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The Philosothon Phenomenon

Mark Smith reports on how philosophy is getting competitive in schools.

If you could become invisible at will, would you still be good? Is mathematics a divine language? These are the sort of questions that young people might discuss in a Philosothon – a friendly philosophy competition for schools. Students sit in a circle called a Community of Inquiry and discuss age old philosophical questions. The students are then scored by a judge; usually an invited philosopher from a university. Philosothons were first tried with great success in Australian schools and, in 2014, launched in the UK at King’s College, Taunton, Somerset, where I teach.

The Community of Inquiry teaching method was developed by Professor Matthew Lipman, the founder of the Philosophy for Children movement (P4C). Its process creates a collaborative and constructive learning experience gently guided by a facilitator. This mode of philosophical discussion allows the participants to simultaneously develop their social skills and cognitive abilities.

The scoring aspect of Philosothons is what makes the concept unique. The students score points for their school based on how well they interact with others within the circle. Grandstanding, dominating, and poor listening skills are marked down; facilitating, questioning assumptions, drawing others into the dialogue, and linking or developing ideas, score well.

A useful analogy for understanding what’s going on is the Hindu story of the six blind men and the elephant. Each felt a different part of the elephant – leg, tusk, tail, trunk, body, ear – and reached a different conclusion as to what it was: tree, sword, fly-whisk etc. The men left the town arguing. A little girl heard them, and said, “Each of you is right but you are all wrong… but I know what you’re talking about!” The aim of a Philosothon is not to reach consensus, but for each participant to understand what the others are saying and why they’re saying it.

Cultivating the soft skills encouraged by a Philosothon is vital in an increasingly polarised world. Furthermore, a Philosothon provides a vehicle for improving important academic skills such as the evaluation of ideas, recognising the role of evidence in the development of an argument, and the ability to isolate key concepts in a piece of dense text. No wonder head teachers warm to the Philosothon when they encounter it.

We often hear adults describe young people today as superficial and obsessed with their phones, gaming, social media, and celebrity culture. However, in my twenty-five years of teaching, I have always been aware that young people are also fascinated with philosophy, ethics, and theology. Investigating the mysterious has a way of drawing out our best, perhaps most beautiful qualities. We are lifted, inspired and just a little more compassionate when wisdom is our teacher. Increasingly, studies are producing evidence of positive cognitive and social outcomes arising from the Community of Inquiry approach. In Educational Philosophy and Theory (2011), Stephan Millett and Alan Tapper give an extensive analysis of the benefits of the approach. Peggy Semingson, Pete Smith and Henry I. Anderson have also recently published an exciting study of the benefits of this approach when adapted to online learning, in The Community of Inquiry Framework in Contemporary Education (2018). I have seen how the interplay between the cognitive demands and the social setting of the Philosothon has a positive impact on the way pupils think and interact. As with a young child at play, learning is energised by an occasion that evokes joy, wonder, experience and risk. Might there not be opportunities for this kind of learning using the gaming technology which has exploded in popularity over the last couple of decades?

Over the next two years I will be working with Julie Arliss at Academy Conferences and Dr Andrew Pinsent, Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford, to spread the message of the Philosothon to schools across the UK. I will be running classes for teachers who attend the Academy Conferences which will equip them to run their own Philosothons and organise the kind of regional events which we have found so popular at King’s College. All going well, the two years will culminate in a UK national Philosothon.

© Fr Mark Smith 2019

Father Mark Smith is Chaplain and Head of Philosophy of Religion & Ethics at King’s College, Taunton. To express an interest, please contact Fr Mark at philosothon@academy-ltd.com.

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