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Learning programme design

Like curricula in the UK, France, US, Canada, and Australia, The New Zealand Curriculum locates philosophy in the social sciences domain. This has the support of the UNESCO Social and Human Sciences sector.

If you are a teacher with an interest in introducing philosophy into your school, you will need to have done (or do) some relevant study.

Introducing philosophy into your school

You don’t have to begin with a philosophy programme as such. You can introduce philosophical discourse into your current classes, whether they be English, science, mathematics and statistics, social sciences, the arts, technology, economics, health, or another subject.

To do this, you need to move your students past simple understanding of texts and on to thinking about the fundamental ideas that underlie your subject. You then need to encourage them to pursue these ideas through questions and through the issues that arise out of them.

For example, if the subject is year 11 history and the context black civil rights, students could usefully explore the notion of equality: What does it mean to say ‘all human beings are equal’? (Immanuel Kant – the categorical imperative.)

Introducing philosophical discourse into your classroom

You can start in quite small ways by making space within your current teaching programme.

Four suggestions for getting started

Here are four suggestions as to how you might do this:

  1. Identify one important idea to start with – an idea that is related to your subject area; for example, freedom. Now focus on that idea by asking philosophical questions (‘What is freedom?’). Refer to relevant philosophical works (for example, in this case, John Stuart Mill).

    The students could brainstorm what they think freedom is, but they must get to the point where they have a definition (for example, ‘One has freedom of action when one can do what one wills’ [Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, NY, 2005]). You will need to have a philosophy dictionary on hand.

    Once the students have arrived at a definition, you can challenge it with further questions (‘How can we be free when our DNA and cultural backgrounds are fixed?’).

  2. Introduce your students to a short philosophical text (one page is enough – the Internet is great for resources) that contains an argument or problem that relates to a philosophical idea (that is, an idea contained in a fundamental question). The fundamental question might be, ‘What is friendship?’ and the problem, ‘How do I know you are really my friend?’ Find at least two texts that argue different points of view. Again, the Internet will provide examples of friendships that are genuine or simply a means to an end. (See Aristotle on ethics.)
  3. Select a series of related, important ideas that will lead students into territory where deeper questions can be found. For example, ‘What is seeing?’ ‘Is seeing the same as knowing?’ ‘In knowing, do we discover the truth about reality?’ (See Plato’s Cave and the related theory of truth.)
  4. Identify a series of important ideas and apply this approach to different fields of discussion, for example, ethics, aesthetics, politics, philosophy of religion, logic, philosophy of science, epistemology, and metaphysics. Select texts that raise interesting questions that will take students beyond the text. Possibilities include the Book of Genesis, St Paul’s writings, the Tao te Ching, Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, St Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law, Thomas Hobbes on international relations, Nietzsche on Beyond Good and Evil, and Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism.

Let students do the thinking

When philosophical questions arise, whether from regular teaching or from philosophical texts, take time to crystallise these questions.

For example:

  • ‘Why do artists engage in abstract art?’
  • ‘What is the relationship between an image and its meaning?’
  • ‘What is a logical argument?’
  • ‘What is truth?’
  • ‘What is the difference between knowledge and opinion?’
  • ‘What is the good life?’
  • ‘What is happiness?’

Ask your students to give written as well as oral responses, and encourage them to ask further questions. Avoid being too quick to provide ‘answers’. Expect all students to spend time pondering philosophical questions that arise – and allow them time to experience wonder. Aristotle said in Metaphysics, wonder is the beginning of philosophy. Open questions are best for evoking wonder.

See the suggested context elaborations for each philosophy learning objective for numerous examples of contexts that can provide philosophical questions.

Establishing a philosophy programme

A number of New Zealand schools have established philosophy programmes, some of which have been in existence for years.

These programmes come in different sizes and shapes. For example:

  • a compulsory programme for all senior students (St Peter’s College)
  • an optional half-year course for junior and senior students (Auckland Girls’ Grammar School)
  • a wide range of optional courses for senior and adult students (Hagley Community College)
  • a full secondary school programme for years 9–13 (Western Springs College
  • personalised programmes (Unlimited, a special-character state school).

Since each school has its own special requirements, teachers who want to introduce a philosophy programme into their school are advised to begin at the beginning and plan to grow the programme over time. In this way, it is possible to develop expertise and to gather suitable resources and support.

For support, contact the New Zealand Association of Philosophy Teachers (NZAPT), who can put you in touch with a practising philosophy teacher who will be able to offer ideas, guidance, and support.

Keep the focus on the questions

In any programme, it is important that students focus on asking questions about the meaning of ideas and the truthfulness of basic claims. Philosophy is primarily about understanding and critiquing ideas, not gaining new information.

Last updated October 24, 2011