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Using Stories in P4C: Losing The Plot

Stories are a powerful stimulus for P4C, especially for younger children. Their story-talk is often much more sophisticated and motivated than their other speech. You can develop the foundational skills of sharing of reasons, listening, agreeing and disagreeing by evaluating a character’s choices, or deciding what you would do in their place. But if children know the plot of a story already, this may skew their answers. “Of course Jack was right to sell the family cow for beans – look where it got him!
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So this week, two ways to avoid what actually happens in the story from killing the discussion. They use “Jack and the Beanstalk” as an example, but they can be applied to any story and work across age groups.
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Was X Y when they did Z?
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Was Jack stupid when he sold the cow for some beans?
Was Jack’s mum fair when she was cross with Jack for selling the cow?
Was Jack doing the right thing when he stole the goose?
Was the giant right to chase Jack when he stole the goose?
Was Jack doing the right thing when he cut down the beanstalk?
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The important thing about all these questions is that they can still be asked after the conclusion of the story is known. Unlike, “Should Jack sell the cow for the beans?” which the story settles in the end as leading to a fortune, they are about what was right or wrong, stupid or brave at the time. There might be a difference between what was stupid at the time and what turned out to have been lucky in hindsight. You could also rephrase all these questions as “was x reasonable when…” to explore the multiple meanings of that word. Can a reasonable action ever be future-proof from turning out badly, or an unreasonable action from luckily working out well?
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Pre-Story Questioning
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You could also ask questions before you tell the story, so that the plot does not loom large. At Kew College Prep. School last week, Reception teachers decided to offer children some ‘magic beans’, and ask:
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Would you take them? If you did, what would you do with them?
Plant them? Throw them away? Give them to their parents? Swap them for something else?
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Questions like these create the opposite of hindsight: children start hypothesising what might happen as a result of each choice, and make up their minds based on a mix of prediction and risk-reward ratio!
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As the story is yet untold, you can add your own little twists to see if they revise their opinions. Here, for instance, you could experiment with different coloured beans. Are responses different if the beans are colourful, rather than plain/dull?
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At the end, you can apply a variation of the first strategy to their own earlier choices: “Were you reasonable when you chose…” They might revisit their opinions, or they might decide that at the time, it was a reasonable choice – you can still “lose the plot”.
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Best wishes,
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Tom and Jason
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PS: Both of the ideas above were developed from teachers suggestions on recent INSETs. After a morning of exemplar activities and discussion about the principles of P4C, the afternoon is devoted to putting these into practice by creating and facilitating mini-sessions with each other. We’re now taking bookings for September INSETs. If this might interest your school, visit www.thephilosophyman.com/p4c-training

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