We lit a fire…

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We’re overjoyed that a culture of ‘thinking about thinking’ has taken root at Heatherhill Primary School as a direct result of our Big Questions philosophy program. We’d expected that our eight-week program would ignite students’ curiosity about life’s big questions, but we didn’t dare hope for this kind of catalytic effect!

Teachers have been putting thinking front and centre, and it’s had a transformative impact on the whole school. Philosophy is now an established part of the school’s four-year strategic plan, with philosophical dialogue being incorporated into the mainstream Literacy curriculum.

We feel very privileged to be working with the remarkable teachers of this exceptional government school, a beacon of progressive thinking that is lighting a path for its students.

Throughout Term 1 this year, every student from Prep to Year 6 pursued a dedicated Inquiry unit focusing metacognitive questions. The students’ philosophical investigations culminated in a twilight ‘Festival of Thought’. The school was abuzz with activity for this very special event which attracted hundreds of kids, parents and citizens of the Springvale community.

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A diverse program of performances and interactive exhibits showcased the development of students’ thinking and creativity throughout the school term. Beneath twinkling fairy lights, the school grounds came to life with philosophical puppet theatre, lively ethical debates, dramatic role-plays and art installations, all reflecting the theme of ‘Thinking’.

Undeterred by stormy weather – and infected by the students’ enthusiasm – the community entered fully into the festival spirit. Visitors contributed their thoughts to a tower of ideas scrawled on woodblocks, perused students’ illustrated ‘Thinking Journals’, and pondered questions like “What makes a perfect person?”, “What would it be like to live without laws?” and “How do I know that I’m really free?”

Roving entertainment by students included puppet plays about moral values, a Chinese dragon that posed philosophical questions to passers-by, and provocative ‘thought bubbles’ that challenged viewers to reflect more deeply on the reasons for their opinions.

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The festival transformed casual observers into active participants, keen to share their ideas in words and pictures. Amid a hubbub of excited chatter, students guided their parents through the displays. Visitors were invited to explore philosophical origami and to wander through the Thought-Catcher, a human-scale cascade of weavings and ribbons modeled on a Native American dreamcatcher.

A wall of philosophical quotations displayed the insights of ancient philosophers (such as Aristotle’s “Excellence is not an act but a habit”) side-by-side with insights of the primary students (for instance, “Beauty is being true to yourself”). Another highlight was the unveiling of a striking mural, collaboratively designed and painted by students to represent the values of their school and community.

In a “literature circle”, students took on the personas of different characters in a story and explored a complex narrative from multiple perspectives. They demonstrated sophisticated skills in empathy, oral literacy and argumentation while exploring themes of animal rights, justice, crime, punishment and rehabilitation.

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A philosophical atmosphere permeated the event, from the formal classroom debates to the animated conversations around the barbecue stall. This whimsical and well-orchestrated festival vividly conveyed how important reflective thinking for us all, as individuals and as a society. It reminded us just how much we can achieve with a sense of wonder and a probing mind.

Nearly 2000 years ago, the ancient Greek essayist Plutarch wrote: “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.” We’re humbled to know that our work has lit a fire at Heatherhill, and we hope it will continue to burn brightly for many years to come.

 

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, and training for workshop facilitators. The Big Questions philosophy mentoring program is our flagship in-school program.

 

 

Dear Young Philosophers…

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

… a big part of being good philosophers is being able to hold two or more different understandings in our head at once, and seeing the strengths (and possible weaknesses) in each of them.

It’s been a real privilege to train and collaborate with this year’s cohort of talented undergraduates in the Big Questions program. They’re bringing striking talent and irrepressible enthusiasm to their voluntary roles as ‘Philosophy mentors’ at Heatherhill Primary School, facilitating philosophical dialogues among kids in Years 4 – 6.

We’re now part way through our 8-week program of in-school Philosophy sessions, and we’ve been universally delighted by the children’s gentle supportiveness of one another, especially when sensitive issues have arisen in the course of discussion.

Coming from the world of ‘grown-up’ philosophers, where sometimes people try so hard to look clever that they forget what is right, it was brilliant to see you exercising this kind of respect and care.

We’ve also been impressed by the school’s exceptional teaching and leadership staff: caring and motivated individuals who are genuinely interested in how Philosophy can contribute to the school’s inquiry curriculum.

All this has created a school culture that’s perfectly conducive to philosophical inquiry. We’re excited to continue rolling out our program of thought-provoking scenarios, dialogues and creative activities during the coming weeks, engaging the intellects and imaginations of almost 50 kids from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

As part of our mentor training course, the university students observed and participated in Philosophy classes at the King David School, where Philosophy has been integrated into the curriculum for more than 30 years. The mentors-in-training reflected on these observation experiences, and sent feedback to the Years 3 – 6 students.

… we can all practice philosophy wherever and whenever we are, with whoever we’re there with, whether we call it philosophy or not. All it takes is careful attention to the world around us and a little bit of patience.

I found their feedback uplifting, at times touching, and altogether worth sharing more widely – so I’m including some examples here, with special thanks to the thoughtful and articulate mentors, and to the Philosophy teachers and students at the King David School who so kindly made them welcome.

“Dear Young Philosophers,

Thank you so much for having me at your school. It was really interesting, and not just because it was the first time I’d ever sat in a classroom full of lounges (though that was very cool).

I remember that we looked at a painting by Jackson Pollock, full of swirls and splatters and squiggles, and tried to work out what it meant. You all had very different ideas, and some of you saw freedom in it, and some of you saw violence. What really impressed me was how aware all of you were of one another, and how you were (mostly) pretty good at taking each other’s ideas on board. It was also great to see people providing encouragement and help when it was needed. Coming from the world of ‘grown-up’ philosophers, where sometimes people try so hard to look clever that they forget what is right, it was brilliant to see you exercising this kind of respect and care. I hope you continue to exercise it – it’s the most important thing to remember when we’re working with ideas! Just like the painting we discussed, there will be many situations where different people have very different understandings about what is what, and sometimes they might even seem to contradict each other. This doesn’t have to mean that only one is right – a big part of being good philosophers is being able to hold two or more of these different understandings in our head at once, and seeing the strengths (and possible weaknesses) in each of them. You’re doing exceedingly well at this, so now please keep it up.

Good luck in your future endeavours, philosophers – I’m sure that the skills you are learning will prove to be tremendously valuable, no matter what you end up doing. This is one of the great strengths of what we do – we can all practice philosophy wherever and whenever we are, with whoever we’re there with, whether we call it philosophy or not. All it takes is careful attention to the world around us and a little bit of patience.” – Andrew

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

Illustration by Hebe Gardes

“Going back to primary school, even for two hours, was a great experience… the level of energy and passion for ideas present in your classroom reminded me more of a university class than some of my high school classrooms. I think you’re at a great point in your education when you can expand your horizons and begin to ask important questions of the world, to do with right and wrong, how we learn, and how we reflect critically on what we have learned. If I could talk to my Year 6 self, I’d tell him to keep that enthusiasm through the next few years. Never be embarrassed about being a passionate learner.” – Julian

“… I was taken aback at how articulate you all are, and the level of critical thinking that went on… You were all able to actively and respectfully listen to each other, and build on each other’s ideas. The rigour that you all showed in asking questions about all the different details in the portrait is a hallmark of great philosophising.” – Andy

“… It was really inspiring to see how enthusiastically you all participated in discussions. I was impressed by how patient you all were with each other and I think that makes you great philosophers – as you are finding out, philosophy takes patience. But it can also be really fun, and you reminded me how important it is to play when we do philosophy.” – Carmen

… after seeing the level of critical thinking and philosophical thought that a lot of you had, our future looks very promising indeed.

“… It was incredible watching the students grapple with philosophical ideas, displaying an insight and curiosity that was really inspiring. I particularly enjoyed observing the discussion evolve as the students offered up their various interpretations… The kids demonstrated both a respect for the views of their contemporaries and a passion for interrogating ideas and assumptions. The philosophy program at King David is a real testament to the power and value of philosophical enquiry at all ages.” – Alice

“… One of the things that really stood out to me was how much interest there was in doing philosophy within your classes, even more so than in some tutorials I’ve had during University! … I’m extremely happy to say that after seeing the level of critical thinking and philosophical thought that a lot of you had, our future looks very promising indeed.” – Tristan

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia. The Big Questions philosophy mentoring program is our flagship in-school program.

 

 

A win for Big Questions!

We’re excited to announce that the Big Questions program has just won a prize! It’s the inaugural Prize for Innovation in Inclusive Curricula, awarded by the Australasian Association of Philosophy. It’s both a fabulous honour and a wonderful source of encouragement to have Big Questions recognised in this way by the major professional association of philosophers in our region.

The prize is intended to develop more innovative approaches to teaching philosophy: approaches that present the discipline as accessible to a wide range of participants, that off-set well-known disparities of participation, and that can be expected to improve retention rates of under-represented groups in the profession.

Students at Mahogany Rise Primary School engaging in Big Questions 2013

Students at Mahogany Rise Primary School engaging in Big Questions 2013

In our submission for the prize, we argued that one relatively untapped but very promising avenue for making philosophy accessible to a wide range of participants is to introduce philosophy to children. By providing kids with a grounding in philosophical thinking, we can inure them against widely-held negative attitudes towards philosophy, and promote the value and relevance of philosophical thinking to an otherwise overlooked audience.

By introducing school children to the practice of philosophy through collaborative enquiry, Big Questions builds a sense of inclusive community. It encourages wide participation and enables all participants’ voices to be heard. The program offers kids plenty of other personal, social and intellectual benefits, too, as the students of Heatherhill Primary School will soon discover when Big Questions 2014 launches there in a fortnight’s time.

There is not much point in studying philosophy if there is no possibility of using its insights to make a difference.

Big Questions is unique in Australia in bringing the practice of philosophy to primary school students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It represents a strategic step towards introducing the benefits of intellectual enquiry and critical thinking to communities that have traditionally been excluded from formal philosophical study.

Young Philosophers

And Big Questions is truly innovative: it’s the only program in Australia that connects primary school students with highly trained philosophical thinkers. This offers benefits not only for the students but also for the mentors who work with them: building their confidence, broadening their professional practice and honing their conceptual, communication and facilitation skills. Mentors particularly appreciate the opportunity to apply their philosophical learning to enhancing the wellbeing of the community. One commented:

“Sometimes, it feels like studying philosophy, although enjoyable, does not [provide the opportunity] to be actually useful. This program presents the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives, while doing something that I enjoy… There is not much point in studying philosophy if there is no possibility of using its insights to make a difference.”

We’re keen to continue building a more reflective, articulate and collaborative society through the practice of philosophical enquiry with kids. If you know a school that might be interested in our services, please get in touch!

Please contact us  if you'd like Philosophy at your school. (Illustration by Graham Annable.)

Please contact us if you’d like Philosophy at your school. (Illustration by Graham Annable.)

Meanwhile, I’d like to share here my words of acceptance which were read out at the AAP’s award ceremony last weekend:

I would like to say a sincere ‘thank you’ to the AAP and its Award Committee for this very meaningful recognition of the ‘Big Questions’ program. ‘Big Questions’ is the first school-based initiative of my social enterprise, The Philosophy Club, and this prize is both a great honour and a wonderful source of encouragement.

The practice of Philosophy for Children has had relatively little uptake in Australia. My colleagues and I seek both to widen this uptake and to deepen the analytical rigour of the practice.

We have been working with primary school students in low socio-economic status communities, with the aims of developing the students’ capacity for critical and creative thinking, improving their oral literacy, building their collaborative skills, and igniting their curiosity about the big questions that confront us all as human beings.

The generous contributions of our volunteers – senior undergraduate Philosophy students from Melbourne and Monash universities – have been instrumental to the success of the program. I would like to thank these talented students for the exceptional dedication, enthusiasm and sensitivity that they bring to the task of facilitating philosophical enquiry with children.

I am indebted to the staff of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts – and in particular, the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies – for their ongoing support, and for providing University funding for this year’s program implementation.

I would also like to acknowledge the early support ‘Big Questions’ received from the National Australia Bank, the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the Foundation for Young Australians, which made last year’s pilot program possible.

As we continue our work to bring philosophy and critical thinking to young people in the wider community, our efforts will be revitalized by receiving this prize.

We at The Philosophy Club would be delighted to hear from staff – at any university – who may be interested in collaborating with us on the ‘Big Questions’ program or on other similar projects in the future.

Thank you.

The Big Prize

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia. The Big Questions philosophy mentoring program is our flagship in-school program.

 

 

Onward & upward: Big Questions in 2014

Following the success of the Big Questions pilot last year, The Philosophy Club will be once again bringing collaborative philosophical inquiry to primary school classrooms in 2014. Big Questions remains the only program in Australia that connects school students with highly trained philosophical thinkers, and we are proud of the positive impact that our pilot program had on students at Mahogany Rise Primary School.

Young philosophers

We’re pleased to announce that this year, the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts will be joining our partnership and providing funding and support for the program, and we look forward to recruiting a new cohort of exceptional senior undergraduate students from the University’s Philosophy department. Our comprehensive training program will equip them with the skills and confidence they need to facilitate productive dialogues among school students.

While the Big Questions program is designed inclusively to benefit all students in upper primary school, it specifically helps to boost engagement and aspiration for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and it extends gifted and talented students by providing rich and scaffolded learning experiences.

Our small-group approach to collaborative philosophical enquiry has a transformative effect on school students, empowering them to express their views, examine their assumptions, evaluate different arguments rigorously, and make considered judgements.

We are eager to continue working with primary schools in 2014 to help students develop their capacity for critical, creative and collaborative thinking. We invite schools to contact us to express interest in participating in Big Questions or to find out more about philosophical enquiry in schools.

Young philosophers



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Our philosophical short films

On board the Starship Paradox

Philosophers – welcome aboard the Starship Paradox, the fastest ship in the galaxy! Are you ready for adventure? Hold tight as Captain Artemis Perplexov navigates through the outer reaches of space, with the help of his trusty ship’s computer, Ubik. Their mission: to make contact with our long-lost brothers and sisters of earth, who colonised distant planets hundreds of years ago. Who knows how alien these other civilisations may have become? Fortunately the hapless Captain Perplexov has you – his Onboard Philosophers – near at hand, ready to face the unknown with wisdom, good judgement and an open mind.

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Discover the people of Xeroxica, who love nothing more than lazing around their plasma pools, sipping iced zucchini juice under their twin suns. Meet their easygoing representative Dr Doppelganger, who explains the major breakthrough of Xeroxican culture: If Xeroxicans have lots of homework to do, they use their ‘iClone’ device to make another physical copy of themselves to get the work done, while they laze around the pool or go dancing Gangnam-style with their friends.

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Discover the people of Juridia, who have an impressive record of law and order. Meet their cool-headed representative President Oraclon, who is proud to have created a safe society free from all crime and misbehaviour. She explains the revolutionary technology of the ‘Future Spy’, which sees into the future and stops bad behaviour before it actually happens, sentencing would-be offenders in the Court of Future Misbehaviour.

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Discover the people of Virtulon, who enjoy the freedom of travelling anywhere at the drop of a hat. Meet their preoccupied representative Professor Simulo, who explains why Virtulonians spend their lives plugged into an ‘Experience Machine’. The machine simulates any reality they choose, giving them a sensory experience that is entirely believable, down to every detail of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

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On his planetary visits, Captain Perplexov receives generous and tempting offers to bring the iClone, the Future Spy and the Experience Machine back to earth. These are not decisions to be taken lightly. Careful thought is needed before introducing such powerful technologies into our society. What are the risks? What are the benefits? Philosophers, you are well-versed in the art of deliberation. It is time for you to discuss the issues and offer your wise counsel…

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Big Questions gets young philosophers thinking in a collaborative way about a raft of deep and engaging questions, while having fun in an imaginary universe of zero-gravity waterslide parks, ukelele strumming, Brussel sprout ice cream, and dragon appointments. Participants will flex their critical and creative thinking muscles, and learn perhaps the most important lesson of all: “Never judge philosophers by their height!”

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USAGE

Please contact us if you would like to use these films for educational purposes.

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CREDITS

The Big Questions short films are written and directed by David Urbinder.

Additional material in the first film is by Peter Worley, from the story ‘The Copying Machine’ published in The Philosophy Shop (Peter Worley, ed.), a publication of The Philosophy Foundation.

Many thanks to the wonderful actors who volunteered their time and talents for this project. See left sidebar, from top: Jack Walsh, Alice Cavanagh, Kara Lee and David Urbinder.

Thanks also to Stefan Morrell for granting permission to use his artwork in the ‘Juridia’ scene.

Film music is ‘Life as we make it’ by Olive Musique and ‘My dreams’ by AK Studio, via Premiumbeat.com

Each of the three films introduces a philosophical thought experiment:

  • The ‘iClone’ is inspired by Peter Worley’s story ‘The Copying Machine’, published in The Philosophy Shop.
  • The ‘Future Spy’ is inspired by Peter Worley’s story ‘Nick of Time’ from The Philosophy Shop, based on Philip K. Dick’s story Minority Report.
  • The ‘Experience Machine’ is inspired by Peter Worley’s talk The If Machine, based on Robert Nozick’s famous thought experiment The Experience Machine.

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The Thoughtful Classroom Conference

The Big Questions program was the inspiration for a conference, co-presented by the University of Melbourne and the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations: The Thoughtful Classroom: Teaching to Overcome Educational Disadvantage, held on 2 June 2012 at the University of Melbourne. It was designed to support teachers and philosophers who are interested in using thoughtful dialogue and inquiry to engage all students in learning, including students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. The conference featured presentations and workshops by eminent international and interstate guests Professor Tom Wartenburg, Dr Ron Ritchhart, Professor Lynne Hinton, Associate Professor Phil Cam. Their conference papers and presentations may be downloaded from the FAPSA website.

Professor Lynne Hinton spoke about Philosophy at Buranda State School

Professor Lynne Hinton spoke about Philosophy at Buranda State School

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