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Education: Wisdom in the round

20 September 2019

Mark Smith explains how a Philosothon works


A recent Philosothon at King’s College, Taunton

A recent Philosothon at King’s College, Taunton

IF YOU could become invisible at will, would you still be a good person? Is mathematics a divine language? These are just two of the questions that young people may discuss in a Philosothon.

A Philosothon is a friendly philosophy competition for schools, in which students sit in a circle — a “Community of Inquiry” — and explore a philosophical “stimulus”. They are scored by a judge — usually an invited philosophy specialist from a university — who awards points based on how well students interact with the others.

Grandstanding, dominating, and poor listening skills are marked down. Facilitating, questioning assumptions, drawing others into the dialogue, and linking or developing ideas score well. Each round of the Philosothon begins with time to “tune in”, much like an orchestra would do before playing in harmony together.

The rounds end with Phronesis: a practical application of what has been discussed. Aristotle believed that understanding alone was not enough. What has been learned must be applied, in learning to live well in a complex world.

Participants in a Philosothon are invited to voice ways in which they may want to change the way they live as a direct result of what they have just learnt. One response to the question “If you could become invisible at will, would you still be a good person?” might be “From now on, I am going to try to do good anonymously as far as possible.”

Cultivating soft skills is vital in an increasingly polarised world. Furthermore, the Philosothon provides a vehicle for improving important academic skills such as the evaluating ideas, using evidence to develop an argument, and picking key concepts in a piece of dense text. No wonder school heads warm to the Philosothon when they first encounter it.

In my 25 years of teaching as a school chaplain, I have always been aware that young people are fascinated with the big questions thrown up by philosophy, ethics, and theology. We are lifted, inspired, and just a little more compassionate when wisdom is our teacher.

Community of Inquiry pedagogy derives from the work of Professor Matthew Lipman, the founder of the Philosophy for Children movement. It is predicated on a collaborative-constructivist learning experience: the theory that people construct understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection on that experience.

First tried with great success in Australian schools, it was launched in the UK in 2014 at our school — King’s College, Taunton.

Academic studies (Millett and Tapper: Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2011; Semingson, Smith, and Anderson: The Community of Inquiry Framework in Contemporary Education, 2018) have demonstrated the benefits of the practice, including when used online. Could it be that there are opportunities for this kind of learning using the gaming technology which has exploded in popularity in recent years?

I am 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 train teachers to organise regional events. All things being equal, there will be a national Philosothon in due course, and many thousands more young people will engage with one another with compassion and wisdom.

Fr Mark Smith is Chaplain and Head of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at King’s College, Taunton.

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