Today’s starting student-generated ‘question that your really have think about’ was: Why are drugs used so much?
From a ‘list of reason that really doesn’t end’ to ‘a general search for perfection but not to take to better future but to go back to better past’ to ‘excuse for weakness and making people selfish’ to ‘seeking unpredictability in a predictable life’ to ‘warping consciousness but like many other things that do that’ to ‘taking away the ability to make choices that you have when you are not high’ to ‘changing a person from humanity to primal instincts’ to wondering whether ‘schools make kids take drugs because of all the stress they create’ and then expanding to ‘society the schools are just a part of, is doing that’ and more … again, it was an incredible 40 minute ride at the end of a school week.
What keeps me so attracted to, fascinated by these sessions is not necessarily how deep, insightful, or perhaps technically or factually right or wrong they may be. I simply find that conversations, dialogues like this far easier to have with teens than adults. Any time a curly question like this arises in adult company, usually everyone simply demarcates and defends their turf. How boring! How un-enlightening!
For all the stories about their air-headedness and other ‘faults’, teens are an incredibly interesting people to listen to and talk with.
Quite a few people have asked me for more info about the activity I raved about yesterday on social media and in person. I will spare you describing the incredible satisfaction myself and the students got out it. Let’s just say that the kids by large ‘definitely’ want to do it again.
The activity is called Community of Inquiry (more here ). It is a cornerstone of philosophy and particularly P4C – Philosophy for Children [video]. Philosophy With Children may perhaps be a better way to name it but … never mind. The way I described it to my students is ‘listening and talking in a circle about a question that can have many answers and none of them are right or wrong’.
I deliberately haven’t yet used the word ‘philosophy’ as I know that would cause a number of our students participating nervous about ‘not being smart enough’. This is the usual and insidious brake to philosophy, particularly in ‘low socio-economic’, ‘working class’ [ah, labels…] context like ours. I had experienced it first hand at a similar school in the past.
Our Community of Inquiry (CoI) ran pretty much along the well-established and very helpful ‘script’ by the Australian Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS). I attended the Level 1 training workshop last month (thank you again Alison Freeman & Felicity Haynes, a superb weekend!) and I have been itching to put in to practice what I learned there.
First, we played a simple warm up listening game akin to musical chairs. One participant without a chair stands in the middle and states what ‘(s)he likes’ (Nutella, video games, travel … whatever). As the person finishes stating her like, everyone who likes the same thing stands up and switches the chair with another person (but not right next to them). After a fun and non-threatening few minutes of quick shuffling and bumping, a reminder we have just practiced an important skill we need to show in CoI (listening closely). I showed the simple rules of CoI and it was time to watch the stimulus.
For the stimulus, I picked an old gem shown below. I really wanted to explore the concept of trust and I was confident the clip would generate the questions along those lines.
When finished, students were encouraged to write two to three questions they had about the clip and place them in the question quadrant on the floor. What we were really looking for were the questions the answer(s) to which you ‘really have to think about’ (philosophical questions).
When done, I ran through the questions and pulled out the key themes, concepts they questions dealt with: loyalty, trust, betrayal, choice, social norm, gender … We whittled it down to a single philosophical/ethical question that contained the key concept of trust (sneaky of me there hey 😉 ), had a quick check by vote if that’s what we want to start with and … off we went, starting with a student-generated ‘Is it more important to look after yourself than to be trusted by strangers?’
The community rules were put up around the class and on the floor as reminders and the yellow ‘talking ball’ (you could only speak if you had it) started doing its magic rounds.
What followed was about 35 minutes of incredible dialogue with kids. In the first half, the ball changed hands among about a third of the 21 students present. As the moderator, I judiciously stepped back and merely nudged the conversation here in there for direction and participation. As we came close to the end, I really encouraged students who had not spoken at that point to speak. And they did, insightfully so and having listened all along. In the end, about 15 of the 21 present spoke at least once. Everyone listened though, deeply!
The hour absolutely flew by. To wrap things up, we evaluated our efforts with a simple questionnaire and banter about it. According to the feedback both verbal and on sheets, we will ‘Definitely’ continue doing CoI at our school.
If interested, you can have a look at all the slides, instructions and feedback sheet here. Free to share!
When I reflect about this (successful) experience a number of key things stand out:
Importance of preparation. I worked hard and made sure things run smoothly by preparing not only the materials and activities but also myself in terms of the topic, likely tangents and procedural issues. Unless thought out and done properly, an activity like this can so easily go awry.
Importance of participation but also ‘giving time’. I was amazed by the insights of kids who spoke little but ‘opened up’ towards the end with incredible insights that clearly demonstrated they had listened deeply all along, processing.
Delight of seeing a couple of kids whom colleagues (or even themselves!) may not see as thoughtful, articulate or intelligent, yet they starred and blossomed in front of my eyes.
Escape from school(iness). At the end, I commented on how much I enjoyed the time spent together as equals in this ‘us’ space. It felt like an escape from school(iness) and its usual power relations, concerns and worries. Kids’ comments were along the lines of ‘I never had anything like this’ . I was pleased but also sad to hear that.
Future possibilities. While I am genuinely excited, I am not getting carried away after the first successful CoI. I am however a lot more positive about gradually introducing more of P4C at our school, to the benefit of both staff and students.