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Review - Books - Big questions for little people

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 28 January, 2011 | By: Martin Spice

The If Machine

By Peter Worley

Continuum

£17.99

Plato in primary school? Existentialism, moral responsibility and determinism as topics for key stage 2 exploration? Is this book suggesting that primary children can tackle these big ideas? Has Peter Worley ever been inside a school?

The answers are yes, yes, yes and yes. Worley is seriously presenting this material for use in schools and, as the dedications to each topic in the book show, many of them have been trialled and developed in some of London's more demanding boroughs.

If schoolchildren in Lewisham, where Worley began introducing philosophy to schoolchildren, can get to grips with analytic philosophy through the story of King Midas, then so can others. All you need is a manageable group of children, courage, a working knowledge of the methods of philosophical enquiry and a willingness to recognise that nearly all children can handle much bigger ideas than they are normally given credit for. Or maybe you simply need this book.

As befits the work of a philosopher, The If Machine is a very well-organised and thought-out book. While P4C (Philosophy for Children) and other "thinking"-based initiatives can all too easily lapse into rambling circle time, the same charge cannot be levelled at The If Machine. One of the most striking things about this book is its intellectual rigour, its grounding in the work of real philosophers and its implicit belief that children will respond to big and important ideas if they are simply given the opportunity and their discussion is appropriately focused.

However, Worley recognises that most of us will need some help in preparing for such sessions. The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is entitled "How to do Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom". If the list of teaching strategies seems overlong and detailed, it proves to be highly relevant when the material for the children is introduced. I cringed at the term "curious facilitator" to describe the role of the teacher, but Worley's point is valid that the role of the teacher in these sessions is to help the children explore the ideas and not express his or her own. Isn't that one of the skills in any good teacher's kitbag?

The meat of the book is in the PhiE (Philosophy Enquiry) sessions. There are 25 of these and they are preceded by a table of sessions that lists the topics, the themes, the age they are most suited to and a difficulty rating. The material for each session follows a similar pattern. First, Worley outlines the themes for the session and the philosophy behind them for the teacher. He follows with a stimulus story, including some task questions for the class to consider. These questions occur at various points throughout the story and, in all cases, they are explorations of the philosophical ideas that are being introduced. Finally, he provides website references that support the book and provide further background on the philosophers and their key ideas.

This is, I think, a pretty comprehensive package. Many of the stimulus stories derive from classical origins, but these are mixed with the contemporary tale of Billy Bash the school bully and the futuristic Ceebies stories, which use an increasingly humanoid robot to explore what it means to be human. In all cases, the quality of the stimulus material is high and the task questions are engaging and demanding. Without the context of the stories, many of the questions, such as "Do you think the mind is the same thing as the brain?" or "Is it possible to think of nothing?" would be out of reach for primary pupils. But within context, they are exciting opportunities for exploration and I can imagine primary children getting very involved with them. And, Worley suggests, the benefits of doing so will be considerable in "developing transferable skills such as speaking and listening, reasoning, questioning, autonomous learning, as well as critical and creative thinking".

However, in any discussion of teaching philosophy, the last word should be left to the father of the field, Plato. He records that Socrates was taken to court and put on trial by certain powerful citizens of Athens "who disliked his disquieting habit of getting the young people of Athens to think for themselves. He was found guilty of corrupting the minds of the young ... and sentenced to death". So, by all means, buy this book and explore its ideas with your classes - but know that, like Socrates, you do so at your peril.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - PETER WORLEY

Mr Worley has a BA and an MA in philosophy and more than 15 years of teaching experience. He is also the founder of The Philosophy Shop (thephilosophyshop.co.uk), and is studying for a PhD in Plato and education at King's College London.

The verdict: 9/10.


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