A rough outline of how I teach Philosophy and Ethics

I could write for years about how I teach Philosophy and Ethics – I absolutely love it. Here I’ve just tried to cover the main ideas, so I’ve provided some background, the foundation series of lessons, the normal lesson structure, the essay structure, and a general overview of the curriculum.

1. Background

I am fortunate to teach in an international school in Spain, and thus I am not subject to the same constraints as others. In my school, the students (and/or parents) have the choice between studying Religion in Spanish (which is a bit like Catholic religious instruction – they prepare for confirmation in year 10) or studying Philosophy and Ethics with me in English. Many students/parents make the choice almost entirely based on language, and as a result I teach mostly the non-Spanish students, and my classes have students from all over the world: Russia, China, various countries in Europe, USA etc. many of whom don’t speak English as a first language. Another thing to consider is that one cannot underestimate the importance of the different cultural capital that the students bring with them – it can be tricky (e.g. when we study political philosophy in year 10) and that makes it more wonderful – I have learnt so much about the influence of subtle presumptions, dead metaphors, and history on the way we think.

The students do not study for a GCSE (though we are starting the A-Level this year) but they must pass the subject in order to continue at the school. This freedom brings with it its own responsibilities. I have been at the school for a year now, and I was warned that there was a danger that the students would see Philosophy and Ethics as a bit of a doss. I must say, however, that I haven’t noticed this as a problem, and I hope that this is because I have created a curriculum which is as rigorous as any other.

Philosophical investigation can be like a butterfly, aimlessly flitting from one pretty flower to the next. I’d prefer it were more like a moth – duller, uglier, and with a bit more of a singularity of purpose (I could extend the metaphor by talking about ‘being able to tell natural light from artificial lights’ etc… haha). Philosophy is a naturally interesting subject, what can make it less interesting is this potential sense of aimlessness, i.e. if students start saying ‘we can’t really know, so what’s the point’, then I know I’ve messed up. Therefore, I like to make sure that the students know that they are learning methods, tools, with which to think, and that I expect them to be able to reproduce. (I am not talking here about abstracted skills. As I hope you will see, these methods are embedded in the knowledge and ideas and formats of the cases that we study.)

I teach each class once a week on a fortnightly timetable. I am a man of routine, so I repeat the same fortnightly pattern: in the first lesson they learn stuff, in the second lesson they write an essay on it – except for my very first lessons with year seven.

2. The foundation series of lessons

I shall briefly explain this first series of lessons with year seven, since this is the basis of the next five years!

I start with the following dialogue between Socrates and Critobulus (from Xenophon). I’ve rewritten it to make it more accessible (Please note! I haven’t got access to my school files where I am, so I’ve attempted to reproduce everything that follows from memory. If anyone wants more info, I’ll be able to give it to them in September):

I begin by explaining a little bit of what we know about Socrates, including that he was apparently very ugly.

Critobulus challenged Socrates to a ‘beauty contest’. Each man had to convince a pretend jury that he was better looking than the other:

Socrates: Firstly, can you please answer a few questions… Do you think that anything can be beautiful, or can only human beings be beautiful?

Critobulus: In my opinion, anything can be beautiful: a horse, an ox, a shield, a sword, or a spear.

S: How can all of these things be beautiful, if they are all completely different?

C: Well, if they do their jobs well, then they are beautiful.

S: OK, so why do we need eyes?

C: Obviously to see with.

S: In which case my eyes are much better than yours!

C: How so?

S: Because your eyes can only see straight ahead, but mine bulge out of my head and can see to the sides.

C: So you think that a crab is better at seeing than other creatures? (Show a picture of a crab with sticky-out eyes)

S: Absolutely…

C: OK, I’ll let that go. Who has the more beautiful nose then, you or me?

S: Well, the purpose of noses is to smell. Your nostrils look down to the ground, but mine are wide open and turned outward so I can catch smells from everywhere.

C: But your snub nose can’t be more beautiful than my straight nose!

S: My tiny nose does not get in the way of my eyes, but your nose does. (I sometimes show pictures of men considered ‘handsome’ in Ancient Greece at this point.)

C: As for the mouth, I will let you win on that. Since the purpose of a mouth is to bite off food, your mouth could bite off much more than mine.

S: According to your argument, I am proud to say I have the mouth of a donkey!

C: I can’t argue with you anymore. Let’s have the vote.

What I want the children to see here, is that Critobulus makes a claim, and then Socrates goes about attacking it, but he does so in a very specific way. I use this dialogue to teach the following method:

  1. When we are talking about ‘logic’, we are talking about the relationship between two or more propositions, in this case:

P: Something does its job well

Q: It is beautiful

  1. I then explain, using a venn diagram, that there are four possible relationships between the two:

    • Both P and Q are true
    • P is true but Q isn’t
    • P isn’t true but Q is
    • Neither P or Q are true
  2. The whole crux of the next five years rests on the next question: Which of these are conceivable and which are not?

To begin with, I explain this as: which of these can you imagine being true?  If it appears to be necessary, I might be more vague, i.e. conflate possible and conceivable, but I try not to. The key thing at this stage, however, is that they can engage with the question.

  1. Then we go through each possible relationship (see the table below). Whilst we do this, I explain…

  • …what Critobulus thinks – i.e. that ‘If P, then Q’ means that it is inconceivable that P is true and Q is not.
  • …the whole point of Socrates’ method is to attack that which is inconceivable. If all four of these are conceivable then there is no logical relationship. I want them to begin to understand that logic requires/is limits to what we can sensibly say.
  1. We then decide if Socrates showed that he was wrong, using something like the following table:

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 13.26.16

  1. Since and all four of these are yeses, then there is no logical/necessary relationship between the two propositions, and Critobulus was wrong.

  2. It is also worth pointing out…

    • …that often, when people are making an argument, they try to show that If P, then Q, is true by simply giving examples of P and Q both being true at the same time (i.e. something that does its job and is beautiful).
    • Also, when people are attacking arguments they often think that if they give an example of when P is not true, and Q is (i.e. something that does not do a job well but is still beautiful) this does not disprove the rule!

After this, we do a few other silly examples: If my pen has a green lid, then it will not work; If I drop my pen, then it will hit the floor. And then I might ask them to come up with their own If P, then Q for what beauty is. Normally they do this pretty badly, but that’s kind of the point.

[Anyone reading this might think that this is beyond year 7s. I can only assure you that I’ve not experienced a student who, given the right tools, i.e. some decent scaffolding and tables to help them, a bit of time, and plenty of practice, was not able to grasp this method. I used something very similar when I was teaching RE in the UK, and it worked a treat there too.]

3. Normal lesson structure

Once they have a functional understanding of this, we practice it over and over, slowly adding other methods and tools as they go. Each set of two lessons has more or less same format. The example here is from a year 10 lesson.

  • Lesson 1
    1. (From September, I’m planning on introducing quick quizzes on the knowledge parts.)
    2. A starter question to warm them up and introduce the issue:g. Do you think that the neurons in your brain follow the laws of nature?
    3. Knowledge (I always limit this to seven sentences, some context and then the argument written out quasi formally – so they can apply the methods. As they get older, part of what I expect them to learn is to be able to extract the argument from the original text themselves): g. Ted Honderich’s argument for determinism
    4. Discussion and Criticisms.
  • Lesson 2
    1. Write an essay: g. Evaluate the following argument:

(P) States of the brain are effects, correlates and causes. (every event is in a chain of causation)

(Q) on every occasion when we act, we can only act as in fact we do. (we have no choice)

If P, then Q,

P, therefore Q

Obviously, I normally have something specific I want them to focus on for that essay.

4. Essay structure

The essay structure eventually builds up to the following (how quickly they build up to this, depends on the student. During the writing lessons, I get a good opportunity to see how they’re getting on):

  1. Argument – state what you are going to try to show
  2. Background – use the knowledge bits
  3. Contestation – challenge the rule/argument using the method above
  4. Discussion – suggest a new improved version of the argument (qualify and refine it), and then contest your own argument.
  5. Conclusion – I’d really like it to go ABCDE but ‘Ending’ is a bit crap

In year 7 and 8, I only expect them to discuss the If P, then Q part of an argument. By year 9, I expect them to be able to challenge the affirmation/denial part too (which we learn during the epistemology section – see below). I’ve made an essay scaffold which I can adjust as necessary. I can send this to anyone who’s interested.

5. General overview

As I say, I can’t remember everything exactly, but the general overview is something like this:

  Term 1 Term 2 Term 3
Year 7 Ancient Greece Judaism Christianity
Year 8 Islam Ethical theories The problem of evil
Year 9 Arguments for the existence of God Epistemology Life after death
Year 10 Meta-ethics Free Will and Determinism Political Philosophy
Year 11 Existentialism Formal Logic (over the course of the term I ask them to write a watertight whodunit) No phil and ethics in this term

The most difficult part in all this is choosing the arguments to study, and then presenting them appropriately. They only really begin reading anything like the actual philosopher’s work in year 10. Because of this, I am wary that the students might think that they are in a position to dismiss a philosopher’s arguments. Thus, when I ask them an essay question, I make sure that I do not pitch it as being from the philosopher. My aim is only to provide the students with an index to the ideas and glean a method from them, certainly not to make them think that they have mastered them! This is partly remedied by the fact that many arguments come up repeatedly, e.g. Aristotle’s ethics, Aquinas’ proofs, and each time they come up, the students (and I) see something new. It also helps that within each section, we only really study a small number of arguments.

For the three religious sections, I take a handful of stories and often ask a related question, where possible using an argument made by a commentator or theologian, e.g. miracles in Christianity.

As I said at the start, I could write for years about everything I do teaching Philosophy and Ethics, but I think this gives the general gist.

My dream is that they learn how to be little pedants, who watch their words and qualify their opinions almost out of existence (a skill I wish I could master myself). For me, it is ultimately about learning to communicate clearly and accurately, but above all humbly.


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