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Philosophy: Sometimes I just sit and think…

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By Sue Jacksonwriter and supply teacher

Using a philosophical approach in subject teaching can help underpin understanding and cultivate independent learning


Philosophy: Noun – the use of reason in understanding such things as the nature of reality and existence, the use and limits of knowledge and the principles that govern and influence moral judgement. (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary –

With the national primary curriculum crammed to bursting point, you may ask, where’s the time to teach philosophy? But in fact, teaching or facilitating a philosophical approach in many curriculum areas develops the thinking skills that underpin understanding, and the curiosity for children to become independent learners.

As well as a way to try and make sense of the world we live in, philosophy can account for a particular system of beliefs that form a religion; it can highlight the way someone lives their life and the way in which they deal with it, or be a group of theories and ideas related to the understanding of a particular subject.

In practising philosophy with children, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator than a channel of information. It’s important to tell the children the guidelines for discussion before you start: there is no right or wrong, just thoughts; everyone deserves to be listened to; it’s OK to change and develop your opinion; if someone disagrees with your opinion it doesn’t mean that they dislike you, and there are ways to disagree with someone else without damaging their self esteem.

Here are three different approaches for raising philosophical thinking in your school.


  1. Take your pick
  2. The talking object
  3. Courting controversy

1. Take your pick

This idea can help to create a philosophical buzz around the whole school. It uses the Socratic Dialogue approach where children reflect and think independently before searching for the truth to a question as a group, listening to and building on each other’s ideas. The aim is to enquire collectively and ask questions, rather than debate and find a winner.

Introduce the idea of philosophy in an assembly. To help the children understand what philosophy is, you could:

  • Invest in some profound thought posters (some are available in the Junior Ed PLUS archive) and put them up around the school. Invite the children to choose one that makes them think the most. You could leave sticky notes next to each poster to give children the chance to write down a thought and stick it on the picture.
  • Tell a philosopher’s life story and the impact they had on thinking. (Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder simplifies famous philosophies and explains their importance).
  • Use different religions as examples of philosophies that attempt to make sense of the world.
  • Read and discuss a story with an ambiguous moral or message.
  • Show three pictures, words or numbers. Invite the children to suggest which one might be the odd one out, and why.

Back in the classroom

Ask each class to go away and discuss the following question: If you could have either more money or more friendship, which would you choose and why? Use real examples from your life/the media/history to illustrate particular ideas to help the children assess the implications. As a facilitator, use open questions as much as possible (see examples, below). Encourage the children to give a reason for their answers, for example: ‘You can’t have too much money because…’

  • What do you think friendship is?
  • Why would you want more money/friendship?
  • Does money bring friendship? Can friendship bring money?
  • How could you get more money/friendship?
  • Can you have too much money/friendship?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of money/friendship?
  • Can we all have more money/friendship?

Other ‘take your pick’ dilemmas for future classroom discussion/assembly themes might include: happiness or truth; fame or fulfilment; brains or beauty; beauty or strength; power or pleasure; freedom or fairness.

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2. The talking object

This is a good Circle Time activity to help stimulate questions. Show the class an object you have bought, were given or found from an interesting place (foreign country, market, antique shop, heirloom) that has a story and says something about you and about life. You could show controversial objects such as coral or shell souvenirs.

Example story: Here is a motorbike model made from nuts and bolts bought in a market in Vietnam. The man who made it lives in a shabby, two-room flat with his wife, children and elderly parents. The parts to make it were stolen from the factory where he worked.

Before you reveal the object’s story, ask the children to pass it around and suggest what the object might say about you. Then, ask them to think of a question about the object. (It helps to remind them of the question words – who, what, why, when, how.) Give the children a few moments to think and write down their thoughts. Then, ask them to guess where the object came from, encouraging them to say why.

‘Introducing philosophy will stimulate children to think, ask questions and explore their curiosity’

Now, explain where the object came from, how it was acquired and tell its ‘story’ (like the example above) and explore any moral dilemmas it poses. For example, should you haggle over the price of the motorbike knowing that the maker is so much poorer than you? Should you buy it knowing the nuts and bolts were stolen? Is it ever OK to buy stolen goods? How else could you help the man and his family?

As a follow-on activity, ask the children to bring in an object from home and use the internet to try and find out where it was made. This could lead into a discussion on sweat shops and child labour (tying in well with studies of Victorian Britain or the Tudors).

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3. Courting controversy

Present the children with a contentious statement. In groups, invite them to think of five reasons why it could be true, and five reasons why it could be false. For example:

  • Rationing was good for your health.
  • Bring back Victorian education: it gave children discipline and knowledge.
  • If I turn off a light, it won’t stop global warming – so why bother?
  • Bullies should be bullied back by everyone.
  • What’s the point of studying history? It’s over!
  • Competitive games should be banned from school because children who lose might feel hurt.
  • If I don’t drop litter, the road sweepers won’t have a job.
  • Children who constantly disrupt other children’s learning should lose their right to an education.

Book character starters

Adapt statements that relate to characters within a story. For example:

  • They should never have allowed Edmund to be King of Narnia after he betrayed his family and Aslan.
  • Harry, Ron and Hermione wouldn’t be such good friends if they didn’t keep getting into dangerous situations.

Encourage the children to debate the statements to invigorate thinking and empathy. Such a session can be used as a starter for writing a balanced argument. However you choose to promote it, introducing philosophy will stimulate children to think, ask questions and explore their curiosity. Philosophy is about understanding how to learn.

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