Fear of a P4C planet

16th December 2015 at 15:01


Sister Marceline, with her lemon sorbet perfectly curled hair peeking out of her habit, made me rehearse my speech in front of the class again.  A collective groan greeted me as I stood in front of the classroom to make my impassioned speech on illiteracy…again.  I began my speech the only way that I knew how, with a Whitney Houston song lyric.  With my best anchor woman speaking voice, I began with “I believe that the children are our future (dramatic pause), teach them (emphasis on them) well (dramatic pause) and let them (emphasis on them) lead the way.”  As a 12 year old, I thought this was what could be considered a ‘drop the mic’ moment.  It would be so profound and surely it would capture the hearts of the audience and I would solve illiteracy.  The audience would be so moved by my speech that they would lift me up on their shoulders whilst cheering.  I would be looking down on my audience beaming with pride as I held my $25 US Savings Bond in the air.  With Sr. Marceline’s militant encouragement and being forced to recite the speech multiple times to my peers (who are now in their forties and can still recall my speech), I believed I could win the speech contest.   Sadly, my topical issue of illiteracy did not measure up to that of a winning speech about waste management. 

Somehow I managed to recover from my public speaking disappointment.  A recent lesson reminded about the importance of teaching students how to lead the way in communicating with each other.  When I started at my current school, I started my first lesson with each new class with P4C.  Members of staff peered through my door with what I interpreted as curiosity.  In reality, it was with concern for which I later found out that it was not considered academic.  Imagine telling Socrates that what he was doing was not academic! 

P4C is not circle time.  P4C is an interactive teaching method which stretches and challenges students to create open ended questions while teaching students how to engage and communicate with each other.  This strategy for teaching taps into a students’ innate curiosity about the world.  While the student benefits, the teacher is able to embrace an organic approach to teaching and learning.  In addition, it naturally lends itself to Religious Education.  In my experience, I have found that students need practice in establishing their opinion and supporting it with reasons.  They also lack experience with engaging opinions that are different to their own.  P4C is the perfect opportunity to practice, demonstrate and expand on those skills needed for written tasks which they will find in GCSE work.

I abandoned it for the rest of the term.  However, in an effort to return to those things that I love about teaching,   I’ve gone rogue.  In a recent lesson with a Y7class where we were learning about the story of creation, I went into my teaching archives and pulled out my P4C lesson where I used a piece of creation art as the stimulus.   The students were seated in a large circle and we began the nine stages of P4C.  In our Getting Set, we went around the circle and each of students named something quick fire that was created on the first day of creation.  When we ran out of things for the first day, it was up to the student to begin to name things for the second day of creation by shouting “DAY TWO” and so on.  We continued this until they reached the seventh day.  This activity gave the students an opportunity to speak without any pressure which aided in the next part of the P4C process.

Our Community of Enquiry used my example of creation art as the stimulus for the students’ development of a philosophical question.  The students worked in small groups exploring different issues connected to the stimulus.  We went through the Question Making, Question Airing, and Question Choosing stages where the students voted for the following : Will God still love you if you reject him and push him away? 

The real magic of the lesson was in how the students cooperated with each in speaking and listening.  I placed four chairs in the center of the circle.  Only three students at a time could be seated in the center chairs.  When someone from the outer circle wanted to contribute to the discussion of the philosophical question, they had to sit in the empty chair while someone seated in one of the three chairs had to return to the outer circle.  I was amazed how well the students listened and engaged with each other’s comments.  There were sentence starters scattered around the floor to assist students that find it difficult to begin speaking.  Quickly the students were engaging with what people had said previously and expanding upon points.  My Y7s were even using quotes from the Bible to support their opinion or challenge other opinions!

This particular class finds it difficult to speak and listen to each other.  The four chairs were instrumental in keeping the discussion lively and fast paced while engaging all of the pupils.  In the plenary, the students evaluated their progress individually and as a group.  Some examples of the feedback were:

“I have thought about philosophical questions because I used to think that there was just one obvious answer, but I have realized that when you think of that answer it will lead to another thing that will become your next answer.”

“I have thought about the mystery and how many people have questions about creation.”

“What would happen if you sinned 70x7 times?”

After the lesson, I looked at the empty classroom with its scattered sentence starters, post it notes and philosophical questions and felt like I have reclaimed a bit of what I love about teaching through using P4C!