what happens to a dream deferred?


images-3On a journey such as this and as the weeks progress, you find yourself starting to view what you see and what you hear through the lens of your own practice, your own environment and your own political backdrop. You start to bring into focus those unsettling and unshared thoughts you’ve held for long about learning and teaching, content and knowledge, children and teachers and even the very purpose of school. You feel a growing courage to no longer speak in whispers after hearing the courageous voices of experience and passion.

Jonathan_Kozol_(5991655898)That happened during my final week following a passionate call to action by philosopher, poet, educator and writer, Jonathan Kozol. His address was The Big Questions are Already There in the Hearts of Children.

Jonathan Kozol was sacked  from his first job as a primary teacher for ‘curriculum deviation’, a single event that radicalised him. Now after fifty years as a philosopher, teacher and author, he shared his journey which wended its way from the halls of Harvard, to segregated schools in Boston to a walk in the Bronx neighbourhood with Mr Rogers of TV fame.

images-2Kozol began teaching fourth grade in a deeply segregated school in Boston where, in his own words, the curriculum had little to do with the black students. Although he had studied English Literature at Harvard, it was the mother of one of his students who introduced him to the poetry of Langston Hughes.  He shared this poem with his fourth graders.

What happens to a dream deferred?Langston Hughes

 Does it dry up?

Like a raisin in the sun

Or fester like a sore

And then run.

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load

 Or does it explode?

Kazoo was sacked for deviating from the curriculum but he continued to teach and to write and is still a powerful advocate for equality in education.

Although his talk referred directly to the USA situation, it resonated with my own thoughts about the emphasis on content in rather than knowledge out, on the emphasis on testing over teaching, of the eroding of a teacher as a professional to a deliverer of services and the redefining of the child as a product.

Why is this so important? Because it undervalues what is also important in childhood – nurturing of curiosity and wonderment, developing children with the confidence to pose discerning questions, participating in deep discussions and with the right to pursue subjects that interest them. And because of the emphasis on testing to the ‘norm’, there is a real possibility that we may underestimate  and undervalue the child.

While testing per se is not a bad thing, and the curriculums are full of ‘sweet words’, what concerns me is how teachers are judged both by parents and the system by the only measurable tool – the test. The pressure for a teacher to ‘cover the curriculum content’ and to reach ‘the outcomes’ both detracts from the teacher as a professional and skews the focus from outcome to income – not on what is being learnt but what can be tested.

And with the emphasis on the ‘drill and grill’ method,  teachers feel they must teach to the test and inquiry is the loser.

And then there is the bias of omission – on what is not being tested – curiosity, creativity, spontaneity, originality, self-reflection, self-correction……….

Back to Kozol.

What,  he asks, can we do to stop this juggernaut of business and politics influencing schools with the intention to prepare young minds for the market place?

He calls to the intellectual arena, the scholars, authors, poets and those with the audacity to speak out and interrogate the status quo. Loudly.

Ask, he says, when did you first think for yourself? Who helped you think?

Wonderful teachers, says Kozol, should never let themselves be drill sergeants for the state.

What happens to a dream deferred?


little factories of understanding

Unknown-3A highlight at the ICPIC Conference in Vancouver was to hear and meet Kieran Egan, philosopher and educator at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the founder of Imaginative Education Research Group.

Egan is regarded as one of the most original ‘big thinkers’ in education and his address was titled Engaging Children’s Imaginations by Teaching Them Lots and Lots of Useless Knowledge.

His primary message was that we need to crucially evaluate the curriculum, the practice of teaching and the very nature of school.


Egan calls for imaginative approaches to learning and challenges the current performance model of teaching and testing which sees education as a process of accumulating knowledge and skills that are uninvolved with emotions, intentions and human meanings.

Egan further challenges the accepted norm that curriculum should start with what the child is familiar with and gradually move to the unknown. As Sue Lyle[1] so succinctly puts it – it’s like asking a fish what’s it like to live in the water – it can only begin to reflect once it’s lifted out of the water’.

He presented his idea on the nature of knowledge and claims that the only knowledge is the human mind. There are codes of transmitting knowledge – books, the internet etc., but that the only true knowledge comes from our own minds. He argues that schools confuse the codes of transmitting and true knowledge by testing the codes rather than seeking meaning from these codes.

This led him to talk about the important and power of imagination and thinking as he called for a focus on cognitive tools rather than knowledge or psychological development. Imagination says Egan is the great primary workhorse for learning and children’s minds are porous to the power of imagination. ‘The more you know the easier it is to be imaginative’.

Egan has written numerous books and the reader would be well advised to read what is written rather than my limited notes from a thrilling presentation. But these were my takeaways as they relate to the young child.

  • Children are abstract as well as concrete thinkers
  • Children’s thinking is powerfully affective
  • Children readily understand content when organised into story forms
  • Children are readily engaged by forming images from words
  • Children are prodigal producers and consumers of metaphors
  • Children’s learning can proceed by forming binary oppositions and mediating them

UnknownConcerned that presenting content to children without context leads to a road to nowhere, Egan is working on the LIDS (Learning in Depth)[2]. In this project, children from the very early years become true experts in a field of their choice and the project brings learning to life and empowers children from their very first year at school. By the end of the project, children graduate as true experts in a chosen field. The detailed notes on the SFU website below outline how to implement LIDS.

So why was Egan speaking at a Philosophy for Children conference? Because the cornerstone of his work is the focus on the tools we can use to build children’s understanding and make their curriculum more meaningful and engaging. These tools he refers to are the foundation stones for Philosophy in Schools.
[1] Lyle, Sue; Imagination in Education – the neglected dimension: the world of Kieran Egan. http://www.dialogue-exchange.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Imagination-In-Education-Sue-Lyle.pdf


it’s not about ‘me’ but ‘we’.


As I review today’s photos I understand why Suzanne Axelsson, a philosophy teacher at the Filosofiska Förskola (philosophy preschool) in Stockholm is so highly considered as a practitioner for philosophy with very young children.

I have been following Suzanne through her blog Interaction Imagination for some time but it was magical to observe the way she communicates with children.

Philosophy is at the core of this preschool centre. Suzanne begins the week with a philosophy discussion and this sets the agenda for the week. How this program will develop depends on the children’s conversations and the teacher’s observations.

As an example the previous week they discussed the story of Hansel and Gretel. From this they explored forest animals and which animal would make a good leader, made a trip to a local museum to gather more information, built a Hansel and Gretel house out of blocks, photographed it and then reconstructed it using only the photos. And throughout the week’s activities, the dialogue continues ending with a recorded activity in their logbook. Much more on Suzanne’s blog on this exercise.

I observed a structured philosophy lesson.

  1. Suzanne gathered her class (only 7 as 4 had left for the holidays) and passed a box around.  After some guessing a note was revealed.  Why do children go to preschool? What did you think?
  2. A discussion commences which she continued to extend with new questions.  There was a continuous involvement by all children for more than 20 minutes.
  3. An assistant who had scribed the conversation then read the dialogue back to the group. This was greatly enjoyed and several children made corrections where they had been misunderstood.
  4. The session finished with a bubble activity – an exercise in listening (I’ll call out who goes next), self regulation, turn taking and group dynamics (catch the bubbles but make sure you don’t touch anyone else).

IMG_3544It all seemed so simple and normal.

When I started philosophic discussions with this group a year ago they initially lasted around 10 minutes but now they are comfortable to talk for up to 25 minutes, said Suzanne.

Suzanne reiterated what I had heard from both Maaike and Sara. Philosophy is not difficult for young children and need not be difficult for teachers if they are open minded and ready to approach a discussion from child-up rather than adult-down, if they are skilled in asking open-ended questions and if they recognise a philosophy session is not ‘just talk’ but has a clear structure and purpose.

Children enrol at filosofiska, a private non profit making centre in Stockholm, from their first birthday and even in this pre-language stage,  basic skills are practiced that are essential when they engage in a philosophic dialogue. They include:-

IMG_3612learning to give and receive

taking turns


making choices

awareness of others

Suzanne laments we are not training children to be listeners. Communications is made up of talking, reading, writing and listening yet listening, which is the principal method of communicating, ranks lower in percentage of time taken in schools than the others. Perhaps we could also lament that we as adults are not good listeners.

So why do philosophy in the early years? Because it will open teachers up to the possibilities of young children. This is the way they will really understand and know their children, says Suzanne and she made references to Alison Gopnik’s research findings.

What I see at Filosofiska and at Sara and Maiike’s schools, where practitioners are explicitly introducing young children to philosophy, is a challenge to the accepted views of a child’s social and cognitive development.

I returned to Sue Lyle’s research and the point made that by uncritically accepting these views, we may be holding children back.

IMG_3563I refer to Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby and her conclusion that we have been significantly underrating and misperceiving the mind of a baby and that very young children learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we had ever have imagined.

But is this Philosophy?  I ask Suzanne.

Certainly. We do not ‘teach philosophy’ but we use the practice of philosophical inquiry as a tool to develop creative, critical and caring thinking in young children. 

I talked with Suzanne about The Eyes of the Child project, which demonstrates that the process of ‘thinking’ can take many forms. She has written extensively on this on her blog.

After the children had left, I talked with the staff and together we shared our views on training.  That’s for another blog.  Thank you dear Suzanne.

philosophy is everywhere

IMG_3536Not only can we do philosophy with very young children but we must do it for it is the evidence that we are listening and respecting children’s dialogues.

I visited Maaike Lahaise, the Director of skrubbelund barnehage (scrubland preschool), a government owned, Reggio Emilia inspired centre of 70 children and 18 adults with the children in three groups – 1-3 years, 3 to 4 years and 5.  Maaike ‘caught the passion’ for philosophy after seeing it in action and has now pioneered this in the centre where she is responsible not only for the centre but also for those children who will start formal school within a year.

I was so warmly welcomed with hellos, high 5’s and a smattering of English words from her class of 4 to 5 year olds. A small group of girls delegated themselves as my minders – one to carry the notebook, one the pen and one my camera and off we went to explore their outdoor area.

Photo by Charlie (4) with Margaret and Maikke and two friends.Of particular note was the amazing confidence the children had with me, the stranger who could not speak, and how quickly they accommodated me. Charlie (4) offered to take my photo with two of my new friends.

We are a family, said Maaike, and the children are free to go into any space including the teacher’s spaces.

Prior to the philosophy lesson, we all sat together to get to know each other and shared a meal – homemade bread, cheeses, meats, spreads water and milk.

IMG_3525M:          Kate, do you want to say something before we eat?

K:          Yes. I want to say thank you for letting me visit, thank you for the food and thank you for being so friendly.

M:          Does anyone else want to say something?

C:          That’s what we do at home but we talk about Jesus too.

And so a conversation began even before the bread was broken and I realised we were in a community of inquiry.

C:                   Hmmm this looks good so it must taste good

M:                   Can something look good and not taste good?

C:                   No. Everything looks bad if I’ve not tasted it, but when I know what it tastes like then it looks good.

M:                  Is there a difference between food that looks good and food that looks bad?

C:                  Yes something might look good but taste bad

M:                 Can you give me an example?

C:                  Well the food the Sami people eat looks bad like blood pancakes but they taste good. I saw that in a video.

At this point the milk ran out and Maiike asked a child if he could get another carton.

IMG_3526C:                   No. Someone else can get it.

M:                   Are you not able to get it or don’t you want to get it? 

C:                   I have a sore leg

M:                   Does Benjamin not want to get it or he can’t get it? 

More discussion and as most agreed that he didn’t want to get it but one child.  Then a child who had not spoken aloud said,

C:                  But if he does have a bad leg then he can’t get it.


M:                   Okay everyone; in five minutes we can go to have a group chat. Is that a long time or a short time?

And so the discussion continued – even before we had commenced the formal ‘philosophy lesson’.

I considered the point often made by teachers that there is no ‘time’ to do philosophy but that is when philosophy is viewed as a ‘subject’. With young children it is a particular style of conversation – a collaborative conversation between children guided by teachers. To do this, teachers need support on how to recognise the philosophic moves that Maaike does and how to extend the dialogue by giving children practice in thinking skills (giving reasons, giving examples, counter examples, suggestions, conclusions, examples).

It’s actually very simple said Maaike, we must listen to the children. I am a learner too and I learn much from engaging in dialogue with them.

I recalled reading a statement by another outstanding early years practitioner, Sara Stanley in But Why.

You do not have to be a ‘super teacher’ to do P4C – Philosophy for children. You only have to be prepared to value what children have to say, to respect the questions they ask and to provide them with opportunities to develop their thinking. 

IMG_3534After lunch (which the children cleared up)  we went into an adjacent room used for shared talk and drama. Maaike told the children they were going to see a film about animals.  At the first frame one child commented.

C:  But we must have a film in English so Kate can understand it – we know Norwegian and a little English but she knows no Norwegian only English

And from this a discussion began on how we communicate, whether animals can talk to each other, whether animals can they talk at all, whether we could learn an animal language,  whether parrots are really talking? and so it went on again. All in Norwegian but I was able to be understood because children use a variety of ways to communicate if you just listen and watch.

What I have taken away is that

  • Philosophy is everywhere, and even children as young as two can engage in it. I recall a recent conversation by Pip, just two, when asked what should they do next. We have to go to the movies Daddy because the red teddy said so (reason giving) and she will be sad if we don’t.
  • Philosophy is not difficult if you listen to children and are trained to make the philosophic moves through questioning.

But is it Philosophy?

I would say yes because Philosophy is a method of thinking, a learned skill just like reading and writing.  Children have ideas and questions about contestable and abstract concepts and within the collaborative environment and with a skilled facilitator, they can explore them and deepen their understandings.


Sara Stanley, But Why? Developing Philosophic Thinking in the Classroom.

we have the ‘why do’ but where is the ‘how to’?

note pinned on Beate’s wall

I met with Beate Borresen, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at the Oslo and Akershus University College and a prominent advocate for philosophical inquiry with children. She had been referred through contacts both in Norway and Sweden and the several hours we spent together focussed my thinking on the connection between philosophical practice and teacher training.

Although many teachers been trained in P4C in Norway both by Beate and visiting experts including James Nottingham and Sara Stanley from the UK and Oscar Brenifier from France, Beate found difficulty finding practitioners to demonstrate philosophy in action.

She commented on the disconnect between the theory, the training and the implementation in the schools and suggested the following reasons for this:

  1. Many theorists used ‘many sweet words’ promoting the ‘why do’ philosophy with children but had little or no connection to the ‘how to’.
  2. Teachers found it difficult to conduct philosophical inquiry because they themselves were not critical thinkers. Part of this reason was that the teaching profession no longer attracted intellectuals
  3. The emphasis on outcomes including PISA testings created the perception in teachers that they had ‘no time for philosophy’.
  4. A positive attitude of the Head of the school was crucial to the adoption of philosophy in schools.

Beate preferred to refer to philosophy in schools as ‘structured talk’ and she shared teaching materials and lessons plans she was developing to support teachers who wanted to implement inquiry in the classroom. Like Sara Stanley she road tested  ideas and was inspired by the conversations she had with her grandchildren.   Do I see a trend emerging for grandparents?

proposed logbooks for use in schools

I was particularly interested her reasons for printing logbooks (8,000) to be used in schools. These were similar in concept to those I had seen with Sara Stanley (although much more expensive) and would be provided to every child to document in some form the discussions held. Beate felt that if teachers used these logbooks in conjunction with the teaching notes, it would not only encourage  children’s critical thinking but also develop teacher’s critical thinking skills and in some ways overcome ‘the difficulty’ referred to above.
I reflected on how fortunate we were in Australia where many of the philosophy trainers were practicing teachers and particularly how fortunate I had been to have a committed Principal, Michael Jones, at Bondi (point 4) who valued and promoted critical thinking for all students and made the pathway for me to introduce it at Bondi possible.

a universe of learning

Sara Stanley with the wild things

Here we were in Norwich, two grandmothers sitting on the floor opening match boxes holding miniatures – small stimuli that expand into big questions, discussions and ‘a universe of learning’. That quote came from Charlie (4) when he was describing his ‘school for dragons’.

And what a universe of learning is happening at this nursery school in Norwich. Sara Stanley pioneered the Storytelling Curriculum for the Early Years which evolved into Philosophical Play.  Her work is based on 25 years of listening to children. She has scribed hundreds of conversations overheard when children play and noted the philosophic world that children live in.

Children use abstract concepts naturally  – good/bad, right/wrong, sharing/ownership, rights, proof, possibilities, revenge/love/hate, gender, rights/rules/justice/fairness/power,  friendship, trickery and possibilities from the time they have language. And from this Sara developed Concept Cards where children identity the philosophic concepts within their (and other) stories. It’s my turn (fairness) You’re not friend any more (friendship) Not now (time) No that toy is mine (ownership) You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad). You’re not sharing (sharing).  Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friend do friendship). The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof). That’s going to be impossible (possibilities). The dragon is going to get you back (revenge). Only girls can play this game (gender).  Sara then connects the children’s imagination and love of storytelling with philosophical inquiry. Her practice is continually evolving and I not only observed Sara in action but had time to theorise with her about her practice and ways to effectively train early childhood teachers. Her method, detailed in her two publications, is replicable.

Sara reading a story written by two year olds
Sara reading a story written by two year olds

On the day of my visit, Sara was giving a two hour session at a disadvantaged Nursery school in Norwich. She started by reading The Fire Monster written and illustrated by a group of two year olds from Reflections Nursery School in Worthing. The children spontaneously started discussing the book until a child suggested he’d seen a monster in the outdoor playground. Here Sara understood this was a philosophic move. She suggested we might go outside to see if we could find clues or proof that a monster was in the garden.

finding evidence of dragons
finding evidence of monsters

The high level of energy, engagement, collaboration and imaginative play went on for more than than an hour. Sara and her assistant scribed what they heard and what stories the children were telling them.  She always acknowledged the author of the story and some children double checked that she did this.

Sara recording Tegan's story
Sara recording Tegan’s story

The children returned inside and Sarah read the children’s stories back to the children.  New discussions started from these children’s texts. Would a monster rather be a monster or a human? Could you be a monster? Are all monsters bad monsters?

… we were fire monsters  too

I followed Tegan (4) who was highly active when it came to finding clues that a monster did live in the garden.  After a while she took chalk and drew her story and then later retold it to Sara who scribed it.   This is transcript of that story by Tegan (4) Tegan:  The monster had a lot of fire. I’m in the story. Ellie May and me. The fire monster killed us because we touched him  and we died. And when we woke up we were fire monsters too. But we blew out blue smoke.  Judy you can be in our story. Judy: No I’m making up my own story. I could go on and on about her methods but they are well described in her two books which I would highly recommend. Stanley, Sara, But Why – Teacher’s manual  – developing philosophical thinking in the classroom. Stanley, Sara, Why Think – Philosophical Play from 3-11  

the trinity of theory+practice+training

the village alms house in Kilmington, Oxfordshire
near my acccommodation  – the alms house in Kidlington, Oxfordshire

I am in Oxford visiting SAPERE, the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education.

My interest is to look at the training and the delivery of philosophy in schools. In New South Wales, we run a similar Level One FAPSA accredited course but this is more on an ad hoc basis. One of my concerns has been the lack of follow-up and support teachers are given after this initial introduction and anecdotally I see evidence that the practice is neither effectively implemented or the interest sustained. As a trainer and modeller, I have also been concerned that while the Level One course was effective for the few, there is no strategy in place to promote P4C more broadly to the Learning community, nor is there in place a top-down strategy to offer continued support for teachers and schools.

SAPERE is a registered charity with a network of 60 professional trainers across the UK to deliver P4C training in initial Teacher Education and Continuing Professional Development programs for teachers and schools.

I met with Lizzy Lewis, the Development Manager for SAPERE and who is also the President of ICPIC, the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children.

with Lizzie outside the Radcliffe Camera
with Lizzy outside the Radcliffe Camera

Going for Gold’ is a new initiative that SAPERE offers schools. It establishes a sustainable professional development training program and ensures that Philosophy as a pedagogy is embedded into the entire school.  A school signs up for a three-year P4C program which involves an initial short intensive whole-of-school professional development training (usually a two day Level One training and follow up day ‘Tools for Thinking’) followed by observations of practice and in school mentoring where necessary by the expert trainers.  Examining the evolution of this comprehensive program first hand has been a worthwhile exercise.

Of particular interest was the very recent development of partnership teams between postgraduate Philosophy students and experienced teachers. There is a long running debate on who should be delivering P4C in schools – the philosophers or the teachers. A SAPERE trainer, Grace Robinson (www.thinkingspace.org.uk) has developed a team approach where postgraduate philosophy students partner with an interested experienced teacher.  They meet at an initial two-day SAPERE course and then the student works in tandem with the class teacher to deliver a philosophy program (say once a week) in the class.  This is a win win as the student obtains classroom experience and the teacher is exposed to more ‘philosophy’.  This is certainly something I will be proposing when I return.

A follow up from this is the growth of partnerships between academic institutions and specialist trainers.  While there have been discussions in Australia on how to introduce P4C at the pre-service level, there are few examples of specialist trainers being engaged at the tertiary level.  But at SAPERE, there is a notable growth of specialist trainers presenting modules of P4C as part of teacher training and postgraduate modules.  Currently there are more than ten UK universities in partnership with SAPERE.

Two evenings of reading and a growing confidence that there are pathways to deliver more effective teacher training to both pre-service teachers and in-service teachers.

philosophy with four year olds

Steve in a Philosophy lesson with 4 year olds
Steve in a Philosophy session with 3 and 4 year olds

What an inspiring day. I observed Steve Hoggins, a philosopher and teacher with specialist training in Primary, Nursery and ESL facilitate three philosophy sessions with three and four year olds.  Steve works with The Philosophy Foundation (http://www.philosophy-foundation.org) a not-for-profit organisation that trains and delivers philosophy programs into schools. Steve is engaged by the Clyde Early Learning Centre in London to deliver three philosophy sessions (one hour per week) for 39 weeks to children in the centre.  The centre has approximately a hundred children from diverse multicultural backgrounds with the majority of children from homes where English is not the first language.

What I saw was impressive.

As we entered the centre, little people rushed over to high-five him. ‘Steve are we going to have Philosophy today?‘  He delivered the three 20-minute sessions in small rooms away from the general hubbub.  The classes are voluntary: one class had 7 girls and one boy, another around the same with 22 attending the final class. It is worth describing the lessons to show the range and scope of what was done with 3-4 year olds.

Lesson One: Who is Pen Man? (philosophic concept – identity)

Steve introduced four identical pencils and after a short game establishing procedures for discussion, he built a Pen Man using a ball for a head, a plastic lunch box for the body and the four pencils for the arms and legs. He used a Paddington Bear soft toy for the children to ask questions and often the child answered the question for PB as well.

Steve:            Ask Paddington Bear who is this?

Child:            Paddington Bear who is this?   He said it was a person.

Steve:            Does someone else want to ask Paddington Bear a question?

This went on in a democratic way and then Steve separated elements of the body and the children discussed a variety of propositions.

Steve:             (legs removed) Is it still the Pen Man if he has no legs?

Steve:             (head separated from the body) Where is the Pen Man now?

Steve:            If you have one leg (or one arm, or no head) are you still a Pen Man?

Lesson Two:   The Three Robbers (philosophic concept – good and bad)

In this lesson Steve read The Three Robbers and the children discussed if the robbers were good or bad. Steve then began improvising further on the story using two children as robbers and the remainder of the class making suggestions on what the robbers (children0 had stolen – my trousers, my shoes, my socks etc., my money? Was the robber who took the money bad? What about the one who took your trousers?

Lesson Three: The Teddy Bears’ Picnic (philosophic concept – sharing)

Steve improvised a story of two bears who went on a picnic. The children added to the story about what they might put in the Bear’s picnic basket. The story continued until  Steve pulled a cake (a round card)  from the bears picnic basket.

Steve:  The bears have decided it’s time to have the cake but there is only one cake. What can we do?

One girl decided that they should cut it up – and cut it into three uneven pieces. She gave one to the first bear and one to the other. The children were concerned that this didn’t seem okay.

Steve: How can we fix this up? Can we make it okay?

After a number of tries, they proposed that they could give it to the Hungry Penguin who was obviously a regularly character, and they then proceeded again to sort out the best way to divide the three unequal pieces.

The children were highly engaged in all sessions even in this hot humid room. There were many elements to the success. One was certainly Steve who had teaching techniques that I had never seen before. He used simple hand/eye movements to give instructions or deal with distractions. He had a very clear set of procedures about listening to each other. He acknowledged every contribution with a thank you (rather than the evaluative response that’s a good idea). He had a very clear idea about the purpose of the lesson. His questioning was highly inclusive but offered choice – ‘Do you want to change something or tell us more’?  The children called him Steve and he totally engaged with the children using a gentle modulated and sometimes singing voice when speaking.

After the sessions, I was invited back to the Worley’s home for a work dinner.  Pete, Emma, Steve and I went long into the night talking about Philosophy and young children. An unexpectedly rich experience. Oh I must mention Katie Worley (4) was there too.

doing Maths on a pirate ship

Principal Louisa Munro-Morris, Kate and Dr. Sue Lyle
with Principal Louisa Munro-Morris and Dr. Sue Lyle

Louisa Munro-Morris, a recently appointed Principal to Landsdowne Primary School in Cardiff is implementing a strategy for radically reforming the Foundation Stage. This included a pirate ship being the location of the Numeracy program.

Louisa is a trained Philosophy teacher and currently completing her PHD on Philosophy and Children.  She is keen to embed Philosophy throughout the school and all teachers in the Foundation Stage have completed a two day SAPERE training course in Philosophy with Children. She has engaged mentors to regularly visit the school to observe and support the teachers as they move away from a prescriptive program to the Story Telling Curriculum. The seven classes within the Foundation stage work closely together to support each other in this new curriculum. Louisa and Kathy, the head of the Foundation Stage, were very open about the problems they have and do encounter trying to  change direction and particularly the resistance from the traditional teachers to the changes to what is already in place. I have consistently observed that change and innovation starts at the top: visionary leaders supporting those teachers who take the challenge to change and working around those teachers who may never be open to change.

the corridors have become learning environments
the corridors have become learning environments

With great pride I was taken to the Pirate Ship. Here in the corridors where once coats and bags were hung was a shared Numeracy centre was built ‘out of bits and pieces’.  Here amongst the anchors, ladders, ship lockers and treasure chests lay the Maths Centre which served all seven Foundation classes. No longer do teachers have to pack and unpack resources as they are stowed in ‘treasure chests’ awaiting the next band of pirates. Bags of gold have replaced counters, kitchen scales show the tilt of the keel, treasure maps showed the coordinates for the dig, places to weigh and measure fish,  a ship’s bell for recording time to complete tasks and an innovative octopus for calculation and pattern matching.  Individual class teachers continue to discover new ways to use the ship to explore mathematical concepts within this shared location.  This ‘built from bits and pieces’ project firmly places Maths within the real world.

I observed a philosophy lesson in the Nursery Class.  The teacher presented a lesson on classifications – a useful philosophic tool – giving the children images of cities and country to place within the two defined categories that were separated by a rope.

Nursery class in a Philosophy session
Nursery class during a Philosophy session

I noted the difficulty the teacher had in giving all children a voice, the difficulty of engaging the whole class in the activity and the difficulty of converting and extending the preliminary activity into a critical inquiry.

This  was a valuable experience making me reflect on what elements of the Philosophy program would be most valuable in difficult environments particularly where many children do not have English as a first language and and how best to support teachers who want to change from an adult–directed style of interacting with children to a more collaborative environment.

I have an abundance of food for thought and I look forward to a few days off this coming weekend to reflect more on what I have seen. Off to London tomorrow.

the storytelling curriculum in action

Four years ago when Anna Bolt was appointed Principal of Glyncollen Primary School in  Swansea, she asked her staff to abandon the formal literacy program and adopt the Story Telling Curriculum (STC) instead. As a pilot she focused on the Foundation Stage, which includes the Nursery School (3 to 4 years) Reception, Year One and Year Two.

With Anna Bolt
with  Principal Anna Bolt

This was radical thinking and planning. It challenged officially sanctioned ways of promoting literacy. It questioned the assumptions made about how children learn to be literate. It disrupted the views of ‘good practice’ and ‘what works’. The approach is led by the theory that narrative understanding is the primary meaning-making tool. It reinforces that children from 3-7 are highly imaginative. As an example of the theory into practice, young children tell their stories to an adult who scribes them. These stories are then read back to the children then become part of the class reading, drama and philosophy stimuli for discussion. In all classrooms, teachers leave motivational triggers for children to explore.

Reception open classrooms with child directed activities
Reception open classrooms with child directed activities

The morning I visited the Reception class, the children had found a letter from the Queen asking for help to find her crown. In the captured moment below, some children were writing letters to the Queen on Ipads, others were creating possible scenarios on how the heist happened and others were redesigning another crown. In this Reception class the class were using The BFG by Roald Dahl as the year long novel.

using the BFG as the year long motivational text
using the BFG as the year long motivational text

I observed how all aspects of the learning curriculum stemmed from the novel like ‘Who is the class giant?’ (measurement), tallying the giant’s tasting table (numeracy), ‘describe the BFG’ (literacy), writing letters on Ipads, creating menus for the BFG,  writing stories, drama and of philosophic discussions the emerged from the story.  This week the discussion question was ‘are Queens and Princesses always good?’ Children are responsible for their own progress which has led to a change in classroom structure. Children work on tasks and the teacher and two aides (yes a teacher and 2 aides for 30 children) move between groups to support the the learning. Teachers programs in Foundations Stage are written after the event demonstrating what and how the teacher has covered rather than the traditional way of planning what will be taught and directing the learning to prescribed outcomes. I talked at length with Sian, the Year Two teacher who had based her year program around James and the Giant Peach and I was able to retrospectively read through her program. Sian had built not only her Literacy program on the novel but also her entire program including Science, Mathematics, and Personal Development. Dr. Sue Lyle had undertaken action research with Sian and in brief they noted that standards had risen dramatically and the biggest impact had been on reading and writing.

My initial thinking is that Story Telling Curriculum could be an effective planning tool in Preschool and Kindergarten classes in Australia. However, I am still trying to get my head around how the dictated outcomes of the curriculum are achieved without any explicit teaching.

Reference: The Impact of the Storytelling Curriculum on Literacy Development for Children Aged Six to Seven and their Teachers, Sue Lyle & Anna Bolt, University of Wales.