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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Philosophy in the classroom: ‘It’s okay not to find an exact answer’ | Irish Times - Education

Photo: Joe Humphreys
"Young Philosopher Awards seeks to recognise critical thinking and communication skills" according to Joe Humphreys, journalist with The Irish Times, and author of the weekly ‘Unthinkable’ philosophy column.


Every Wednesday, teacher Elizabeth O’Brien takes a double-class which has no textbook and will lead to no exams.

Over blocks of eight weeks, 30 students at Our Lady’s School in Terenure, Dublin, push the tables aside and form a circle of chairs.

“In fact, we don’t actually call ourselves a class, we call ourselves a community,” explains Isobelle McLoughlin, a student in transition year.

At the start of the first day, students must listen to each other without talking, what Isobelle describes as “paying real attention to each other”.

Conversation develops, and is mediated with the use of an orange squishy ball passed from speaker to speaker.

Should anyone feel uncomfortable about the direction the dialogue is going they can reach for another prop – a yellow duck – although to date, O’Brien explains, this hasn’t been required.

What’s going on? It’s philosophy – perhaps not as you know it. O’Brien also teaches maths and chemistry but says this subject is like no other.

“It’s different in terms of atmosphere in the room. I don’t think the girls would walk into my classroom at another time and say: ‘This is our maths community’.

For other subjects, it’s teacher-driven content, whereas this is life-driven content; this is reality-driven content–- and the concepts are bigger.

“It’s different as well in that, while it looks quite passive – if you were looking in the window it looks like they’re not doing much – and students don’t come out with bundles of paper, the one thing they all say is that they come out exhausted, as do I.”

Philosophy has long been part of the school curriculum in countries across Europe but only this year has it officially arrived in Ireland – in the form of a Junior Cycle short course that is optional under the revised programme for second and third years...

O’Brien recalls a recent class was very interested in the question of personal responsibility, “and whether you can be held responsible for all your thoughts and actions”.

To get deeper into the topic, she introduced materials and video on Hannah Arendt and her reports on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

“It’s very much student-led. Depending on their interests, and whether they are hungry to delve more in it, we might have a more research-based follow up to a topic.”

The benefits of philosophy have been documented in research overseas. A study at Durham University, which tracked over 3,000 pupils who did a one-hour weekly P4C class over the course of a year, found those from disadvantaged backgrounds improved their reading skills by four months above the norm, their maths results by three months and their writing ability by two months. Other studies highlight philosophy’s ability to develop critical thinking and communication skills.

Source: Irish Times 


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