Philosophical Drills (…and why we should do them)

“You can bet Messi still does this everyday.”

There probably isn’t a football coach in the world who hasn’t said something like this to a child who, itching to play a match, moans about about dribbling drills. My coaches said it to me and I’ve said it to hundreds of kids I’ve coached (Tom’s writing this one. I’ve not played football in years, let alone coached it – Jason). 

And it’s true. Messi does basic drills everyday. And that’s why he’s regarded as the best player of all time. It’s practically impossible to become proficient at anything without extended, dedicated practice.

I’ve recently re-read Daniel T. Willingham’s excellent book Why don’t students like school?. In it, he emphasises the value of drills to lodge processes in children’s long-term memory – so these become quick and effortless, so that we hardly notice we’re doing them: like tying your shoelaces, or an experienced driver habitually checking their mirrors. Drills reinforce the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced ones.

These automated processes separate experts from others: they have so much stored in their long-term memory, their working memory is freed up for the more challenging stuff. 

So what does this have to do with philosophy in my classroom?

There are many philosophical moves that make discussions richer, deeper and more connected. And these can all become more automatic with regular practice.

But drills have a downside. By nature, they’re repetitive. To lead to results, they have to be. 

How can we reap the benefits of drilling, but avoid the boredom?

The key is building them into competitive or collaborative games. Games where the relentless repetition creates a humorous exasperation and outbreaks of the giggles. Games that create an urge to persist to “beat” the other player, or complete the exercise.

Build on what the last person said – “Ping Pong Proverbs”

Demonstrate with a volunteer. Give/elicit some examples of proverbs, and then construct one alternating one word each with your volunteer. Starting with “always” or “never” is a good idea. Then get the whole group to pair off and construct their own ping-pong proverbs before hearing some of the funniest, wisest or most bizarre. It’s also a good game for overcoming the fear of getting things wrong. Thanks to our camera-man Stephen for his cameo below. 

Rebutting an idea – “Yes, BUT”

One partner makes a suggestion, and the other says why they don’t want to do it. 

“Let’s go to the zoo.” 

“Yes, but I don’t have any money.”

“Yes, but I’ll pay for you” and so forth. 

 One person is using Yes but… to stand firm and resist the offer, the other is using Yes, but… to try and wear them down.

Giving reasons – “Why, Why, Why”?

A good way to make discussions deeper is to simply practise reason giving. Start off with one partner saying something they genuinely believe, with their partner just asking “Why?” after each justification. The asker is just being persistant; the answerer has to continually reach inside themselves for deeper, underlying reasons. 

Keen for more like this? Our Thinkers’ Games minibook is littered with all kinds of “fun-drills” that have a tangible impact on confidence and skills. Find it in our shop

Last call for our free webinar: Classroom metacognition made simple

Thanks to everyone who attended the first webinar a couple of weeks ago. If you missed it, we’re running it again tomorrow February 22nd at 4.15p.m. UK time. We’ll explain how to use the Thinking Moves A-Z framework in P4C and school generally, and share some of activities to make metacognition not only simple, but also fun! Book your space!

Sticky Question of the week

Sticky Questions – a way to do P4C every week in every class. Learn more!

Best wishes,

Tom and Jason

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