The BIG questions

Non-ICT related this evening, but very interesting and excellent for teachers of subjects where asking ‘big’ questions is a fairly regular occurence.

INSET is often a dreaded thing, being reminded that ‘Evey Child Matters’ (wow, I’m really glad someone pointed that out to me, just a shame they took 2 hours to do it) is not necessarily the way I like to spend an hour and a half of my evening. Today though, we had a teacher-led session on Communities of Enquiry or P4C (Philosophy for Children). This kind of links in with the Thunks I posted about a little while ago.

The idea is that we go through a certain routine in order to reach a philosophical or ‘BIG‘ question which the pupils then consider. The point is not to get to a particular learning objective (e.g. pupils will learn that…) but that pupils will become better thinkers, better discussers and will reach a conclusion of their own (note: they may all leave with different conclusions, but that’s a good thing).

Before I forget, here is a basic outline of a P4C lesson:

Before the lesson the pupils will have needed to establish a set of rules themselves – don’t shout out, let others finish, etc. Pupils are best at doing this because they know how they, and each other, work and this way they will have ownership rather than having rules imposed upon them.

The class sits in a circle or horseshoe, wherever they like. Pupils will naturally sit in peer groups so we need to move them around.

Ask pupils to move if they agree with a number of statements (e.g. “it is always wrong to break a promise” – move – “it is wrong to eat peas with a knife” – move – etc.). This will get pupils thinking and split up peer groups. The teacher should take part in this as well, moving some, but not all, of the time. This means that the teacher can also break up some of the peer groups by nicking a key seat šŸ˜€

Give pupils a piece of inspiration (there was a better word but I forget what it was) – a story, a picture, a rhyme, a song – but don’t give them a question! Let them read through or look at the picture and then have them discuss it in pairs or threes. Don’t give them a point to discuss, just let them discuss whatever comes from having looked at/read/heard the item. It might be an idea to wander around the circle doing some paperwork and quietly make sure they’re at least reasonably on task (but be aware that their conversationĀ  may wander around the houses a bit, naturally).

Show the pupils some example BIG questions (be wary of using the word ‘philosophical’ at first in case it scares them – you can start dropping it in as things move on). Some examples might be “why do bubbles form when water boils”, “what does beautiful mean”, “what is the name of the big river running through Paris?”, etc. Have a brief discussion about which ones are good BIG questions, and which ones not so much. And why.

Pupils should then write one BIG question of their own, about the artifact. In a big class it might be less time consuming if pupils write them in their pairs or threes. Perfect opportunity for a Post-It shower.

Read through the questions when they’re all at the front and tell pupils they will have to vote on which one they want to discuss. Make them vote with their eyes shut (having just done this it is incredibly difficult to keep them shut!) to avoid peer pressure. If there is a tie then have a revote over just those 2 or 3 that are tied.

Have your discussion (at last!). You’re probably 3/4 of the way through the lesson now, this is a good thing. If you rush the first sections you’ll end up without the foundations you require and everything will end up crashing down (apparently). During the discussion the teacher is equal with the rest of the group and everyone must follow the class rules and wait their turn. It might be a good idea to have a ‘facilitator’ whose job it is to make a note of who is waiting (on a piece of paper perhaps) and allow pupils to speak in turn. Other jobs (especially for the ‘key leaders’ could be monitoring the best non-shout-outer, taking notes of what was said, etc. It is also a good idea to have a discrete symbol to show you are waiting (little thumbs up?) with an equally discrete acknowledgement from the facilitator rather than a full hands up affair as that will probably distract the waiting pupil.

Be careful to get the balance right between finding new avenues to discuss and keeping the conversation on-task and away from anything too inappropriate. Also, try not to jump in, but allow the discussions to progress naturally.

When the time is up or the conversation comes to a natural close then the pupils need closure to the session. They could each get a chance to summarise in 10 words, blind vote on a consensus, anything you like.

Of course you should then follow the lesson up with some written work next time around in order to cement whatever opinions and conclusions they have shared. The topic could be anything – crime in Citizenship, anything in History, a novel in English, anything at all.

The first few times will doubtless be difficult and imperfect but as the routine beds in they should find they get more and more comfortable with the lesson format. Also, you shouldn’t use this technique every week (obviously) – once or twice every half term (5-7 weeks) was suggested.

No doubt I’ve missed an awful lot out and there are bound to be subtelties in there that neither of us has considered yet but it sounds like a rewarding activity to me. Watch this space…

PS. for more details you can see details on Communities of Enquiries at the Sapere website.

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