9 minute read
I watched a fair amount of Monty Python recently and it inspired me to get a move on with a Scheme of Work I’ve wanted to design for some time now.
Now, as a blog about Religious Studies, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the Life of Brian that has inspired me to action. Afterall, there is a wealth of material that you could pick out from that film to work with and could really help to develop and drive religious literacy.
In fact, former BBC Religion Editor Aaqil Ahmed spoke some years ago about how poor religious literacy in the UK was hurting comedy claiming that if the Life of Brian was to be made today it just would not work. Despite that it just wasn’t what my pupils needed.
What inspired me was a particular sketch called The Argument Clinic from Monty Python’s Flying Circus - whilst you are undoubtedly familiar with it, I’ll try and give an overview (though mine comes without the wit of this super talented group).
Michael Palin pays for a short argument, he incorrectly enters a room where abuse is hurled at him. He explains that he is actually looking for an argument and is directed to the next room. When he enters the room John Cleese starts an argument with him, a long series of ‘Yes it is’ and ‘No it isn’t’ ensues. Palin finally becomes frustrated and leaves, he goes next door to complain and is confronted by Eric Idle with an even longer list of complaints. He finally moves into Terry Jones’ room where he is hit on the head.
If you can possibly forgive me for stripping all humour out of the sketch then you might have some interest in finding out why it has inspired me.
Around six months ago I completed a Philosophy for Children (P4C) course, it really opened my eyes to how to get students to discuss really complex philosophical ideas. Now, I cannot even begin to fully outline exactly how to run lesson with a P4C methodology - the course I completed was a rewarding and impactful two day course, my school was happy to fund it, given the positive recognition it has received, especially from organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation.
After completing the course I dived into using the methodology, it proved to be popular with the students - I recently surveyed my current Year 9 students and many cited it as some of their favourite lessons from KS3. The problem was that the lessons often stood in isolation - yes, we worked on similar skills, but without the progression that I’ve since learned is essential. I knew that I had to return to this properly, the Christmas break and my near excessive watching of Monty Python presented me with the perfect opportunity.
Here’s an outline of the lessons that my Year 8 students are looking at this term.
“...and Marx is claiming that it was offside."
In our first lesson we start talking about what philosophy is and how we do philosophy. Monty Python is rich with philosophical content, so there was a lot that I could draw upon. However, as a class we look at the Argument Clinic sketch, it is a perfect opportunity to explore how not to argue. Many of the students recognise the sketch as similar to arguments that they themselves have had, making it a great opportunity to address misconceptions that they have.
We stop short of exploring the ad hominems of the sketch, focusing more on the near endless contradictions and we talk about Palin’s definition of an argument, “[a]n argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition”.
From there we look at a short question, ‘We should follow the school rules. Do you agree?’, this is not only a good opportunity to get the students practicing their argumentation skills, but it also serves as a benchmark piece of work, at the end of the course of study they’re going to answer the same question again, they’ll be assessed on how much they have developed as arguers.
We then set out our contract, I let them produce this, meaning it is unique to each class. I give some suggestions as we go along, but it is up to them as a group to vote on what they want to include. It’s important that we refer back to this throughout the unit of work, with the students having the opportunity to add, or overrule, parts of the contract.
After this we have a look at David Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue, for this I give them a visual stimulus and I invite them to discuss whether it is possible to imagine the missing shade, whilst the ultimate aim of P4C is to not constrain their lines of enquiry, I feel that this needs to be brought in gradually. The idea of this is to discuss a philosophical idea and to put our contract into practice. As the discussion will only be short, it gives the perfect opportunity to highlight developed lines of arguments that pupils demonstrate.
If there’s time we have a go at question sorting, a key part of the P4C approach, I provide some sample questions. They’re graded by level of ‘difficulty’, we use a Bronze, Silver, Gold ranking (more so out of pupil familiarity, than a personal conviction that it is the ‘correct’ way of differentiating work).
The first lesson is very full on, but it sets the essential groundwork for the lessons that follow. It’s also the only lesson that requires explicit teacher direction. The other lessons appear much more hands-off, not because they actually are but that the P4C approach is about getting pupils to discuss philosophically, rather than ‘delivering’ information.
When I’ve had classes ‘debating’ before the topic is normally a spin-off from what we have been studying and have focussed more on the content rather than the skill. This time around I’m really focussing on the skills, the topics themselves are still important, but the skills definitely take priority.
With the following lessons, the general format is to present students with a stimulus, this could be a video, a picture, a story, a song, an object, pretty much anything. Pupils are then given an opportunity to create questions about it, this is why the question sorting task from the first lesson is important. I often give them a chance to share questions in smaller groups, with them selecting the questions that they want to present to the rest of the class. Once the class has heard the chosen questions, we sort them and then ones which would be enquiry questions are voted on to decide what we as a group discuss.
There are variations in this format and as the lessons progress, the pupils take much more of a role in leading the enquiry. Given that, I’ll give a fairly brief overview of the stimulus that I show pupils.
I’m really interested in economics - an interest that if I had the chance I’d go back and would have chosen to study it at school. I wanted to students that a philosophical approach can be applied to all parts of life and all subject disciplines. Therefore, in our second lesson we talk about flowers, in particular we talk about tulips. It comes from a stimulus from the Philosophy Man - it is a story based on the Netherlands and their historical love of tulips, the value that they had and the price (in several senses) that many paid for that love of the flower.
This can be a tricky one to start with as students tend to focus their questions around factual elements of the story. This is where questioning sorting becomes really powerful, we’re not saying that questions are good or bad, but we are focussing on enquiry questions. It is a good opportunity to really talk about the questions themselves, rather than just discussing ideas that come from them.
When do we stop being a child?
We all know that our students hate being called children, but many also find ‘young adults’ just as unpalatable. In our third lesson we ask when we stop being a child.
The stimulus for this can come from many different sources - maybe you just want to choose one, maybe you want to present students with several. Given the current climate you could approaching this from a politics and current affairs perspective, looking at voting age. You could tackle it from a scientific perspective, a sociological one, the list could go on. Whatever stimulus you choose, it is important that you approach it as factually as possible to allow pupils to be driving the discussion.
Can robots be persons?
Our fourth lesson also touches upon issues of personhood, we question whether robots can be humans. Students will have the opportunity to learn about the Turing Test - this in itself can be a tricky concept to grasp, so I will ensure sufficient time is given to understanding it as well as presenting a view of what personhood entails (a topic well worthy of discussion itself).
There’s an element of overlap with our previous topic and some pupils really thrive with the added ideas that they have acquired from our discussions around childhood and adulthood.
What does Batman teach us about Philosophy?
In our fifth lesson I ask students what Batman can teach us about philosophy. The stimulus that I have selected is from one of the more recent Batman films, where two boats (one full of ordinary citizens and the other filled with criminals) face an ethical quandary - do they blow up the other boat before the other boat blows them up. Whilst the film shows what the passengers choose to do, I won’t show students (nor ruin the surprise for yourself). It’s then over to students to create and share their questions, before discussing it as a class. I’ve also thrown in a ‘joke’ about Nagel, wishful thinking that one of my students might understand it.
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
Across this scheme of work, pupils have really learned to question ideas, either those they hold themselves, or the ideas of others - luckily without the ferocity that the Spanish Inquisition was known for - although on reflection some would succumb to the questioning from Year 8 far quicker than they would from our famous interrogators from history.
Pupils learn so many skills through this learning journey and the confidence of students soars as they learn how to shape and present their ideas, grappling with the arguments of others and learning how to position themselves to reply effectively.
Importantly, the selection of stimulus can really help to show them that Philosophy isn’t just something that they do with Mr McKavanagh twice a fortnight, it is something that they can apply in different lessons in schools and in different situations in life.
It takes some adjustment in how you teach, but it is worth it when the students come up with ideas that would have left Wittgenstein scratching his head.