Teaching Philosophy for Children online – how and why?

  • With a shorter attention span, kids may find it difficult to sit through a lesson in front of a computer screen. What are some tips on keeping students engaged and involved?

Poorly designed virtual lessons that leave learners passive for long periods invite students to become distracted. Young learners’ chances of remaining focused are higher when lesson topics are intriguing yet relatable to their world experience, when learning tasks are challenging yet achievable with guidance, and when they are on task for a high proportion of the lessons.

To make sure of the latter, my lessons at Young Philosophers are divided into short phases which are all active in nature. Even when the philosophical topic is first introduced through a short, animated story or other kind of stimulus, I make it an interactive presentation by posing questions to involve learners and ensure comprehension. After analysing the stimulus, students brainstorm more abstract questions and vote for the questions that will be discussed deeply. This element of choice is also important to keep them motivated and interested.

As students become more comfortable with my P4C (Philosophy for Children) lesson framework, I intervene more selectively to prompt higher quality discussion between learners and provide quality feedback on thinking skills development. So again, the emphasis is on them having ownership of the process. I want to encourage them to feel like partners in learning.

  • Interaction can be a challenge in virtual settings. How can teachers help and make sure students understand the concepts taught in lessons? 

That the lessons are virtual actually has an advantage in that I can listen in to discussions more easily, particularly when students are in break-out groups. It also helps that class size is limited to six students. There are enough learners to have a range of perspectives in discussions but few enough for me to monitor and help individuals if they have miscomprehensions that are barriers to learning.

This is Philosophy, mind you, so the primary activity is exploring complex concepts more deeply through dialogue and reflection. Concepts like ‘personal identity’ do not have universally agreed definitions, which is why they have been debated for centuries. If I were to simply explain such a concept and then test for a ‘correct’ understanding, this would not help learners to develop their rationality and imagination.

However, when discussing a concept such as ‘identity’, learners may unintentionally equivocate, i.e. shift between definitions of the term, which causes confusion in discussions. In this situation, I highlight what is happening and underline the importance of agreeing on which meaning is being examined. This is an example of me equipping them with philosophical tools.  

  • What are some essential elements of effective virtual learning? 

As with face-to-face teaching, it is crucial for teachers to know learners well enough to tailor learning experiences. For this reason, I welcome all new students in a one-to-one online session to understand more about them as people and the reasons for their interest in Philosophy.

I also provide a balance between more guided learning and independent exploration. Some virtual learning takes place real time in my online lessons using a webinar application, and some takes place asynchronously with students exploring recommended online resources or completing individual tasks at their own pace before or after lessons.

There are numerous methods or recipes for eLearning and indeed I follow a framework derived from inquiry-based learning. However, the success of any method’s implementation depends on the skills of the tutor. As a trained teacher with thirty years’ experience, I am able to apply my P4C framework expertly, but I am also confident enough to diverge from it according to learners’ responses in lessons. This reactive style is a hallmark of professional teaching.

  • Why is learning philosophical skills important for children today?

There is research evidence that P4C courses have a positive impact on analytical skills, creativity, and even language ability and maths. By learning philosophical skills in their pre-teens, learners can be better prepared for the challenges of upper secondary school studies.

Less pragmatically, students have a chance to apply these skills to explore concepts of interest to all human beings, for example Fairness, Happiness, or Beauty. These topics are not commonly addressed directly in upper primary or lower secondary school curricula but, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  • How does philosophical thinking help prepare students for today’s world?

By following my courses, students can develop their capacity for calm and rational discussion which, in my opinion, is much needed in today’s world. An example of a disposition that is expected in Young Philosophers is the willingness to change opinions when it becomes clear that another student’s viewpoint is more logical and better evidenced.

I hope this shows that Philosophy is not the same as arguing or debating. It is not meant to be adversarial. Instead, it is cooperating with others so that all parties can move towards clearer understandings of complex ideas.

Young Philosophers seeks to nurture reasonableness, in all its meanings.  

An investigation into Lesson Study’s potential to augment reflective practice and to foster self-efficacy for novice academic teaching staff

This is my latest research proposal for which I am seeking collaborators and an HE environment in which to situate the study and collect the data. Please contact me if this interests you.

Lesson Study is a collaborative approach to teacher development that originated in the Japanese school sector but has since spread internationally. Online there are numerous descriptions of this systematic mode of professional learning for teachers but a commendably clear one is available at SCITT Lesson Study.

My motivation to carry out a formal study on the viability of Lesson Study is primarily to find ways to build lecturers’ reflection and decision-making capacities. My other objectives are to strengthen relationships between academic developers and novice lecturers, to stimulate lecturers’ self-efficacy and ultimately to promote higher quality instruction.  My hope is that this study will produce results of interest and value to the wider community of academic developers and inform decisions on methodology for the professionalisation of teaching in higher education. The outcomes of my investigation into Lesson Study may highlight the case for more learner-centred, deeply contextualised, process-oriented models of initial teaching development programmes in higher education. If the model that I develop and test is perceived as relevant by participating lecturers to their professional needs and challenges, it may indicate the occurrence of differentiation, which the taught programmes that I was involved with struggled to address. Furthermore, part of this study is a revaluation of the roles of educational developers. In my Lesson Study model, I intend that academic developers act more like Problem-Based Learning facilitators by assisting the reflective process, asking questions to provoke deeper enquiry into pedagogical matters, and providing input only on a need-to-know basis. My expectation is that this could prove a more comfortable and appreciated role than the current one of taught programme convener.

The programmes to which I contributed in Singapore and the UK were accredited by the Staff and Educational Development Association and Advance HE (formerly Higher Education Academy) respectively. As such they were scholarly, underpinned by principles with wide acceptance in the contemporary field of learning and teaching in higher education. Both programmes, for example, pledged allegiance to a (social) constructivist view of learning. They were also influenced by Ramsden (2003) and Biggs (1991) who shared the conviction that lecturers should seek understanding of student learning to inform decisions about teaching. A case for learner-centredness on the programmes was strengthened by Prosser and Trigwell’s (1999) research findings about relations between attitudes to teaching and depth of learning. In 2008, Hanbury, Prosser and Rickinson reported that, in the UK, teaching development programmes were successfully influencing participants to be more student-focused.

Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the approach adopted in the two programmes to which I contributed was not direct training of teaching skills. By contrast, participants engaged in a variety of session types that included interactive and collaborative tasks on topics in learning and teaching. They then applied independently whatever they found valuable from the sessions to their teaching situations. Evidence of transferral of concepts and strategies was collected in the form of assessed reflective written accounts. Participants were guided to compose reflections on their teaching experience through Brookfield’s (2005) four lenses: self, student, peer and literature.

I marked numerous reflective accounts and provided summative feedback on them. However rich and interesting these were, I felt unease that I had not observed the teaching sessions first-hand and could not remark on decisions that had been made “live” during those sessions, comparing what I had witnessed with what had been written.  This appeared to me as a less than optimal way to support the development of reflective practitioners. (My perspective on reflective practice is influenced by Cowan (1998) who followed Schön (1983) by incorporating reflection-in-practice and reflection-for-practice.)

Conscious of my limitations as an observer, as is the case for all academic developers, that I am not expert in all academic disciplines, I aimed instead to provide structure for more rigorous and predominantly peer-assisted development of reflective practice. Therefore, I looked to Lesson Study as an alternative to both the existing model in the two tertiary institutions and to the model of a teaching practicum. The role of academic developer as reflective facilitator in Lesson Study would also be explored in this study.

Is Lesson Study a credible alternative? It has a long heritage in Japan where it is a popular model of professional learning for teachers. It has also been adapted to other national contexts. A review of nine studies on Lesson Study’s impact by Cheung and Wong (2014) indicated that it is “a powerful tool to help teachers examine their practices”. Wood and Cajkler (2018) issued a Lesson Study in higher education ‘call to arms’, seeing the framework as a catalyst for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  At this stage, I believe that Lesson Study has enough potential to merit experimentation in the context I describe. These are my research questions:

  • Does my observation about theory and practice in two initial teaching development programmes apply more broadly across the higher education sector?
  • Are my concerns legitimate? Is there a basis for this study?
  • What is the evidence base for the impact of Lesson Study?
  • Is Lesson Study transferable to higher education? What adjustments to the model may need to be made? Is there a valid role for academic developers in Lesson Study?
  • Does Lesson Study promote reflection-in-action and judicious decision-making during teaching sessions?
  • What are perceived advantages and disadvantages of Lesson Study according to early career lecturers?
  • Would Lesson Study be practicable compared with existing programmes?

In order to answer question (1) above, I would scrutinise teaching development programme descriptions in higher education institutions. Research question (2) is a matter of discussion of educational literature about reflective practice and the means by which it can be inculcated in early career teaching staff. For question (3) I would distil findings from the substantial literature on Lesson Study. Given its heavily contextualised nature, conclusions about the efficacy of Lesson Study will be relatable rather than generalisable. Nevertheless, I would still hope to discover insights and indicators of Lesson Study’s potential for my purposes. This would help to answer research question (4) partially, but I would also like to confer with other academic developers on my customisation of Lesson Study and the role specification of reflective facilitator. The main experimental phase of this study could then commence. Lesson Study would take place with volunteer groups of lecturers using its established processes in the interest of raising learning quality. Qualitative methods, possibly phenomenographic, would be applied to address question (5). As a follow-up to Lesson Study, I would conduct focus groups to gauge the reactions of lecturers to the model. This part of the investigation is needed to appreciate the likelihood of acceptance of a Lesson Study model, i.e. to answer question (6). For the final research question (7), I would need to consider programme design and provision from a wider perspective, including logistical, social and political factors in higher education institutions. A separate body of literature would need to be examined; interviews with senior management would also be beneficial.

References

Biggs, J. (1991). Teaching for quality learning at university. Open University Press. [1st Edition]

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass. [1st Edition]

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Open University Press.

Cheung, W.M. and Wong, W.Y. (2014). Does Lesson Study work? International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 137-149.

Hanbury, A., Prosser, M. and Rickinson, M. (2008). The differential impact of UK accredited teaching development programmes on academics’ approaches to teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 33(4), 469-483.

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Wood, P. and Cajkler, W. (2018). Lesson Study: A collaborative approach to scholarship for teaching and learning in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(3), 313-326.