Philosophy 4 Children

This week on Sunday and Monday I took part in Philosophy 4 Children training at our campus. One of our curriculum objectives in Secondary is embed the concepts of Theory of Knowledge (a core component in the IB Diploma Programme) horiztonally and vertically through the Secondary Curriculum. The TOK course is concerned with developing students conceptual understanding of how knowledge is produced and utilized across the subject areas. It challenges kids to think about how knowledge claims can be justified and supported.

At the same time, our primary colleagues have been exploring how Philosophy for Children (P4C) can be used to improve children’s abilities to reason, justify and explain their ideas about broad topics.

One of the benefits of working in a K-12 school is that we can combine PD between Primary and Secondary which allows for some eye opening sharing of teacher classroom practice. This training provided a good opportunity for me as a curriculum leader to not only learn about P4C as a concept and teaching tool, but also to see how it might enable Secondary teachers to get a better grip of managing dialogue and understanding of abstract concepts in the TOK course.

During the training we encountered a variety of warm up activities that can be used to get thinking and discussion going, as well as a full P4C inquiry which is a structured 11 step process for generating a conversation about an abstract question. I am not going to write up all the activities that we did in this post as I tweeted an ongoing thread throughout the training detailing all of the tasks we used.

The first observation I had was that the P4C model of inquiry is highly structured, providing a scaffold for all learners (teachers included) to work through their thinking about a topic. Following the 11 steps from a real stimulus to a discussion about an abstract concept allows even someone who is relatively unconfident in this area to succeed in generating thinking and discussion.

Commentators who were following my thread were quick to point out that int there experience, P4C training was some of the best training for TOK teaching that was available.

Indeed, it became immediately apparent to me that the 11 step full inquiry is a perfect model for generating knowledge questions, one of the key, and most difficult steps for TOK learners to get. Here is a method that can be directly applied in TOK classrooms to help students unpack knowledge questions from a stimulus or real life situation. With practice, I am confident that many teachers would be able to use this model to help them develop TOK thinking.

In other secondary subjects, this model can also help teachers and students to unpack TOK concepts related to their subject area. For example in natural sciences, some of the key TOK concepts relate to models, uncertainty, inductive and deductive reasoning, falsifiability among others. Using the NoS statements from the subject guides with specific real life examples like models used to predict climate change as a stimulus, this model could be directly applied in the IB Biology classroom to help teachers and their students generate knowledge questions from examples in their syllabus.

Recently, I have been thinking about how I can get my IB biology students more engaged with real world issues or deeper conceptual questions like “what is life?”. I have lots of ideas for stimuli but beyond creating a DART or questionnaire linked to the podcast, video or reading I was at a loss as to how to generate deep thinking and discussion.

This tool, I believe, has given me the key to help my students, think about and generate questions in response to stimuli, and provide a basis for fruitful discussion about the topic of interest.

For example, I am thinking about how I can really engage my students with the issue of climate change, so that as well as learning about it from the biology syllabus, the learning develops real meaning and significance for them so that they are inspired to run a CAS project around the issue etc. I had an idea of using some of the recent planet earth documentary as a stimulus but was unsure how to use it. Now, myself, the Lang B teachers and the geography teacher are collaboratively planning to address this topic in sequence and we will think about how we can bring the 11 steps inquiry into our planning.

I am convinced that P4C is an excellent foundation for TOK, both of which are programs that can help student think and question more deeply as well as become more engaged with big ideas and questions.

P4C is broad, it is concerned with thinking about any of a range of concepts that could be thought of as philosophical. TOK is narrower in focus, and, in a Venn diagram, would sit inside the concepts of P4C. P4C can be focussed on knowledge, TOK is concerned only with inquiry about the nature of knowledge. Both programs are concerned with linking the real world stimulus to the abstract theoretical concept. The P4C 11 step scaffold provides an excellent ladder to allow learners to move between the real and the abstract.

Models of change and influence: reflections on NPQSL F2F3

Session 3 began with a reflection of a change project that the participants have already been involved in. We were asked to reflect on our involvement in such a project and think about what steps we had taken to ensure change occurred with impact, as well as the threats to change that existed.

Some of the steps we identified were: appropriate staff training, making time for whole team discussion and collaboration both vertically (within departments) and horizontally (between departments), covering classes for teachers so that they could get out and observe new practice, identifying key players (later in the session I identified these as “early adoptors”) who were in position to help bring about the change, space and time for leadership to reflect on options for change, timing of communicating change, and taking the time to develop relationships to build trust.

Some of the threats to change that we identified were: low energy levels and the risk of burnout, too much to do to have time to look at the big picture, general resistance to change, and teacher workload.

We discussed the need to manage our own behaviour to ensure that a project could be a success. In international schools this can have the added complication that your colleagues also take the place of your family and friends; your support network. It can be all too easy to find yourself at home of an evening with your guard down and a comment can be made in front of a friend who is also a colleague.

The most insightful part of the day came when we turned our attention to particular models of change. This is new learning for me and excitingly provides a scaffold to really help me with my own work of implementing the IBDP at my current school. We looked at Kotter’s “8 steps of change” which, to me, is a model that focusses on the stakeholders and the structure of a change project. It provides a useful scaffold for thinking about a change project and therefore aids in planning it.

We then looked at the Kubler-Ross change curve, another model but one that focusses more on the human element and therefore provides a helpful model for thinking about the impacts on stakeholders – not just teachers, but parents and students too. The model could help explain why we have the parental problems we sometimes have and how to move them forward from those issues.

The second half of the day considered leadership behvaiour for successful leadership: Commitment, Collaboration, Personal Drive, Resilience, Awareness, Integrity and Respect. It was interesting during these session to reflect on my previous experiences. I can identify a time when good leaders have catalyzed me and moved me forward in my own thinking, or even got me thinking. None of these characteristics particularly stick out, although I would agree that they are important, but also good leaders, I think, are inspiring. They excite and challenge you to be more in your thinking and behavior.

Another useful point of the day was when we considered Roger’s adoptive categories. This was really interesting. It presented a way to think about approaching the role out of a project. Thinking about the last eight months, I can definitely idenftify colleagues who were early adoptors or innovators, providing support to the changes I have been trying to bring about. Knowledge of this model, once again provides a useful scaffold but one for building relationships as we move through the change process. Here we also identified the category of laggards, and sought reasons as to why individuals may resist change and how we can overcome this.

Before the final coaching session where we were able to spend time thinking about the development of our project, we considered the different styles of leadership and when these may or may not be appropriate. It made me once again think of prior leaders and really question what they were doing. I remember being frustrated at times, when decisions needed to be made and they weren’t – I put this squarely at the feet of leaders who were using an inappropriate leadership style for the situation. On reflection, I now have some clarity about why this year is proving so challenging. Sure, I have been teaching the IBDP since 2008 and guidance counseling since 2015, and I am no stranger to challenges and setting up new programs having had some particularly trying years doing so particularly 2016-2017, where my guidance counseling hours were reduced but the class sizes remained the same. That year I was setting up a program, teaching four classes of Biology, one class of TOK and running the DofE’s International Award. It was a frustrating year where I felt unlistened to and unsupported by leaders who just didn’t seem to get it. This year is different. My leaders get it. They are supportive but the real challenge comes not from learning another new job; DP Coordination, but learning this new job and learning how to effectively lead it at the same time, in addition to learning about college counseling in Asia.

Side effects in Education

Recently, in my NPQSL course we have been asked to reflect on the question “What is the moral purpose of education?” Education can be argued to have many moral purposes, and it comes down to an educators point of view; this is an opinion that I think many teachers and leaders would accept.

For example you could argue that the moral purpose of education is to allow individuals to experience a fulfilled life where they can experience and appreciate the whole of their humanity. You could also argue that education’s purpose is to serve society and better the community at large.

Where ever you stand on this spectrum, the very fact that there is a difference of opinion here makes education, as a profession, a little unique. Doctors, for example, would largely agree that the moral purpose of education is to save life.

In what works can hurt, Yong Zhao asks if educational research should be concerned with side effects in education. However appealing this analogy is misleading. In medicine there is a clear moral purpose: do no harm. This is a moral purpose that all medics subscribe too. Medics are driven by the desire to save and prolong life.

No single unifying moral principle exists in education and different schools and different teachers have different moral purposes.

Yong Zhao cites the medical profession as one that requires researchers to investigate side effects as well as the main affects of interventions. In light of calls for educational research to adopt similar methodologies to medical research and become more scientific he argues that this is an area that is overlooked.

Educational research is exclusively focussed on what works without looking at how much it hurts.

Reasons for this may be that education is universally perceived as good, although I would argue that medicine is also. I think the reasons that the education does not consider side effects so much is that the moral purpose of education is much less clear. As well as, this damage due to eduction may take a very long time to be observable and you can only measure that which can be observed – also there are huge numbers of conflating variables.

Zhao writes that education is dominated by a narrow focus on cognitive abilities derived in a small number of subjects measured by standardized tests so that scores in these tests become the measure of effectiveness. Other outcomes are rarely measured so we don’t know about any adverse effects.

More evidence is unlikely to stop the battles within education, but a consideration of side effects might. The education pendulum swings but there is really no progress. I can agree with some of this as any look at the history of the debates does see that these arguments do go on quite a way back.

A way forward to resolving the traditional/progressive debate may be the consideration of both main and side effects in education interventions.

Zhao highlights that direct instruction is effective but can stifle creativity and reduce confidence. He cites the progress of some Asian countries, where students have a lot of knowledge drilled into them but students suffer from lack of confidence, versus Western countries where students know less but have more confidence, as evidence that what works can hurt.  I wonder if this may be a relic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Student may well be further along the knowledge curve and therefore less confident.

Many interventions that have sought to improve reading scores have reduced access to other subject areas, by eliminating subjects to make more time for reading prep. The negative effects of these interventions are now well documented: reducing access to other subjects only serves to reduce literacy scores.

I do think that by focussing only on what can be measured can lead us down the wrong path. Measurement is important and does have a place, but there are elements of human life that we don’t know how to measure or have barriers to measuring like cost and time. We shouldn’t ignore these areas.

Undervalued & under-taught: concepts missing in teacher education

Friere, Piaget and Vygotsky are the usual suspects in the theory that underpins many initial teacher training courses, at least in my experience; I am happy to be corrected. The theories of these men, while useful and, in parts, necessary are often presented as the ground truths of teaching and learning or as outright fact.

Over the past few years I have picked up a little bit of knowledge about certain concepts that, if not completely debunking many of these operational fact-theories, certainly voice a challenge to them and I think it would do a lot to develop educators own critical thinking faculties if these concepts were taught alongside the main teacher training dogma.

Many of these ideas I have been exposed to through my own semi-self directed reading about education. I write semi-self directed because although I am choosing which books to read and when, I rely on the recommendations of colleagues and the educators that I follow on twitter.

While each of these, on their own may not be threshold concepts as such (if such a thing exists) learning about them has had a developmental effect on my thinking as an educator.

In my thirties, I can now begin to trace back my own intellectual interests and growth of knowledge. Originally, I was only interested in biology and things directly related to that field. Working as a teacher, my interest in this subject prompted me to develop my knowledge of neuroscience, among others. From here I developed an interest in the teenage brain and then neuromyths.

During my PGCE top-up, it was clear that subjective research processes were held to be just as valid as objective research methods. I challenged some of the ideas fed to us about subjective & experienced based research, arguing that evidence needs to be as objective as possible. My ideas were met with some scepticism, but I went ahead and tried to summarise some of the work on educational neuroscience and to do some sort of quantifiable research on teachers understanding of neuromyths.

Despite the lack of rigour and balanced curriculum, topping up my GTP to a PGCE was worth it. I wanted to do the PGCE because I felt my GTP had not had any academic focus and I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t know much about the theory behind what I was being told to do in the classroom. My PGCE served to get me academically engaged with the educational theory and it is only since I completed it that I have continued to maintain that engagement.

My interest in this area hasn’t abated but as I learn more it has become more nuanced. I agree that we need to be careful interpreting the results of much cognitive research but I do think that it offers that power to help guide us to what may better versus worse pedagogical techniques. They may well help us hone our pedagogical content knowledge.

Currently, these are the ideas that I believe that all teachers should have some training on (in no particular order):

Where can you go to get more valuable knowledge on these concepts? Here are some of the resources that I would recommend:

The Education Endowment Foundation

Daniel Willingham’s blog

The Education Development Trust

Core Knowledge Curriculum

The Learning Scientists

The Learning Spy

PGCE Research: Teacher Understandings of Educational Neuroscience

Below is the pdf of my research project that I completed as part of my PGCE top-up course. It followed from a fuller literature review that can be read here.

Completed in 2015, I only just realised that I didn’t have a link to it.

Download (PDF, 387KB)