the reasons this divide occurs is because some not all people in these positions of power and influence either have no real experience of classroom practice or are so out of touch that they can no longer relate to the role of the teacher. I am completely and fully aware that there are lots of exceptions to this rule and I myself have had the privilege of working with such individuals. So I certainly don’t want to tarnish everyone with the same brush but just to raise the point that this is a real concern felt on ground zero.  I am also appreciative of the fact that many of these initiatives start out as well intended ideas but somehow through the rigmarole of the ‘process’ they lose their true sentiment and become just another tick box exercise to burden teachers even further.

It was whilst I was contemplating this issue that I realised this is one of the fausxpas the P4C team of Hawai’i have been so successful in combatting. They have not fallen into the trap of becoming a team of academics who preach what teachers should and should not do in a P4C context. They have a robust, well thought out process which includes the role of Philosopher in residence that essentially aligns itself to working with and alongside teachers. I am sure this is one of the main contributing factors to the success they have had in appealing to teachers and reaping a receptive target audience. Through the academy I have already had the pleasure of extending my network and meeting lots of individuals who share the same thoughts and opinions as me. I am sure I have already agreed to participate in a vast number of international research projects just in the small amount of time I have been here. It has inspired me to propose an annual or biannual international conference for P4C practitioners who work at grass roots level to get together and share their thoughts, experiences and proposals. I know this is a very ambitious project but in typical Afsheen style it is yet another adventure I look forward to. So watch this space …

The Spirit of Aloha!

Over the course of the past few weeks I have been privileged enough to experience an immensely warm welcome from the people of Hawai’i. This has not just been limited to the remit of colleagues but it is embraced by most people I have come into contact with: parents, pupils, support staff, receptionists, shop keepers, waiters, virtually everybody I have come into contact with. It certainly took some getting used to in the beginning as I was not accustomed to complete ‘strangers’ instigating a genuinely meaningful conversation with me. I have been pleasantly surprised by how deeply affectionate and caring people are here. It strikes me as a cultural value that is instilled in this society and leads to the creation of a real sense of ‘community’.

I can honestly say I have had less inviting conversations with people I have known for years and years. I have been in the fortuitous position of travelling to a number of countries but never have I experienced anything quite like it. The sense of unity and ‘togetherness’ shines through and encompasses the notion of ‘ohana, the Hawaiian word for ‘family’ that extends the exclusivity of blood relatives. This results in a cultural appreciation of groups of people working together with a common bond. Nowhere is this more prevalent that the P4C family of Hawai’i! In a sense I feel like I have known these people for a lifetime. The topic of P4C has helped us bond on a profound level and in the words of Dr J we are experiencing a sense of ‘kindred spirits’. It is such a unique and life changing experience that I would go as far as to say that it does not feel like ‘work’ at all in the traditional sense of the word. It is an absolute joy to be given the precious time to immerse myself whole heartedly in P4C with a team of uniquely talented people who I connect with.

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The more time I spend observing P4C and having discussions about it, the more I come to the realisation that a greater emphasis should be placed on the ‘community’ aspect of philosophical enquiry within my own practice. It is this emphasis that really sets the Hawaiian method apart from other models of P4C. This practice is much more than a rule or code of conduct, it is deeply entwined in the pedagogy of what is taking place here. During one of my treasured conversations with Dr J he said “To me philosophy means community, not the western sense of individuals contemplating and thinking. Yes, we want that aspect but it is the profound sense of children coming together collectively to think together. People that just used to be faces now become real people. The schooling agenda is so much about what adults think children and young people should be learning. If you ask the children what they want they often say it is not about ‘now’ we are always preparing for the next grade”. Which leads me to one of the other fundamental pillars of P4C Hawai’i – of not being ‘in a rush’. Great care and time is taken to ensure that pupils are not rushed through an enquiry or feel pressurised just to get things done. From many formal and informal conversations with the pupils I can verify how much they sincerely appreciate this time in an environment where they are often pressurised. Pressurised to get good grades, pressurised to sit through exams, pressurised by a heavy timetable, pressurised to identify the next steps, pressurised to perform, it is an endless cycle. What a relief it is to then be presented with an intellectually safe environment which is not rushed in any way just to discuss the things that are pertinent and imminent for them. Out of this environment is born a ‘sacred’ place where pupils truly feel safe, secure and confident to share their thoughts without being rushed. Dr J illustrated this point with a story that I found deeply moving. It is the story of a young child (aged five) who witnessed the murder of his father. What a devastating ordeal for anybody to go through let alone at such a tender age. Following this tragedy, the child was taking part in a P4C lesson. The community ball was passed around and the children voiced what they wanted to talk about. This particular child said ‘I want to talk about death’. He was not instructed or influenced in any way, it was what he genuinely wondered about and the idea of what happens after death. The class happened to vote on this particular wondering and he told the group that his Daddy had passed away and he missed him. However, he met him every night when he would fall sound asleep and meet him in the world of dreams. They would play and laugh and talk together but when he awoke, Daddy was not there and he missed that… The session went on and the children continued to talk about the subject but I will leave that particular story there for now. As I heard Dr J retelling me this story I could not help but feel a wave of emotion wash over me and then I placed myself in the position of this child. WOW! What a potentially transformative experience for this child to share something so intensely emotional and private with his peers. Without being probed or prompted to in any way. For me this story conceptualises the power of the community, the value of not being rushed and that connecting notion of ‘ohana. For me, this approach resonates the essence of why I decided to become an educator. To make a meaningful difference to the lives of children and young people.

‘We are born to unite with our fellow men, and to join in community with the human race – Cicero’

Extending Boundaries

Being half way through my journey seemed like a natural time to take stock and reflect on my research aims and objectives. During one of my many endless discussions with Ben, he asked me ‘How has the experience been for you so far? Have you started to cover most of the things you set out to?’ In short, I couldn’t answer this question as easily as I thought I would have been able to. The experience has far surpassed my initial expectations and the best I can do to describe it, is give you the analogy of setting out to find a lake and coming across a vast ocean! I took this opportunity to really think about getting the most out of my research project and utilising the unique P4T sessions to their full potential. Ben gave me free reign to lead a session and generate a supporting enquiry that will help me develop the project further. So it comes as no surprise that I wanted to share my vision of pushing the boundaries of P4C as a subject in isolation and embracing it as an approach to teaching. What I wanted to know from the teachers was, whether they were witnessing a natural crossover approach stemming from their P4C sessions and branching out into other areas of teaching and learning. The response revealed a strong sense of liberation felt by the teachers, propelled by the empowerment students had initially found in P4C sessions “Since doing P4C, I feel the pupils are different. They tell me that it affects their whole life: home, school and social contexts. It is validating for them to be able to talk about what they are interested in. They don’t have to be an A* student or expert to be heard”.  We spent a large proportion of time discussing the learning environment P4C creates and how this promotes and sustains a climate which is conducive to learning. The group inadvertently raised a completely valid point about the possibility of the approach only being appealing to certain types of teachers. This is something I have often wondered about myself. Do I enjoy this style of teaching because I am naturally inclined to philosophical thinking? Or is it something that can be ‘taught’ to others through the use of training days and seminars? We came to the conclusion that in actuality it was probably a combination of both, teachers find tools they are more and less confident with. Both Ben and I shared our experience of working with ‘good’ teachers whose practice was further enhanced by adopting the P4C approach to validate this assumption. As the enquiry progressed what became very apparent was that there was a perceived tension between the use of P4C and teaching syllabus content from the teachers perspective. I have to say, for me as an individual this has always been a ‘false’ tension because P4C sessions are often layered with factual and contextual information. If all we ever did was conduct philosophical enquiries in a P4C circle all day every day the students would become bored and the approach would lose some of its charm. As a teacher, I use my professional judgment to guide my decision to use this approach in a variety of different subjects: Science, Art, Design and Technology and the list goes on. I have personally never dissuaded my students from contributing ‘factual’ information to the discussion because this is often the component that helps the whole community gain a more informed comprehension to push deeper with the enquiry. Sharing this experience with other members of the community seemed to be very beneficial and a number of individuals mentioned how helpful it had been in making them realise that there isn’t a ‘one shoe fits all approach’ to P4C facilitation. Following my earlier blog post on assessment and P4C (A Personal Journey…) it was interesting to note that the group also bought up the issue that exists between P4C and assessment. This was certainly a shared tension amongst the group. There was a lot of talk about the lack of ‘hard’ data evident for P4C as opposed to other subject areas. However, having said this they were full of lots of different ways this could be measured in a more meaningful manner:P4C creates a better classroom atmosphere therefore you could refer to classroom behaviour and associated referral data to measure if the pupils are more engaged, correlation between P4C and other data and for this particular school, the attendance data. The general consensus amongst the group was that there had undoubtedly been an increased level of attendance particularly amid the most vulnerable pupils. They felt this could largely be attributed to the sense of school connectedness which has been born out of a whole school approach to P4C. As a P4C advocate, I was particularly pleased to hear this and it has given me further hope to have courage in my convictions. I left feeling even more determined that P4C as an approach to teaching should extend the role of a subject in isolation and extend the boundaries as a philosophy of education.

Pupils and Politics

Today I was extremely excited to be accompanying Dr. Amber Strong Makaiau to the 2014 High School Legislative Intern Program. It really was as stimulating as it sounds. It is a unique educational opportunity that allows pupils to have a hands-on learning experience in the legislative process. The experience gives pupils an understanding of how laws are made and the importance of participating in democracy.

The session started in the authentic P4C style complete with a community ball. The pupils were asked to share their personal view DSC_0621of the program so far. The response from the pupils was overwhelmingly positive and they clearly felt privileged to be a part of the program and were appreciative of the opportunity it gives them to be involved with legislation. In the words of one pupil “It changes your belief that the government is unapproachable”. I felt a real sense of commitment from this group as a community and it was inclusive of all participants. In many ways it represented the coming together of Hawaiian citizens. On more than one occasion pupils from neighbouring islands commented on the wonderful experience it gave them to be a part of this uniquely inclusive group of individuals. This for me signified yet again the importance of creating a ‘community’ which is so beloved to the Hawai’i model of P4C. The presence of teachers, department of education (DOE) representatives, pupils and the senator really helped to dissolve barriers which can and do exist even within democratic models of power.

The focus of the enquiry was rooted around a compelling question which guided the focus of the DSC_0623discourse today: Assessing the extent to which the Hawai’i State Legislature has sought to promote American values such as common good, equality of opportunity, and individual rights? The ultimate purpose of this exercise was to prepare the students for an upcoming submission which will culminate in a published article in a state newspaper. What a fantastic opportunity for these young people to be actively involved and engaged with their government and share their thoughts and opinions in a public arena! Dr Makaiau assumed the role of facilitator and helped the students to examine past editorials in order to scaffold support using strategies from The Good Thinker’s Toolkit such as using examples and evidence to supplement their claims. This could potentially have been a very dull session however; it was refreshing for me to see the approach she took to undertake this exercise. She didn’t just hand them examples and go through what they should and should not include in their submission. She opened up the floor to an enquiry model. This encouraged the pupils to critique the exemplars in a meaningful manner. In my opinion, it is a highly sophisticated approach, one which pushes the boundaries of conventional thinking and gives the community the opportunity to bring up poignant comments that perhaps even the adults had not thought of. This authentic approach gave way to one student expressing his personal view on ethical sensitivity and raising the questions: Should we be passing judgment on campaign strategy? Should we be sensitive to the views of others? How critical can and should we be? Is this fair to other constituents? This led to the development of an intriguing narrative amongst the group which raised a number of key points. The discussion that followed not only helped them seek points of clarification in preparation for the article but also gave them a much richer, deeper understanding of the privileged position they find themselves in. The chance to have their voices heard by those in power!

I left with a wealth of inspiration which has encouraged me to further explore the potential of tapping into the power of pupil voice DSC_0626through the use of P4C facilitation. What I witnessed today was so much more than a token gesture to show politicians and pupils working together. This is a genuinely organic process which deeply cares about actively educating these pupils about their civic rights and duties. It is building a bridge between the people in power today and the future generations in a way that is informative and exploratory. I almost wish I could have been one of the pupils in this cohort to benefit from this exceptional life opportunity. It has left me with a desire to ‘think big and dream big’. I feel empowered to propose that we should adopt a similar approach not only in a school context but branching out to liaison group clusters and county wide. After all, as educators we constantly talk about initiatives, schemes and programs that will benefit the pupils but would it not be far more beneficial to create pupil driven enquiries around these issues!

A Personal Journey…

This is a post I have deliberately been delaying because it is a bone of contention for me and I’m not entirely sure I have the words to convey my thoughts in their entirety. I have spent endless hours debating the premise of assessing P4C and how best to do it. To be perfectly frank, I’m still not completely convinced one way or the other but as a strong advocate of P4C I can see that assessment has its value in showcasing the success of P4C.

So I’m going to start in typical Dr J style by telling you a personal story… From the very early days of becoming a P4C practitioner, I knew that this was a style of teaching that resonated completely with my own personal philosophy on what education should be. It fit me like a glove and the more I taught it the more infectious it became. I loved the shift in balance from teacher to pupils and watching them flourish as they took more and more control of their learning. It created a strong sense of community within the class and led to the generation of many ‘wow’,’ aha’ and ‘hmm’ moments. As a teacher, it gave me an immense sense of joy and contentment to see the pupils so engaged and enthralled by their learning journey – this was the reason I decided to become an educator and make a real difference to the lives of children and young people. Colleagues came to hear of this practice and over time more and more people began to come and observe my teaching of P4C. Before I make the next statement, it has to be said that my Head Teacher is the most supportive ally one could wish for. She has always held a well balanced view of education and is a great visionary who has been a staunch supporter of developing this approach. However, from a logistical perspective, we could both see why we needed to think about showing the ‘impact’ of P4C in a wider context. How could this be measured or assessed? What would that show us? What does progress within P4C look like?

These were incredibly difficult question fraught with a myriad of complexities. I found myself pondering how can I measure the process of thinking accurately? Just because a child may not be vocal in a session does that mean they are not engaged? How can I measure this effectively for the range of pupils in my class? To say there was an easy answer to any of these questions would be a huge understatement. I spent some time with a Specialist Literacy Consultant and a School Improvement Advisor trying to come up with a collaborative model which would help us to conduct assessment for learning (AfL). After examining various approaches and models, I came to the conclusion that trying to create a framework for assessing P4C was like subjecting it to a straightjacket. Part of the magic and wonder of P4C is that it is a multifaceted mesh of skills, attributes and dispositions. You can’t necessarily unpack individual strands of thought and analyse them against a metric. The components of P4C are complexly intertwined and bound together they create a holistic spectrum of learning in its many forms. For me witnessing the richness of dialogue is like the opening up of doors to allow you an insight into their depth and breadth of thinking.

Sitting here with Ben today, we are discussing my upcoming meeting with the P4C team at the academy and one of the items up for discussion on the agenda is assessment. Just talking Ben through my journey thus far has given me a chance to reflect and take stock. We have a shared approach towards genuinely wanting to promote the practice of P4C and in order to do this we are keen to develop an evidence base and the possibility of some type of assessment, as long as it does not infringe on the authentic characteristics of P4C. Although I have made some advancement with the use of floor books and strategic deployment of support staff in this context, it is an area I continue to battle. If there is anyone out there who is reading this blog with any thoughts please get in touch. I would love to hear from you …

 

Creating a culture of Philosophy

Philosophy for Teachers (P4T) – As soon as I heard about this initiative I instantly became excited. Regular P4T sessions are conducted in each model school and take place on a weekly basis. They follow the same process as a regular P4C session, in as much as, there is a strong emphasis on the ‘Pillars of Philosophy’: community, reflection, enquiry and philosophy itself. They were designed to offer teachers an additional support network and also give them an opportunity to develop their personal knowledge and understanding of Philosophy as a subject in its own right. The practitioners use these sessions to talk about their personal reflections as well as basing their enquiries on philosophical and educational texts and extracts. It has to be said that the UK teacher led approach to P4C is a global minority. Most if not all other P4C models are driven by people who have examined the study of Philosophy at doctoral level. This undoubtedly shifts the dynamic of teaching P4C but to what extent? I can personally make strong arguments for each approach but the ideal situation would be to have both. This is where the UH Uehiro Academy are incredibly fortunate to have practitioners like Dr Chad Miller and Dr Amber Strong Makaiau who are trained teachers and have doctorates in Philosophy. I too would like to join the ranks of these professionals by undertaking a PhD in Philosophy at some stage but that is another story in itself.

I can see, without a shadow of a doubt, the intense benefit of having the knowledge and understanding of somebody who is well versed in the study of Philosophy. I know from my personal study that the more information I have learnt and acquired, the more I have seen a growth in the sessions I lead. As Ben described it, being well versed in Philosophy gives you a metaphorical map which provides you with a greater insight into the various areas of enquiry you can explore and a richer understanding of the different philosophical lenses you can apply to view situations including epistemology, metaphysics, logic and ethics. However, in my opinion a person who has studied the intricacies of Philosophy is not necessarily going to make a good teacher. The act of teaching is an art in itself that needs to be studied and honed. Yes, being highly knowledgeable helps considerably but it cannot be taken as a given that it will lead to good teaching.

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This is why I am so impressed by the idea of ‘skilling up’ teachers through the use of P4T. Having observed a number of sessions taking place in different settings (Elementary – High School) has left me deeply inspired. I posed a simple question to each group of teachers: How do you benefit from P4C and P4T sessions? The response was overwhelmingly positive and I got a real sense of genuine commitment from all of these teachers who want to become better P4C practitioners. It is something they buy into and want to better for the sake of the children. This notion is ultimately cultivated from a well intended sense of moral duty! The P4C format has also been adopted by some schools to make faculty decisions because it provides a familiarly supportive environment which encourages critical and creative modes of thinking. Some teachers described it as a part of their school culture and sense of identity. They were also grateful for being given an opportunity to network with other colleagues and simply share their experiences. I feel this sense of peer to peer support cannot and should not be undervalued. They talked about having faith in the community and the intellectually safe atmosphere it provides them with to validate their own practice and garner new ideas from one another. The benefits of this approach also extended to dissolving barriers between pupils, departments and year groups and creating a holistic culture of empathy, understanding, sharing and open dialogue.

If I ruled the world…

It was back to Waikiki Elementary School today and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time revisiting two of the classes from last week. The novelty of the accent has started to wear thin and this meant we could dig a little deeper in the P4C sessions. I mentioned it in an earlier post but the focus of my observation today was the generation of questions without a stimulus! At first this practice struck me as unusual because it’s not a format I am personally used to working with. However, I can attest to the fact that it most certainly has its advantages and I would even go as far as to say that it creates a sense of liberation. The wide variety and range of questions has an instant level of genuine response from the community and therefore they commit to the discussion with a more focused authentic approach.

The only prompts they were given at the beginning of the session was a set of sentence starters to help them formulate the questions, should they wish to do so: Is it true, What are the reasons that, If then, What if, What do we mean by and Can I assume. One of the really impressive elements of this session was the fact that a pupil took the lead role in facilitating the entire selection process. It was second nature to her and she fulfilled the role effortlessly, her mindful approach reflected the school values and demonstrated that this practice was a regular feature of school life as opposed to something which had been put on for show.

The question that was selected by the group was if you could rule the world what would you do and why? The instant response to this question came from a boy who suggested that he would make the world a better place by putting a stop to crime. This is a theme which was revisited several times during the course of the discussion. The pupils then went onto questioning one another to probe for further reasoning and understanding: how would you make sure this happens? They thought of some unique ingenious ways of solving this problem which opened up a plethora of ethical and social issues. One girl stated that she would eradicate the ‘criminals’, the ‘bad’ people by sending them to space because she wouldn’t have the heart to kill them. To which another pupil pointed out that this would be just the same as killing them because they would be facing certain death in those conditions. The historical reference of criminals from England being sent away to far away places such as Australia was also mentioned and this helped to build another layer of discussion, one that was rooted in factual information. The fact that these individuals then went on to create their own ‘civilisation’ was also discussed and this was a ‘eureka’ moment for some pupils, who realised at this point, that perhaps things weren’t always as black and white as they seemed. Some pupils also voiced that they would ‘program’ the population to become good citizens. Although this comment was well intended, this response drew a sharp intake of breath from one particular pupil who seemed to be horrified by the idea that humans could be programmed like robots. What about their freedom of choice? He asked. After several minutes of reflection, he then went onto making an even more poignant remark ‘it would be like creating a system and there is no such thing as a perfect system. People would find ways to break it and then you would be no further forward then where you started off. Can people be truly happy without having the freedom of choice?’ Wow! What a thoughtful response! Prior to this proclamation, this child had sat there quietly for a period of twenty minutes or so without showing active signs of engagement but he had been following the conversation intently and was reflecting on his own thoughts by putting pieces of the puzzle together. This is one of the true joys of P4C and yet it cannot always be measured or put onto a chart but I won’t go too much into it, as that is another blog in itself.

Some children even took the standpoint that they wouldn’t want to rule the world because ‘you can’t please everyone all the time’ and for the fear of not being liked, they would give up this lofty position of power. Besides, some thought it would be living in vain as it is an unrealistic target ‘many have dedicated their lives to it and failed’ but does this mean we should stop trying and give up all hope?

It truly was a joy to witness such deeply profound thinking taking place and again left me feeling privileged to be a part of it. I came away from today with a sense of urgency and excitement to try out this technique in my own practice. Truth be told I believe both methods, with and without a stimulus, have their own respective merits and I look forward to using a wider variety of techniques.

The comparative role of the facilitator

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Having had the chance to shadow both Ben and Chad over the course of the past week, I have come to the realisation that there are some distinct differences with regards to the role of the facilitator within the P4C sessions.  I have personally struggled with an internal conflict of facilitator involvement for a number of reasons.  As anybody who knows me personally will know, I am hugely passionate about Philosophy and relish every opportunity I get to talk be it work, politics, fashion, current affairs or just a chinwag in general. So the two elements collectively provide an irresistible combination of dialogue for me to be lured into. As a practitioner working in particular with young children, I have often had to take a ‘dissociated’ position with regards to the content of the dialogue that is taking place. This can be a necessary action, especially if the children hold you in high regard and are influenced by your contribution. In the past I have been successful in becoming a fully-fledged member of the community with equal weighting, not an oracle like superior authority who holds all the answers. However, this position was only attained after subsequent skills had been taught and the growth of the community was at a certain level of maturity and understanding. I have also had the experience of assuming the position of ‘Devil’s advocate’ to open up the discourse and promote further dialogue.

Following my observations, it has been refreshing for me to see both Ben and Chad take a somewhat different approach. They both become ‘participants’ within the enquiry and this has been done at relatively early stages of community development. To my surprise, even when working with young children, the community aren’t seemingly influenced by the facilitators personal thoughts and feelings, in the sense that the children do not feel they need to necessarily be in agreement with the facilitator. When I discussed this further with Ben he highlighted the fact that equal emphasis is placed on the ‘community’ and ‘enquiry’ aspect of the sessions as opposed to some models which focus more heavily on the enquiry stage. It has become apparent to me that the role off the facilitator is not distinct from the community itself but it is an intrinsic component to model the role of a good participant. The modelling of this process must be rooted in genuine interest, engagement and commitment to the dialogue.

Having had the opportunity to be actively involved in a number of philosophical enquiries since I have been here has been one of the real highlights of the visit thus far. I believe one of the reasons I am so passionate about the subject is because I don’t tire of ‘wondering’. As far back as I can remember I have always had an innate sense of curiosity and inquisition which hasn’t dwindled with time. No matter how many times I sit in on enquiries I always feel a sense of contentment and growth. Being here has allowed me to hone my own skills and offer my own contributions to the community which are merely put out there as ‘suggestions’. The more I have actively participated in the sessions in this manner, the more confident I am becoming in applying the same practice to my own context. It has given me the faith to have courage in my convictions and embody the ‘we is bigger than me’ philosophy.

The Art of Thinking

Meeting the locals and enjoying all that the splendid island of Oahu has to offer DSC_0391brought about the discussion ‘what do you do for work and what does that entail?’ I often get asked this question and it becomes all the more intriguing when I mention P4C. Some people logically reason that it is about teaching children about the great philosophers: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and the like. For others it conjures up images of ‘sage’ like beings who constantly walk around in a state of bewilderment and wonder. And some are purely perplexed by this strange notion.

For me, as an educator, it makes absolute perfect sense to dedicate time to the art of teaching children how to think. We spend hours, months, years teaching children how to read and write yet the same attention and time is not typically allocated for thinking. It is often assumed that thinking ‘just is’ we do it all the time without even being consciously aware of it so why do we need to ‘teach’ it? I use the term ‘teach’ loosely because in reality I believe as P4C practitioners, we facilitate the discussion rather than the traditional method of ‘teaching’. Well, I would argue that just as artists refine their brush strokes, architects plan their designs carefully and authors rewrite their scripts numerous times, the process of thinking is one that needs to be practised over and over again.

The vehicle of P4C allows us to create a thinking culture which promotes individual thought as well as collective thinking as part of a group. This is where ‘intellectual safety’ comes into play. Since being in Hawai’i I have heard this phrase being used on a countless number of occasions by teachers and pupils alike. However, it wasn’t until I met the highly regarded Dr Jackson today that I really began to understand the significance of this concept. Dr Jackson was kind enough to let me sit in on one of his P4C seminars at the university,  made up of a combination of educators, undergraduate and graduate students from different disciplines and all walks of life. In preparation for his upcoming TEDx talk, he gave us a sneak preview of his speech and allowed the community to conduct an ‘enquiry’ about it. Here was a highly acclaimed professor giving his students free reign to critique his work. They could tear it to shreds, construct and deconstruct as they desired… but they didn’t. Yes, they suggested many changes that could be made and there were differences in opinion amongst the group but it was all done within the parameters of an ‘intellectually safe’ environment. That is when it hit me here was a prime example of learning taking place in an ‘intellectually safe’ community. Too often in classrooms there is a sense of fear and anxiety to say the right thing and get the correct answer, the one the teacher is looking for. What Dr Jackson has successfully created here is a space which eliminates the sense of fear and creates an environment which is conducive to freedom of thought. It gives people the chance to tap into their inquisitions and wonderings and have the courage to discuss them without fear of being judged by their peers or indeed by him. It creates a sense of openness that cultivates a strong connection within the community which allows people to appreciate each other’s opinions in a respectful manner and make way for alterity.

P4C is so much more than sitting in a circle and talking about randomly controlled topics. If we can provide students with an ‘intellectually safe’ environment, we will be giving them a treasured gift, a life skill which will undoubtedly hold them in good stead.  The art of thinking isn’t one to be reserved for the shelves of a dusty philosophy shelf but we are in dire need of it as a global community. You only need to look at the number of people being diagnosed with depression and other associated mental health issues. As idealistic and naive as this sounds, I believe through the use of P4C approaches, we can preventatively remedy some of these problems by educating the next generation to deepen the quality of their thinking. I will leave you with a message that I believe is as pertinent today as when it was written:

‘All which school can or need do for pupils, so far as their minds are concerned … is to develop their ability to think’’

John Dewey (1916)