Monday, August 18, 2014

Eurekamp 2014

(Or: Why I've been absent from my (infrequent) blog for so long!)

This is very long overdue update to the blog, Engaged Inquiry. In part, it's a defense of why I haven't posted recently, but I'm also going to use it to recap what has been a great summer for Philosophy for Children Alberta -- as we begin to close out our summer camp program, Eurekamp, for which I am the director.

Eurekamp is a series of philosophy summer day-camps that were masterminded by the folk at Philosophy for Children Alberta. John Simpson, the previous program coordinator, was the founding director in 2009, a year which saw 25 youth join us for our activity-based philosophy day-camps. That year we had about 6 volunteer counsellors who helped deliver programming in our 'proof of concept year'. Since then camp has grown considerably. This year, we can happily boast 378 youth! This is up from 250 last year, our fifth year. There are also a gazillion pictures on Facebook: check us out there too!

Notably, thanks to a generous grant from the Edmonton Community Foundation, we were able to run two weeks worth of programming at Balwin School in Edmonton, as well as to offer a collection of fully subsidized scholarships to nearly 40 youth from all over Edmonton, bringing them onto the University campus to experience our programming.

We also continue to invite previous campers (now outside our camp age-range) to return as junior counsellors to help provide a great experience to new campers; we had the pleasure of 4 junior counsellors joining us this year for the opportunity. We also trained 18 counsellors, all of whom (happily) we are able to pay for their enthusiasm, dedication, and help in making Eurekamp what it is.

We've grown, in just 6 years, to a total of 10 activity based, week long programs that are offered to three age groups, Grades 1-3, Grades 4-6, and Grade 7-9. This year alone we created 4 new themed camps. All told, we have camps themed around food, art, social media, science, imagination and play, logic, social justice, biomedical ethics, and 'hacking'. Each camp digs deep into the philosophical issues that (sometimes) sit on the surface of our experience.

For our youngest groups, we have the Food for Thought program (in its third year), which saw youth cook with chefs (like Zana Murray, from Stir Catering), visit a dairy farm, and think with freegans (who dumpster dive for their food). The Enchanted Arts program, (as one youth has been recorded saying) isn't just "crafts [like painting and drawing]. It can be dance and poetry too." To this end, youth learn Jai Ho, a Bollywood dance; we also had a visit from Razzle, a local clown. Our newest program for this age group is Playing Around the World. Here, the sole aim is to harness the power of the imagination and the joy of play in new ways. We climb trees, juggle fire, make giant bubbles, create Harry Potter wands (for witch and wizard duels), worry about enemies, and played real life minecraft with hundreds of cardboard boxes.

Grade 4-6 features three camps: Masterminds, Comm-U-nity, and Wondering at the World. There youth built wide-games, ran experiments, dug for worms, and puzzled through mensa games; they struggled with notions of fairness, visited the Bissell Centre to create art with local people who are homeless, thought about the nature of private property and the environment with activities like "guerrilla rock art", and constructed communities (from Lego blocks) while working through the questions of community engagement and membership, as well as notions of paternalism.

Gr. 7-9's Doctoring Curiosity, in its second year, saw visits from medical staff at the University of Alberta Hospital. They thought about infection and disease, questioned notions of parenthood, and learned how to suture. But, we also introduced two new camps this year: Truth and Lies which is themed around social media, and Digital U which is themed around making, breaking, and re-purposing the everyday, in various ways and forms.

Everything was so much fun!

And while it is good (indeed crucial) to 'just have fun' sometimes, nearly every activity we offer at Eurekamp has a philosophical purpose or intention behind it. These, coupled with our strong belief that we are obliged to hold dialogue with children around what interests them (and not just what I say should interest them, and certainly not just what interests us!), is what makes Eurekamp unique and has youth returning each summer, year after year, until they are old enough to play a role as a junior counsellor. [I've written about P4CA's methodology in the past and Eurekamp is formally no different: 1) Offer a stimulus -- i.e., an activity or game; 2) collect philosophical questions from participants; 3) hold discussion; 4) and then reflect on the nature of the discussion.]

Indeed, I believe that this is a strength of the philosophy for children program that is often overlooked. Dialoguing with youth about their own ideas, and not the ideas we have given them; about their own questions, and not just those that we provide from the outset; helps youth to realize that their ideas matter, are interesting, and can be deeply philosophically gripping. Listening to youth define, redefine, and reject understandings; formulate reasons, and then examine them; and take deep interest in what goes on around them, affirms their thought processes in a way that refines and cements the mindful, creative, critical thinking even of those who are very young. Listening allows us to see youth be swept up and carried off on an adventure with, and by, their ideas; it allows us, too, to see the world in ways that we forget we can, as we grow older and forget.

As we close down Eurekamp for the summer (this Friday's our last day), I can only hope to see you all (again) next year. Tell your friends! Everything we do during the summer helps us run during the school year. What we do between 'Eurekamps' is tweeted from @P4CA, and tracked on our Facebook page, Philosophy for Children Alberta, and our own webpage.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Missing Piece: A Lesson Plan for Discussing Happiness (And A Little Metaphysics Too)

In both my Fall and Winter introductory philosophy classes, students who were placed in elementary schools chose to use Shel Silverstein's The Missing Piece to prompt a discussion on happiness. For those not familiar with the book, it features a nearly-round-object which, rather saliently, is "missing" a wedge. It spends the story searching for this piece, but when it finds the perfect fit for the wedge it realizes that it cannot do the things it normally enjoys.

This book has a module created for it in the large collection of book modules that continues to be been expanded by students and colleagues of Dr. Tom Wartenberg; his website is here and the book module is here.

Nevertheless, I wanted to take a moment to highlight the ways that my students have used this picture book, given that their approach was activity based, and might be used to add extra depth to the questions compiled by Jason Wu on Wartenberg's website. Specifically, I wanted to provide a simple hands-on activity developed and modified by my students (L. Oak and I. Light) that can be used as a 'primer' for a discussion on happiness. The aim behind each of these approaches is to have youth begin to formulate answers to the question "What makes you happy?" while placing special emphasis on (what one of my students calls) the "becauses".

The first version of this activity uses a 1 meter circle of paper which is then divided into smaller wedges, equaling the number of people in the group with which you'll be working. These can either be directly handed to those in the session or hidden throughout the room. In this latter case, the youth are tasked with seeking out a wedge. This latter variant is useful for groups which enjoy the need for movement, because they are higher energy. Either way, once youth have the wedges they should take the time to write onto the wedges a response to the question "What makes you happy?". Once the answers have been recorded, students should share them with one another, and take the time to form them into the "original" circular shape.
Poster created by L. Oak.
(With very large groups, it might be better to have two different colored circles from which the pieces are cut; fewer people in each group would allow each person to be more actively involved in the circle's construction. An interesting aside: if there is some care with re-constructing the circle, metaphysical questions about the nature of parts and wholes might arise -- issues in mereology. The trouble is that students need to put pieces into 'the right places' to reconstruct the circle, but there is a real question whether there is a 'right place' for any piece. This is especially troublesome if each piece is cut to be qualitatively identical - that is, if the pieces are the same size and shape of wedges. In addition, when the pieces have different components of happiness written on them -- "skateboarding makes me happy"; "reading makes me happy", "Happiness is the little things, like the smell of toast" -- this qualitative similarity might help to prompt a discussion about the possible (non-)equivalence between those components (see below).)

If you want to avoid even the potential of this kind of aside, the second version of this activity might be preferable. In this version, you'll need to construct a series of smaller wedges all similar in size and shape. Provide youth with 3-4 of these each (enough so that youth can use them to construct a personal version of the circle in The Missing Piece).

For added depth to the discussion, you might ask youth to consider multiple different questions. Consider asking:
What's one thing that makes you happy?
What's one thing you do for others that makes them happy?
If you had a million dollars, would you be happy?
At this point, any discussion that arises from considerations on the story by Shel Silverstein could be helped along by the priming that this activity has provided.

To end this post, I'd like to turn to a brief discussion on some intricacies about happiness, that are perhaps lost in the module created by Wu. First, even just these three questions should provide such a range of responses that might earn you the chance to discuss with participants the ideas around the diversity of what we value. In some cases, this may lead you to discussing whether what we value can be compared to, weighed off against, and/ or supplemented with other things that we value. In some circumstances, this might lead to the idea of incommensurability, viz., that what we value cannot be compared reasonably with other things that we value. (So, sometimes students have suggested to me that the feeling of being free is something that can't be replaced by anything else; it is valued such that if you were to take it away, there's nothing you could replace it with to make up for its absence.)

Posters created by students with I. Light
Second, as a point of clarification, it's important to recognize a quick distinction about happiness. This is the distinction between happiness as a psychological matter and happiness as a state of an overall life; call this latter sense of happiness well-being. (Haybron, 2011; Crisp 2013). While psychological happiness usually refers to a temporary state of mind captured by a notion of satisfaction or pleasure, discussions on well-being take us towards the importance of such elements as health, love, and (more generally) notions of what is 'the good' for a person. This latter conception involves considerations of aspects that are more 'permanent'.

The questions above really draw out happiness in this first sense, as a psychological state; yet, it is by engaging with youth around these questions in a deeper way -- when they share the comments written on their wedges, or talk about the story The Missing Piece -- that the distinction between happiness and well-begin can be brought out.

Take for example some of the typical answers my students have received to questions similar to those listed above include:

"I'm happy when it rains because it smells nice."

"Long-boarding makes me happy, because I'm free."

"My sister gets annoyed about me and it makes me happy."

"Family and friends make me happy because I feel loved."

On the surface, these seem to address the psychological state of feeling happy. Yet, there are obvious ties to the notion of well-being that can be brought out. One might begin to do this by asking:

"Can you think of a case where someone might be happy, even if they never got to do something they enjoyed (like long-boarding)?"

"Can you think of a case where someone might be happy, even if they never got to do anything they enjoyed?"

"Can you think of a case where someone might be unhappy, even though they only ever did what they enjoyed?"

"Could you be happy if you had never had any friends?"

"Can you think of something such that, without it it's not possible to be happy?"

At the very least, The Missing Piece and these activities provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on what contribute to their own happiness. But, once participants begin to realize how their preferences might diverge form the preferences of others, it proved safe environment to begin to recognize those differences and to learn how to respond respectfully to them. In addition, it provides the grounds for considerations around values, and how those values might (fail to) stack up against other values.


Crisp, Roger, "Well-Being", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

Haybron, Dan, "Happiness", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Freemarket Fairness - A Lesson Plan on Justice

My last post got me thinking about the aim of activities in engaged inquiry approaches. I spoke there about how I like to play Clayorama as a way to engage students in questions about fairness. That activity is good just because it never fails to raise strong feelings of unfairness which can be used to fuel the discussion.

The trouble (which I neglected to mention) is that the activity requires quite a bit of time: to do it well you need to make space to really enjoy the game both times, which means you'll need at least 2 hours. That's a lot of time for a stimulus. I want to propose here another stimulus which can be used to discuss the same topic -- but which takes much less time: The Free Market Game.

The Free Market Game

For this, you need a large collection of things that the kids actually care about losing and gaining. The obvious solution (though perhaps not the best one) is individually wrapped candy. Distribute them so that everyone has an equal amount -- 3 to 5 is sufficient. Participants are going to challenge one another in games of Rock-Paper-Scissors with the loser giving one candy to the winner. Play for five-ten minutes. Here are the rest of the rules:
  1. A player earns candies from others by challenging, then playing them in separate bouts of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
  2. Winner is paid one candy from the other player. In the case of a draw no one gets paid.
  3. A player may refuse to play, unless challenged by a player with more candy. (Candy is power.)
  4. If a player loses his last candy, s/he becomes the employee of the winner. As an employee, the player works to earn two candies.
  5. Once she has earned two candies, the employee plays the employer one of them and is now self-employed, earning candies for herself.
  6. If an employee has no candies and loses to another person, his employment transfers to the new winner. If the winner is an employee, both work for the winner's employer.
  7. Employees may not challenge their own employers.
  8. If that game ends, employees must give all their candies to the employer.
  9. There will be no stealing, threatening, or swindling.*

Typically what happens in this set-up is that you get a spread of candies, with very few people holding very many of the candies, and quite a few holding very few. After 10 minutes, I like to break the group into smaller groups according to how many candies each has: 0-1; 2-3; 4-6; 6-8; 9+. By breaking the groups into smaller groups of people who have the same amount of candies (viz., people who were as successful as one another), you can then prompt them to talk about the fairness of the game.

Almost always, those who have very few recognize that the game is one of chance ("they just guessed better than me!"); and those with quite a few recognize that the game is one of skill ("I'm good at knowing when to play 'rock'!"). Either (and both) of these features is (are) good to focus on in a discussion about justice, given that natural abilities/ (un)lucky breaks (which are clearly related) play central roles in that aspect of our lives.

When thinking about natural rock-paper-scissors abilities, you might prompt them to begin to wonder if it is fair that I get paid millions (and millions) of dollars to play for the Liverpool in the English Premier League, just because I happened to be born with the very unique ability to dribble a soccer ball close to my body. Or, you may be curious about others who have natural skills that no one cares about. For example, maybe I'm the fastest, most efficient potato peeler you've ever seen: shouldn't I been paid millions of dollars for that? Isn't it unfair that I'm not?

Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock
Alternatively, when thinking about lucky and unlucky circumstances, you might wonder if it is unfair that I am excluded from going to pilot school because I was born partially deaf. Or, you could puzzle about the fairness of being born in the time and place you are, with the skills you have. Thus, it seems to be just a matter of luck that I was born with these ball dribbling skills in a place that has the social structure that places value on them. If I were born with such skills 150 years ago, in a country or region where sports don't play a central role, I would live a very, very different life. Is it fair, then, that I was born here and now?

These, and related questions, arise pretty readily from the Free Market game because, like Clayorama, it's set up so that the participants feel the pang of disappointment (or excitement) that they have the amount of candies they do. Making the concern a visceral one for students is a sure-fire way to get them engaged.

Starting Point Variations

If you want to emphasize the importance of natural abilities as arbitrary or unearned, as I sometimes do, you can modify the starting distribution of candies so that it is not even. Sometimes I have the group line up from 1) longer hair to shortest; 2) biggest feet to smallest; 3) prettiest left pinky finger to ugliest; 4) most artistic to least; (etc.) and then give an uneven amount to participants, with more to the people at the front, and less to those at the back. Depending on the criterion you use to distribute candy, this method can also be used to draw attention to how some categorization might bias us in one way or the other.

Another option to consider, which works well with older groups especially, is to ask them to determine how the candies should be distributed so that you can play the game. In this version, you explain the rules first, and then ask the group to make the distribution choice. (A warning: many times that I have done this we've actually struggled to get to the game; students spend so much time think about what makes some distributions more or less fair.)

If you spend a lot of time after the game talking about the role of luck and fairness, you may still want to emphasize the arbitrariness of natural abilities. To do this, play the game again distributing candies unevenly with respect to who did the best on the first time through. Those people get more candy in the initial condition, to represent their natural Rock-Paper-Scissors abilities. (Make sure you explain this to the students.)

Game Mechanics Variations

Though I am not a big fan of the show, The Big Bang Theory has introduced a modified version of rock-paper-scissors which in some situations might make for an interesting variant: Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock just because it seems to introduce a level of complexity to Rock-Paper-Scissors that might be useful. The trumping order and hand symbols are seen in the photo above (taken from thinkgeek).

Alternatively, a more active version is to use the Rock-Paper-Scissors format, but adapt the game to Bear-Ninja-Cowboy, taken from the cute picture book, The Legend of Bear Ninja Cowboy by David Bruins. Play this version with participants standing back-to-back. They count down, jump, spin, and make the appropriate gesture to indicate the 'move'. Karate-chop hands with a foot in the air is a ninja; bent knees with pistol-fingers by the hip is a cowboy; puffed up chest with both arms over your head and bear-claw hands is a bear (obviously).

I like this version. I played it at my wedding, as an ice breaker and to determine seating order.

* Edit: Thanks to my colleague, who reminded me that this is a game that has its origin from graduate students in the Philosophy Department of the University of Alberta. (I couldn't recall whether I had found it, or made it with others, and didn't think carefully enough about its origins.)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Facilitating the Contentious

When we relinquish control of a lecture, allowing a dialogue between participants, there is an uncomfortable uncertainty that can arise: what participants choose to talk about can and often does diverge from what you expect them to find interesting. For instance, when I used to read "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak in my Values and Society course, I would do so thinking (hoping?) students would see this as an opportunity to explore the nature of rules, leadership, and (maybe even) anarchy. What they actually (almost always) talk about is the reality of Max's dream-like experiences.

There are likely many lessons to be learned from this divergence, however the issue on which I hope to focus here has to do with the how facilitators can address divergences which give rise to contentious issues or situations. I want to suggest that relying on the 'facilitation priorities' can help us to diffuse the tensions that might arise within two different ways that participants diverge from our expectations.

Unexpected Participant Responses

The first divergence, which gets the most press, is when our participants raise issues that we don't expect them to. We see this with the 'problems' I've had using Where the Wild Things Are, but I'd like to focus on 'stronger' participant responses that might derail us as facilitators. Tom Wartenberg, in Big Ideas for Little Kids, captures the kind of incident that I have in mind in his report on one student's experience. While leading a discussion on bravery, Tom recounts how one of his student-facilitators was stunned to hear a youth suggest that he was brave because "A grown-up hit me in the face with a glass bottle and I was brave when I didn't cry and took all the pieces of glass out of my face by myself."(68) This is a jarring admission that would unbalance even an experienced practitioner; not surprisingly, the facilitator thought more about her legitimacy as a lead in the classroom ("What right do I have to talk to this child about bravery?") rather than about how to tie such an admission into the discussion.

Communtiy: Inclusion Priorities
Recently I had a similar 'tense' admission in discussion. In a session on animal husbandry - where we were considering one of the ubiquitous YouTube videos that explain the atrocities of factory farming - we began to work through 'quality of life questions', asking how these balance off against the pain experienced during the killing of the factory farmed animals. One of my students was adamant that a factory farmed animal, killed in ways consistent with practices formed with factory-efficiency in mind, were actually not painful for the animal; as such factory farming animals was morally unproblematic. The response this drew was one of frustration: another student tried to highlight the fact that end-of-life considerations were only one part (a small part, in this respondent's opinion) of the equation. Problematically, despite that this reasoned response was couched in calm mannerisms (e.g., she wasn't yelling; she was sitting back, with a relaxed posture; etc), it was capped off with the suggestion that such a stance was "ignorant".

Obviously, as facilitators, we need to be careful about the kinds of contributions that we allow as part of our dialogue; and, the use of "ignorant" is one such case where intervention is called for, not least because it threatens to change the tone of the discussion from amiable to aggressive. The question is, How best to intervene?

Inquiry: Structure Priorities
One reliable approach is to turn facilitation priorities. These are broken down by in Practitioner's Manual (created by the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children -- IAPC) into Community and Inquiry concerns. Under the former are concerns about connection and inclusion, and are ultimately features that the facilitator bears in mind in an attempt to develop a healthy community. Under the latter, Inquiry, are concerns about reasoning and structure which the facilitator bears in mind to ensure the development of critical thinking skills.

In this scenario, there is obvious space to draw on community-inclusion priorities which task the facilitator to be mindful of disrespectful comments. Yet, equally effective in some cases -- and what I chose to do here -- is to draw on the inquiry-structure priorities, one of which tasks the facilitator with determining (or asking participants to determine) the underlying structure of the argument being proposed. Doing so places the reasoning at the hub of the discussion, displacing the participant to the periphery. Such a move replaces the focus of the question with the more appropriate feature - the argument - and not the individual. Accordingly, I gave caution to the fact that heated words like 'ignorant' threaten to drown out the reasoned objection that respondent raised (viz., that the abysmal quality of life concerns trump concerns about whether or not the death of factory farmed animals is painful). In fact, that the respondent was willing to grant the (false) claim that the deaths are painless -- a charitable approach to argumentation, capturing the strength of her response -- was lost given the presence of the heated words.

Participant Resistance to the Activity

Occasionally, when we run an activity, read a book, or use an object to prompt discussion, one or more of the participants are resistant to taking the activity seriously. They voice their belief that the book is 'stupid' or 'childish'; explicitly question the worth of the activity -- questioning why some issue is being addressed at all, for instance, rather than focusing on exploring answers to the issue posed; or otherwise remove themselves from serious consideration of the issue at hand.

Inquiry: Reasoning Priorities
A number of examples of this come to mind, but I'll focus on one pertinent example drawn from four years ago when I first started to offer Philosophy for Children themed introductory philosophy classes at the university level. In this situation, I wanted students to focus on the Rawlsian notions of the 'veil of ignorance' and 'original position'. Roughly, Rawls thinks that principles of justice which are most acceptable will be those that would be chosen by someone in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance. The 'veil' hides all the particular features about an individual (race, sex, ability, income, etc.) and asks us to pick those principles of justice that we would deem acceptable from behind the veil. Crucially, the suggestion Rawls makes is that from behind the veil one would be dis-inclined to pick a principle of justice that unduly favours one group over another; after all, if you don't know where you'll end up you'll pick the principles that, even if they privilege some over others, allow the privileging for the betterment of the worst off.  (Rawls calls this 'maximin': maximize the least well off position.) So, it's just that medical professionals get paid more than waste disposal workers because such a discrepancy is best for the waste disposal personnel. If medical professional made a comparable wage to waste disposal workers, we would have fewer medical professionals which would make waste disposal personnel worse off when they need medical attention.

To encourage these considerations, I used a (personally) modified version of a game called 'Clayorama'. The original game has participants create creatures out of play-doh which are assigned traits by a moderator (attacks, movement, life-points, etc). The traits are explicitly assigned to creatures, ensuring the participants understand the reasoning for each (e.g., the moderator will say things like "your creatures has six legs so I'll assign it a move of 6; it has two arms which are small so you get two small attacks; ..." etc.). These creatures are then used in battle with one another. The game is a lot of fun, producing turn based battle.

The modification I add to the game is that participants play the game twice. On the second play through, I inform participants prior to creature creation that the newly created monsters will be randomly assigned to players in the group. Every single time I have played this modified version of the game (with kids, adults, and my friends) one player makes a character with poor stats: no moves, weak attacks, low life-points etc. And, I always 'randomly' assign this creature to a different person than the person who created it. The result is, very often, a discussion about whether the creation of such a bad character is fair (and it usually leads to a consideration of Rawls in the context of the introductory Philosophy class). When this is done with youth, in fact, the pangs of outrage are so strong that we barely have to wait for the game to be over for the cries of injustice to begin.

Community: Connections Priorities
In the instance four years ago, the relevant incident arises prior to these concerns about fairness. In the middle of the first play through, one of my students just didn't understand what this game had to do with philosophy at all. She was vocal about her opposition, and even impeded the play of the game. Some of this was solved by the practical fact that her game ended quickly, which allowed me to move to the second play through. (And, of course, I made sure that she was 'randomly' assigned the weakest character.) But, by appeal to facilitator priorities within the community-connections classification, we were able to address her concerns. Thus, rather than merely telling her that the activity was an aid for thinking through Rawls, I asked other participants how this might connect. Such a step legitimizes her concern (after all, I might have misunderstood the point of my own activity), while connecting her to the group as whole. It turns the complaint into a question that can be addressed by the group itself. (There were some surprising responses as well, which tied the activity to winning and losing the 'natural lottery' -- an issue that demonstrates, at least, that my students did the reading.) It also opens the door to assessing how others are viewing the activity. If the oppositional student can be brought into the fold by her peers, there are benefits both for the oppositional student - who gains a new appreciation of the use of some activities - and for the students that are able to introduce her to the new point of view - they see, for instance, the power of sound argumentation.

Facilitation priorities provide a kind of safety net, upon which the facilitator can rely when these contentious issues arise. Of course, I don't promise them to be a panacea for all the problems that might arise -- there are some participants who will be resistant to inclusion and critical thinking, even at the invitation of their peers; yet, such priorities, when viewed as tools, can be invaluable for navigating some sticky situations that, inevitably, arise in community of inquiry sessions.


Gregory, Maughn. Philosophy for Children Practitioner Handbook. Institute for the Advancement for the Philosophy for Children.

Wartenberg, Thomas. 2009. Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children's Literature. R&L Education.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why Be Moral: A Lesson Plan and a Note on Thick Stimuli

I often want my students to engaged with general questions around morality and norms when I first begin a class on Values and Society. Until very recently I struggled to provide an evocative source material; my default was to present the 'Ring of Gyges' story from Plato's Republic, but that story is relatively short an isn't as 'thick' or 'rich' with possibilities as I hope my stimulus material to be. I've taken liberties with the story, in so far as "filling in some details" might be so construed, but such liberties have always left me wanting; the discussions that followed seemed contrived, or forced (perhaps just because the writing was poor).

Last year, however, two of my students developed a lesson plan for one of their placements that addressed these issues, and which far outstripped the Ring of Gyges approach that I've usually taken. In brief, they used a short 3 minute clip from Harry Potter: The Philosopher's Stone, which you can find online on sites like YouTube. The scene used by my students occurs at (approximately) 87 minutes, when Harry receives an 'invisibility cloak' from an anonymous source; accompanying it is a note which ends "use it wisely." Usefully, Harry reads this quote out loud twice. The double utterance 'thickens' the stimulus in important ways: the issue of 'wise use' becomes, or is likely to become, salient to the viewer.

As run by my students, they played the short scene for the class and then simply followed up with discussion and reflective writing/ drawing exercises around the question "What does it mean to use the cloak wisely?"

As I have said, my preference is to use 'thick' stimuli; that is, to use stimuli which are rich with contentious occurrences which may prompt student interest. In this light, I recommend lengthening the Harry Potter clip on both ends. Consider a brief recap, for those who haven't seen the film: immediately prior to the gift scene when Harry acquires the cloak, Ron, Hermoine, and Harry are in the great hall at Hogwarts (84 minutes). Ron and Harry are playing 'Wizard's chess'. With Hermoine watching on, Ron calls out one of his moves, and the piece moves itself onto the square occupied by Harry's piece. Ron's piece bashes Harry's with a chair, destroying it; Hermoine huffs "That's barbaric!"; Ron replies "That's Wizard's chess!". The great hall scene ends with Hermoine, the rigid rule monger, suggesting that Ron and Harry break into the restricted section of the library to find some information they've been unsuccessful in discovering. Following this Harry gets the cloak (the 3 minute scene described above), and uses it to enter the library which is bolted shut and labelled 'restricted'.

By widening the clip by about 3 minutes on either end, the scope of questions that arose during the question building processed ranged from the expected questions:

1. Why be moral?
2. What does 'use it well' mean?
3. Are we responsible for how others use what we give them?

To the equally interesting, yet somewhat unexpected

4. Should knowledge be restricted?
5. If the rules allow something, does that make it okay?
6. If someone gives us a gift, do we have to give one back?

The thick stimuli heightened my students' awareness of the issues, which effected the types of comments during the conversation. (It also had the side benefit of demonstrating the 'philosophical' richness of a 'regular day occurrence' early in the term -- an objective I have for my courses). I suggest trying something like this clip to prompt these questions. (There are, perhaps, clips from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy which may serve the same purpose - but none come to mind immediately.)

A Closing Caution

However, I will leave off with a caution regarding my proposal to thicken your stimuli. Consider my students' lesson plan as an example: the short YouTube clip they used was one with (Polish) subtitles. This thickens the stimulus, but in ways that threaten to expand the questions beyond the areas that you hope to prompt discussion on. When using a clip with subtitles, for instance, students might be curious about those subtitles (especially if they are young and have never seen a subtitled film before). As such, you'll find them asking question outside the range you may be prepared to address as a group (e.g., 'What are those letter?'; 'What makes something a language?'; 'How can we tell what others are saying if they don't speak the same language as us?"; "Can any scribble mean anything?"; etc). For cases where you want to avoid these consequences, you'll need to be careful how a stimulus is thickened.

It is of course impossible to control (and you probably shouldn't try to control) every variable that might give rise to a question you're not ready for. Still, there are some thick stimuli which are more likely to be conducive to your overall aims, which confining what the students might see as salient.

Implementing stimulus-confining features is important for beginning-facilitators -- such as my previous students -- who worry about procedural P4C concerns (e.g., how best to facilitate; being an active listener; navigating distractions, such as the student who pokes others during discussion; etc). This, I take it, is why they prompted their class with a question -- "What does 'use it well' mean?" -- rather than having the students create their own questions. But, if it's the case that you will be encouraging your students to create their own questions for discussion, it is easy to see that care should be taken to explore the range of possibilities within the stimulus you do provide.

(You might be asking "Isn't the knowledge question -- #4 -- a tangential issue that's raised by thickening the stimulus too much? I'm not convinced this is the case for all readings of the question. One way to understand the concern is about who decides what information should be released, and the legitimacy of those restrictions; in this light it applies to the central motivation for the lesson: thinking about why we should be moral.)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Creativity and Play

Every year around this time, when I'm introducing my university class to the idea of engaged inquiry - a pedagogy which celebrates a shift to a student-centred approach - I find myself speaking about two key features: critical thinking and creativity. This is usually guided by the readings for the week; over the last few semesters, that reading has been Ann Margaret Sharp's "What is a Community of Inquiry?".

For the majority of that article she cashes out how the community of inquiry is 'sensitive to error' - i.e., something which seeks truth by asking for and evaluating the reasons for positions held by the members of the community of inquiry; by raising examples for, and counter-examples against positions proposed in response to the central question around which the discussion is held -- and given the resistance to 'Truth' (capital 'T') that I often experience in first year classes, I spend some time going over this issue seeking to what we ought to believe about it. (Is there such a thing? Can we know what the Truth is? Isn't believing in Truth just a way to justify ethnocentric tendencies? etc.) It's pretty clear that the focus here is on the first of the two key features, critical thinking.

This year's class promised to be no different. Class saw a hands-on exploration of the notion of critical thinking procedures, wrapped up in a community of inquiry that was centred around the question "What makes a tradition a tradition?" (derived by my students) from Mo Willems' 'Naked Mole Rate Gets Dressed' (one of my favourite picture books).

Questions for Reflection on a Dialogue
As is my procedure (see my previous post), I ended the discussion with a 'meta-reflection' surrounding how the group functioned as a community of inquiry. I walked the group through this process slowly, given that they had not yet seen it and didn't understand my reasoning behind insisting on it. I usually ask three questions -- questions about the discussion community's interaction, the critical thinking process displayed by the group members, and the creativity expressed by the group -- and view each to be equally important. Yet during this reflective process I found myself coming to believe that the creative process was the most important feature of communities of inquiry. (As is often the case, I find class-interaction a vehicle for change in my own views. That change, usually results in a clumsy expression of the change taking place. This time was no different, on either front.)

Why is creativity most important for good (philosophical) dialogue? Perhaps most importantly, it is at the center of all (or at least most of) the skills we laud as 'sound critical thinking' which allow us to assess the quality of the reasons behind the beliefs each member of the community holds.

Take an easy example: to give an example or counter-example of a position being discussed is to exercise one's creative capacities. It is to thinking within the bounds of the criteria under discussion, in an attempt to show the shortcomings or strengths of the proposed position. Consider the question discussed from Naked Mole Rate Gets Dressed "What makes a tradition, a tradition?" To get the discussion off the ground, one student suggested that traditions were those things that groups of people did repetitively. Immediately, one student suggested that the tentative proposal was inadequate because it excluded traditions that a single person (but no one else) carries out; he suggested that that doesn't mean what this single person does isn't a tradition. The counter-example is creative: it is the creation of something new (e.g., an idea not yet considered by the group) and valuable (e.g., the idea allowed students to begin to test the limits of the initial proposal).

A harder (but related) example: a community of inquiry confronts participants with views that conflict with their own; participants are encouraged to suspend disbelief and consider why that view might be correct. This is a creative step in and of itself: one must imagine the reasons that others could have for accepting position as correct -- new reasons, perhaps, that have yet to be considered by opposing parties. This is a kind of 'putting oneself "in the shoes" of others': making an attempt to accurately imagine the motivations, reasons, or background that legitimate the (seemingly objectionable) view being held.

Even the process of developing questions for discussion relies on creativity. As individuals we must find the appropriate words to express what it is that we are curious about. For example, is the best formulation of my concern the one that employs 'would', 'should', or 'could'? Answering this question means speculating about the kinds of answers that would (should? could?) count as legitimate answers to my question. This is an imaginative (and so creative) process. Moreover, when the questioning process is collaborative (as I usually construct it to be in my engaged inquiry classes and sessions), this task expands to include others in the ways discussed above - "What could she mean by asking X?"; "How might we help him to better phrase his concern about Z?" etc. - remaining centrally creative.

Creativity, then, under-girds a lot (if not all) critical and dialogical thinking. But, it has other wide-reaching uses as well. Here I refer not just to the level of importance often placed on creative self-expression found in the pursuit of the fine-arts. That is to say, creativity is important for success at (seemingly) mundane tasks as well. Consider: before I leave the house in the morning to head to the offcie I try to decide how best to complete three tasks: return a library book, grab a coffee from the local shop, and drop my gym gear in my locker. The problem solving process completed here is one that might (for example) involve imagining different routes to each of the different locations; but clearly imagining the different routes - and testing the viability of each - is a creative process. (I'm sure I've heard this claim somewhere. A TED talk perhaps? I mention this not as a way to legitimize the claim, but to address my concern to give credit where it's due.) And if finding a way to do all three is a creative process, then finding the best way to do all three is a doubly creative process: I have to imagine the alternative ways to complete the tasks and I have to weigh the value of each against each other.

Eurekampers playing with food.
How can we foster creativity? For all the attention that I direct towards dialogical (communities of) inquiry embodied in teaching contexts, perhaps one of the most effective ways to exercise creativity is simply to play. Plato (in the Laws) has already spoken about the importance of play (he says, for instance that farmers should play at farming, and builders at building, in order to be good at these pursuits, e.g.), but his advice applies broadly.

Free-flow play with no set rules, boundaries, aims, or even objectives beyond play itself provides a limitless arena for the imagination. Think here, of the Calvin and Hobbes game of Calvin-ball: this is free play that is maximally creative. As the game of Calvinball plays itself out, (arbitrary) points are scored (arbitrarily); both Calvin and Hobbes find themselves having to creatively and quickly counter the claim made by the other to having taken the lead, justifying their reasons (however obscure). This is unbridled creativity.

Yet even in highly structured play environments, the bounds and limits of criteria -- 'the rules' -- can be creatively tested, push, pulled, and bent (and sometimes broken). Such testing is why most games see themselves embracing new rules throughout their history: the players understood the rules and played within them in novel ways that were unexpected by the game's creator.

(In fact, one might argue that the cases of creativity within boundaries are actually more valuable than those arising from Calvinball-esque situations, for the latter cases of creativity (but rarely the former) might be encapsulated as 'randomness'. And randomness, while creative in some respects, is no reliable friend of the creativity that engaged inquiry hopes to foster.)

The take away from this is easy to say, but hard to remember to follow through on: Play. Play at learning; play at teaching. Work through lesson plans and daily routines with a mind to exploring the limits in novel and potentially (un)interesting ways. The skills developed in play are transferable and crucial for good critical thinking.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Introduction to 'Engaged Inquiry'

I can't help but think blogs require some form of introduction, over and above the (too brief and uninformative) 'bio' that exists in the side-bar; and so it seems fitting to make our first post that introduction. (This is, perhaps, a bi-product of my lack of familiarity with blogs, generally; if such an inclination is mistaken, bear with me while I quell the urge.)

As the title suggests, I intend this blog to be about all things “engaged inquiry”. That this title is not as revealing as it could be has been made especially clear to me in my position as the program coordinator for Philosophy for Children Alberta, where I am currently seeking collaborators for the grant that the program's director, Rob Wilson, is currently developing.

So, what do I mean by it?

Perhaps it is best if I start by stating one way in which I am reluctant. I am reluctant, for instance, to understand this as distinctly philosophical inquiry. While engaged inquiry is definitely connected to Philosophy for Children, and while the kind of inquiry in which I'm interested is very (likely) philosophical (whatever that means. There I said it. I'm not quite sure what it means to say something is philosophical, given how diverse a subject it seems to be, and I'm always inclined to think 'whatever that means' when it does arise), I nevertheless do prefer to avoid the inclusion of 'philosophy'. This reluctance arises because, in my experience, 'philosophical' and 'philosophy' are scare words. They hinder rather than assist those (here, I think especially of trained educators in the school system) who are inclined and excited to engaged with others in a critical dialogical manner, yet who shy away because - as they say - "they are not trained 'philosophers'."

(Some) Properties of Engaged Inquiry
Omitting “philosophical” from “engaged inquiry” allows us to resist (verbally if nothing else) the idea that to inquire meaningfully (with children, with each other, etc.) we need to import the ideas of philosophers. While this may occasionally be useful, the focus of engaged inquiry is different from the reiteration, often by a lecturer or a teacher, of what has been said before by philosophers (Kennedy 2004). Instead, to partake in engaged inquiry as I understand it is to hold dialogue which is 1) centred on the interests of the inquirers; 2) active, involved, and 'hands-on'; and is 3) a product of a critical, reflective group or community of thinkers.

In the philosophy for children movement and other educational environments (1) is referred to as a 'student-centred' approach to learning. This is crucial to engagement for it is by building on the interests of those in the discussion that a sense of ownership, involvement, and responsibility for the quality of the dialogical process itself, as well as the outcome of that process, is fostered in participants. This is also perhaps one of the most uncomfortable components of engaged inquiry; its most effective implementation requires that the facilitator of the dialogue (the teacher in the classroom context) be willing to venture into dialogical territory where, perhaps, she is unprepared to go, which make him uncomfortable, or which can sometimes be controversial (or all three!).

By placing the focus on the inquirer, the dialogical process moves towards fulfilling (2) -- the active involvement of the inquirers themselves. This is most obviously seen as an opposition to the 'lecture' style of education that is prominent in universities and colleges, but present too in earlier educational contexts as well. Instead by promoting inquiry, sourced from the ideas of the inquirers themselves, enthusiasm for the topic (and perhaps for learning more generally) is generated (Wilson 2013).

Finally, the (3) critical reflective attitude characteristic of those involved in engaged inquiry is one which, while respectful and inclusive, is 'sensitive to error' (Sharp 1986): participants are disposed to probe ideas with examples and counter examples, testing for reasonableness, weaknesses, coherence, and even creativity.

A Process of Engaged Inquiry
The general process of engaged inquiry as I conduct it, and which makes room for these 3 properties, consists of four steps. (What follows is an adaptation of procedures from the Institute for the Advancement for the Philosophy for Children).

Four stages of Engaged Inquiry
i) Stimulus. Inquirers are presented with some stimulus (e.g., story, object, activity, picture – SOAP [Wilson 2013]), prompted with the instruction that, while experiencing the stimulus, they pay attention to exactly what the stimulus makes them think of.

ii) Questions. Next inquirers are asked to share what they thought of with a small group (2 or 3) of people, and together turn one of those interesting observations into a question.

iii) Discussion. Once this is complete, the group discusses one of the questions – seeking to find some reasonable answer (for as long a needed, but usually at least 45 minutes)

iv) Reflection. Finally the inquirers go through a self-reflective process where (typically) three questions are posed to prompt inquirers to move to the “meta” level about the discussion. (This last step, in my opinion, is one of the most important and often the most meaningful for changing the tenure of future discussions)

A Recent Example of Engaged Inquiry
I recently conducted an introductory philosophy class where I used a National Film Board of Canada animated short, To Be by John Wheldon, as a stimulus. This short film raises questions about identity and responsibility by depicting a fictional person-duplication machine (two modified fridges) which copies a person, produces the duplicate, and destroys the 'original'. (Those who have read a bit of metaphysics will recognize this as problems akin to those discussed by Derek Parfit.)

I showed the film to my class (of approximately 40 first year university students) first prompting them to pay heed to what the film makes them think about (step i). We followed this with question building (step ii) which resulted in questions like "Can I survive being duplicated, i.e., as two different people?"; and "If I'm put in the duplication machine and the original is destroyed, am I responsible for what the original's actions?".

For this large class size we were able to form 2 discussion groups, allowing those interested the two distinct question to join the appropriate group. Discussion of the first issues (step iii) lead the group to puzzle over whether a duplication of biological structure is enough to capture all that we want from personal identity. One student was sure this was wrong - "I'm more than this bit of meat, organized in these ways!", she insisted - while others couldn't see what else there was that could matter except that bit of 'meat'. The second group's focus - the second question above - was distinctly different, with the central concern being what the grounding for moral responsibility could or perhaps should be. Indeed, much of the time was spent working through what the difference was between the 'could' and 'should' formulations of the potential answers -- never quite satisfying all members of the group by discussion's end.

In the reflective stage (stage iv), I encourage groups for which I am the facilitator to consider three general kinds of questions - a question about the community; a question about creativity; and a question about critical thinking. These usually take the same simple form -- Community: "How did we do at including everyone?"; Creativity: "How did we do at thinking outside the box, or about things we haven't thought of before?"; Critical thinking" "How did we do at introducing counter examples to test our ideas?" -- though of course they can be modified to better fit the particularities of the discussion just held. Participants are then given space to voice any thoughts they have on these questions, and suggest changes for future inquiries.

Not surprisingly, the first group suggested that they were not creative enough -- being too hung up on what they brought to the discussion, rather than spending time working through the alternative view expressed by their peer; the second group was especially positive about the level of critical thinking the group reached - given that they spent a fair amount of time puzzling over something which notably makes a significant difference to the weight of their answer (i.e., the difference between 'should', 'would', 'could').

Though not a perfect illustration, this example captures much of what engaged inquiry is, as I conceive of it. The groups took a stimulus in the direction that most interested them, and were invested (some heavily) in the answers that they reached. And these were, legitimately, their answers. While I sometimes interjected to ask for clarity, or to connect ideas, or to slow the group down asking for examples, my input was not such that it (dramatically) redirected the conversation towards interesting issues for me. My input was, instead, constrained by the interests of the group's members and withdrawn enough that those group members could form (and test) their own positions.

One final word: My hope is that this blog itself be a stimulus for engaged inquiry (occurring in the comments, at least, if not spurning dialogue elsewhere). I am always thinking through these issues, trying to develop new strategies, tackle and overcome difficult problems, and test the ideas and assumptions that I (sometimes unknowingly) take for granted. In that vein, I welcome any comments that might prompt our own engaged inquiries.


Kennedy, David. (2004) The Role of a Facilitator in a Community of Inquiry. Metaphilosophy, 35(5), 744-765. 
Sharp, A. M. (1987). What is a Community of Inquiry. Journal of Moral Education, 16(1), 37-45 

Wilson, Robert. (2013b). "Evocative Objects", invited talk at the BC Engaged Philosophical Inquiry Network meeting, UBC, Vancouver, British Columbia, September 13th, 2013.