One of the best times I’ve had in my teaching career was starting and teaching a Philosophy & Ethics course at a high school – even though the course was choked off in the end, read all about it.
I had taught and truly enjoyed teaching P&E not because I think students should know Aristotle by hand or discuss the merits of Kant but to simply wrestle with the ‘stuff of their world’, vagaries of their daily and long term existence. Stuff like: How to be a good friend? What does ‘success’ mean? What is worth getting upset over and why? Is it OK to lie sometimes or never? Can anyone tell you what to do with your body?
While, again, enjoyable and successful, one of the biggest obstacles in running the course was the running of Community of Inquiry, the central (it seems) plank in the practice of P4C (Philosophy for Children, coined by Lipmann). No matter what approach we tried, it inevitably turned into periods of long silences and A-type personalities dominating the skerits of conversation face to face.
Reasons for that aplenty but main ones were the sense of ‘exposure’ and ‘shame’, lack of experience and value of a ‘rational conversation’ ie dialogue not a win-lose debate, cultural inappropriateness to challenge someone older and more. Over time I realised that this mode of exchange isn’t best served straight up with assumptions of nice, clear, rational, scientific-like discourse but needs to be deployed in context of a particular space and group of people.
So, I’ve learned the lesson …
At my new school, we don’t have or teach subjects as such (see Big Picture). So we don’t and are not going to have a subject called Philosophy and Ethics. But for the last couple of Mondays after lunch, we gathered all the students (and staff!!) in a large room, sat in the circle facing each other and, with no great introductions or statements or goals or procedural reminders started simply started talking about failure.
The rules were simple: Share something you have failed in, big or small. If you can’t or don’t wish to, simply say ‘Pass’ and the person next to you will continue. Well, about 40 of us sat in this room after lunch and shared stuff for an hour ! Previously unheard of!
First few rounds were about failure, then one about how school-related failure, and we then finished with examples of something good that is/has been school related.
This Monday, we ran another ‘circle session’ today. Bit rowdier with more interruptions but even to have these kids in the circle, facing each other and sharing this stuff for about 50 minutes is pretty damn good. And pretty damn insightful, with amazing gems among the trivial, teenage posturing/shyness noise.
I made a promise that things we discussed won’t leave the room and I will honour that. But I felt we started something that for now just tickles the 2 C’s our school is built to empower young people with – confidence and curiosity.
Yes, we will need to think carefully how to walk the line between between the ‘novelty factor’ and ‘booooorring!’ and not choke off the 2C’s with over-structuring things … but I tell you that opening of spaces where kids were game enough (and obviously felt safe enough) to share sometimes quite remarkably personal stories was something very, very special.
And I for one would love to see not (just) what philosophy can do for these kids but what can these kids do with philosophy, how can they use it to recognise their uniqueness, their becoming and what matters to them in the process.
So we are doing Philosophy. Slowly, gradually … just don’t tell anyone about it or call it that way