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Philosophy begins with a story

Philosophy begins in wonder according to Socrates and Aristotle. Children and young people naturally wonder, and this is where we can introduce great stories, encouraging us all to wonder about the philosophical questions arising from our reading.

Philosophy in UK schools began a little later! Interest in philosophy burgeoned in the 1990s, 1389 years after Socrates death. Many teachers watched the BBC documentary “Socrates for Six-Years-Old’ broadcast in 1990. This documentary introduced the specific philosophical methodologies of Matthew Lipman and colleagues, notably Catherine McCall and demonstrated the power of philosophy to effect the educational outcomes of children. By the time I trained as a teacher in the late 2000s, the concept of philosophical BIG questions was firmly established in the UK’s education curriculum as independent units of study, but also incorporated into our study of religious (and increasingly non-religious) worldviews. In fact, in every school I have worked in since, I have initiated and participated in a Philosophy Club. I will do so again as schools begin to return to normality.

Stories are typically the main stimuli for philosophising. Matthew Lipman and Catherine McCall wrote their own stories to model the practice of philosophy and explore philosophical ideas. Others chose published stories. Philosopher and educator Karin Murris preferring picture books. Her book Teaching Philosophy with Picture Books (1992), rewritten as Storywise: stories for thinking is sadly now out of print. The academic Robert Fisher selected stories, many of them folktales, from different countries and cultures around the world in his book, Stories for Thinking (1996). Any story however can be useful, and even short extracts can make fantastic ‘thunks’: small chunks of thinking that make us question our everyday assumptions. A favourite of mine, inspired by the character of Harry Potter’s Sirius Black, is whether you can chain up a werewolf! A variety of religious and non-religious short stories are also freely available from the NATRE (National Association of Teachers of Religious Education) in both the primary and secondary categories: These are ideal for one-off philosophy discussions or could be included in a thematic study or a study of different religious traditions.

I continue to experiment, using stories in the format of graphic novels, helping to promote literacy and inclusivity. My current school serves a diverse community with many different languages spoken at home, and I find that graphic novels help readers decode the meaning of the text. With a growing number of graphic novels now being published I have recently enjoyed reading a number of those that have been serialised in The Phoenix compiled and published by David Fickling Books. These would be ideal as a philosophical resource. As a Religious Studies teacher I also draw upon the great stories of the world’s religions, using graphic novels, such as Guru Nanak: The First Sikh Guru, Volume 1 by Daljeet Singh Sidhu and Campfire’s retelling of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana: Sita: Daughter of the Earth by Saraswati Nagpal. A typical philosophical lesson begins by reading part of a story, then generating questions, separating, with guidance, those questions about the story and the BIG questions which the stories prompt. One BIG question is then democratically chosen and discussed. The story of Guru Nanak, for example, challenges us to philosophise about injustice, social change and creating a better society. A focus on Sita, explores questions about gender roles, ideas of good and evil as well as the significance of duty.

In addition, there are some excellent non-fiction books introducing children and young people to the rich history of the subject and the thoughts of past thinkers. As a seasoned Armadillo Magazine book reviewer, I have reviewed many great titles, since snuck into my resources at school! Three recent such publications are worth highlighting. For primary schools Britta Teckentrup’s My Little Book of Big Questions published by Prestel, is a beautifully illustrated book of philosophy, with original artwork, asking personal, profound questions in an appealing and accessible format. There is also Alex Woolf’s Think About It! Philosophy for Kids published by Arcturus, aimed at Key Stage 3. Alex Woolf presents a clear explanation of different philosophical questions in an accessible way, supported by fun, engaging illustrations by Jack Oliver Coles that help demonstrate key principles. Usborne’s Philosophy for Beginners by Jordan Akpojaro, Rachel Firth and Minna Lacey, illustrated by Nick Radford, is a must-have for any secondary school. The title definitely understates this fantastic and comprehensive book for beginners, adept students and teachers alike.

Philosophy may begin in wonder, but stories help us wonder and non-fiction philosophy books can inform our wonderings. Perhaps reading a story is a form of philosophising, asking philosophers, and readers, the same question. What if …?

Simon Barrett


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