A key aim of our Philosophy teaching at St John’s, for children aged eight onwards, is to help them gain an understanding of themselves as learners by developing and using critical and creative thinking skills. The children learn how to structure thinking in different ways, to ask open-ended and searching questions, to consider issues from different points of view, to explore the reasons behind their own and others’ beliefs and opinions and discover what some of the great philosophers of the past have thought. 

As children progress through the school, they become more independent in their philosophical discussions and by Form 4, after an initial stimulus, they are frequently chairing discussions themselves. The chair person’s role is not to give value judgements on the opinions of others, but rather to exercise philosophical skills such as clarifying the meaning of what others are saying and questioning the logic of their arguments. 

In one Form 4 lesson the children were introduced to Descartes’ statement, ‘I think therefore I am’. The children led this into a discussion about what makes us human. They were able to question each other (“Can we know anything for certain?”); explore the definitions of words (“Is human reality what reality is, or are there other types of reality?”); offer arguments (“If you are on full life support, you are like a computer program, but that would be reality to you.”); and counter-arguments (“Am I the only real thing and everyone else is a robot?”). 

In the Lent term, Form 5 helped devise philosophical enquiries to deliver to Form 3. They worked in groups of five or six and used Google Slides to produce three separate 40 minute explorations. The first of these involved investigating what constitutes Art and whether or not a blank white ‘painting’ can be called Art. The second looked into whether or where lines can be drawn between a single object, a collection of separate objects and a ‘pile’ of objects. The final enquiry explored notions of sameness, difference and whether the notions of being ‘one’ or ‘many’ are mutually exclusive. They modelled this by producing a rudimentary sculpture of a human form from pencils, a book and a ping-pong ball and analysing to what extent it can be called one thing, many things, a ‘person’ and so on. 

In the Summer term, the Form 5 children delivered their enquiries on Philosophy Afternoon, each group managing to lead a full class of twenty Form 3 pupils for the full 40 minutes without any adult intervention. The older children remembered having been Form 3 participants in similar enquiries two years ago and used these memories to inform their approach to leading the younger children through the topics under discussion. The sense of achievement was palpable by the end, having experienced a true sense of what it is like to be a teacher.

Do our moral obligations towards each other depend upon our being human or not?

Is there a human / non-human distinction where thought is concerned?

If it were possible to have an artificial copy of your brain created and put into someone else’s body, where is the real you?

We had the chance to act out various philosophical statements. For example you could choose ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, ‘finders keepers’ or ‘beauty isn’t always on the outside’.  We had talked and debated different issues but acting them out was equally as rewarding.