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Always, Sometimes, Never

This week, a simple activity to elevate thinking beyond specific examples to a more conceptual level.
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Always, Sometimes, Never…
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…is a versatile technique to define complex concepts. Often, when faced with such concepts, children’s first instinct is to give examples familiar and personal to them, such as defining ‘Importance’ by talking about what’s important to them – friends, family, pets, etc. Whilst certainly a worthwhile exercise, simply giving examples doesn’t lead to much philosophical argy-bargy.
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So, what if we applied “Always, Sometimes, Never” to defining importance?
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When we call something important, this means it’s always true that…
When we call something important, this mean it’s sometimes true that…
When we call something important, this means it’s never true that…
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The challenge is created by the fact that “always” requires features, properties and qualities that span across ALL things said to be important, to anyone. That gives a new, critical role to examples, or rather to counterexamples: that test the claim:  “So you’ve said something important is always something you remember. Can anyone think of a counter-example of something that is important but not memorable?” Rather than passively filling out a concept with examples, students are now using examples to make active judgments on abstract statements, in true Socratic style.
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You can use this as an exercise in itself to develop precise and critical thinking, as part of your toolkit in facilitating longer enquiries, or in broader teaching. Consider using it for:
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Ethics: Under what conditions is it always/sometimes/never good to…
Maths: Which of these statements are always/sometimes/never true? 
History: What is always/sometimes/never true of sources written long after an event?
English: What is always/sometimes/never implied about a particular character?
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Best wishes,
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Tom
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PS. If you teach (or parent!) secondary age children in the UK who are intellectually curious and would thrive on some challenges beyond the regular curriculum, Jason is hosting a GIFT weekend in November. It includes the chance to explore that most central of philosophical topics, “The Meaning of Life”, alongside courses in scientific showmanship, silk, storytelling and a World War II strand with courses on the Dambusters Squadron and escaping from Colditz. Details attached.

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