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Philosophy Out of Thin Air

Doing more with less is one way to progress in P4C. This week, an example of an enquiry with Year 5, starting from absolutely nothing, which provides a structure you can use over and over again to explore important concepts. There are three stages:
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  1. Choose a concept
  2. Identify its ingredients
  3. Explore their relations
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For each stage, I’ve given the sort of language I would use with the class to introduce it. I happened to do this whole enquiry with the group standing up, which helped to make it pacey.
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1. Choose a concept
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You can choose the concept yourself and move straight to stage 2. With younger children, friendship is always interesting.
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“What we need is a big idea to talk about. Something that you can’t see or touch, but that is really important. So an abstract noun like beauty or truth. The sorts of thing that often has an opposite, like happiness vs. sadness. Something where different people have different ideas about what it means, like “success” which can mean different things to different people.”
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After getting a few examples, they can talk in pairs or groups. Hear four or five, politely discard as “interesting but won’t work for this particular session” any suggestions that don’t meet the criteria, then vote: a quick show of hands, not a long ritual.
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In the session I’m recalling, the concept they settled on was “life”.
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2. Identify its ingredients
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“What does it take to make x?” or, the variation I used in this case, “What does it take to make a good x?” Talking about a good life, rather than just life, avoided a rehearsal of biological ideas and moved us on to the list of ingredients pictured below. Capture the ideas on mini- whiteboard. You don’t need as many as this, and my usual rule is to stop at four or five, but this was a particularly rich and complex concept.
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3. Explore their relations
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Must-have ingredients (necessary conditions)
“Which of the ingredients is a must-have ingredient of x?” “If it didn’t have friendship, it wouldn’t be a good life.”
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“Enough” ingredients (sufficient conditions)
“Are any of the ingredients enough for x?” “If you’re happy, that’s enough for a good life.”
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Jointly sufficient conditions
“If you put some of these ingredients together, are they enough for x?” “I think happiness and a bit of suffering are enough, because if you don’t have any suffering you don’t understand people who have difficult lives”
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Counterexamples
“Does anyone have a counterexample, of how you could have x without y?” “Are there any good lives that are not happy lives?”
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Emerging Questions
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Sometimes, as with any enquiry, a question may emerge that takes you past the initial analysis of the concept and becomes the focus. In this discussion, one girl thought that suffering was a must-have ingredient, because if you had never suffered, you wouldn’t have empathy for people who had, and that would make you uncaring about them. “Do you have to have suffered to understand other people’s suffering?” was an interesting question we could have used in a subsequent session, perhaps finding a stimulus to suit the question that had already emerged.
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Best wishes,
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Jason

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