“Philosophy should be fun,” explains Jeremy, “it should be relevant, it shouldn’t be dry and academic, it should be real and it should be an activity.” Such sentiments are likely to raise the hackles of traditionalists in philosophy and education. But for students and trainers alike, it’s a breath of fresh air. Jeremy and Gerald’s techniques have found admirers in several quarters. Jan Derry, lecturer at the Institute of Education, says of the pair, “They allow both pupils and teachers to look anew at an area that they may have considered in only a limited way. They are able to make quite difficult concepts and arguments meaningful to a wider audience. Their materials allow the philosophical underpinnings of different disciplines to be made explicit.” Professor Adam Morton, chair of Philosophy at Bristol University and himself an advocate of more activity-based teaching, says “The most important thing they have done is to have designed the materials for lots of activities, some of them very imaginative.” Given these high-level endorsements, it’s no surprise that publishers are enthusiastic about the two books they are writing.
Hayward and Jones divide their activities – “we tend to call them activities because games are really one kind of activity” – into four categories. “The first ones are opening gambits,” explains Jeremy. “Forms, little questionnaires, to get students to think about the topic in a very broad way. Often they’re job application forms for some silly company, or little thought experiments, very quick ones.” “The thing about opening gambits is that they’re not meant to take that long. It’s just to get their brains titillated,” adds Gerald.
The second type are exercises or workshops. “Often that’ll involve having lots of concepts cut out on cards, so they have to select the criteria or fill out ABC questionnaires.” For Jeremy, the rationale is simple. “If you ask children in groups to come up with criteria for selfhood or something, there’s so much they can think about they don’t know where to begin, but if you’ve got 10 or 15 cards with different possibilities, they can think them through and pass them around.” Gerald, the more animated of the two, can hardly contain his enthusiasm for the cards. “It’s such a simple thing making cards and it really does work. The same game played where you have to write things down and with cards where you have to rearrange them, the card game wins hands down every time.”
Next come demonstrations, which Jeremy describes as, “…Rather like games, but there isn’t so much of this element of winning. Often you’ll do something and it shows the point. For example there’s the means and ends one, where you ask people, “Why are you in this lesson?” They have to write down a reason, they fold them over and pass it down and you end up with means and ends. It’s not a game, there’s no winner, but it shows the point.” Gerald believes, “…demonstrations are very powerful because you’re putting the students inside the concept.”
The final category is the only one the two like to call games. “In games there are winners, losers, rules and rewards. They’re the most fun, and they’re the hardest to come up with. The others you could knock up quite easily.” “The Util game is the one we’ve done the most,” says Jeremy. “Everyone can play it. We’ve played it with university third years and also sixteen year olds. People can take it at whatever level…”
It all sounds like good fun, but what is really wrong with the way philosophy is usually taught? Professor Morton, whose own book “Philosophy in Practice” deals with issues of pedagogy, says it “Doesn’t teach thinking, but rather learning and repeating. [It] doesn’t teach skills specific to philosophy such as searching for counter-examples, considering peculiar limiting cases, finding limits of concepts, considering whether reductio arguments are such, making implicit premises explicit. All of these can only be learned by doing.” This view of philosophy as an activity, which goes right back to Socrates, is firmly held by Hayward and Jones. “At the end of the day,” says Gerald, “when you’re teaching a subject which isn’t about content necessarily, it’s more about skills and thought,then in order to get them to actually use these skills, you can’t stand up and say `Write this down.’ You have to get them to do these things.”
This message has repercussions for higher education as well as schools. Adam Morton is a proponent of replacing at least part of the traditional lecture system with “a division of an audience into groups (sometimes pyramids of smaller and then larger groups) which work on activities prepared in advance,” a method largely in accord with Jeremy and Gerald’s..
While Jeremy and Gerald clearly love devising and developing activities, until more resources, such as their forthcoming books, are made available to other teachers, the use of their methods is unlikely to catch on. As Adam Morton himself points out, “The method Gerald and Jeremy and I are using requires stimulating and easy to use materials. The students have to get something out of the activities, their intelligence mustn’t be insulted, it mustn’t be too difficult. Making materials that meet all these conditions is hard, and the most important thing they have done is to have designed the materials for lots of activities, some of them very imaginative.” But Jeremy confirms that demand from teachers is there. “Teachers are desperate for materials. We teach PGCE students [trainee teachers] at the Institute and afterwards they come up and they’re grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. They stole one of my games! I was teaching on Friday and one of them just stole one of my games.”
The importance of materials is emphasised by Jan Derry. “What is of value in the materials developed by Hayward and Jones is the way in which they require the teacher, as well as the pupils, to open up an area of knowledge and consider carefully various aspects of it. Their material stimulates participants into searching for sound evidence to support a line of thought.”
A sometimes sceptical academic establishment also has to be won over. Adam Morton admits, “There is some scepticism around. Not completely unjustified: We have to prove that our methods work. [Most academics] agree that it is argument and the critical spirit that matters. But they think that essay writing and tutorials are the way to teach that.” And students too can sometimes be sceptical, “Students can think the teacher is taking the easy option (though it is actually harder to teach this way.) If a course is a mixture of lectures and activities they find the lecture sessions less demanding and can prefer them.” A telling anecdote comes from a recent adult education lesson where the teacher prepared an activity-based lesson. On feedback forms filled in by students afterwards, under “What did you like the best about this class?”, someone had written, “student participation.” But another had written the same thing under “What did you like least about the class?”
Another problem is that, in addition to good materials, you need teachers who both know their subject and can implement them well. “Any method is rarely effective in itself, but dependent on context, appropriateness of application and the way in which content furnishes its use,” says Jan Derry. As to the availability of teachers, “It is currently difficult to obtain qualification as a teacher unless the entrant to the profession holds a degree containing a national curriculum subject, thus discouraging philosophy graduates.”
The inevitable accusations of dumbing-down and trivialisation are bound to be levelled at this kind of teaching. But Gerald and Jeremy would fiercely defend their methods. “All we’re trying to do is to get people interested in philosophy,” says Gerald. “The other aspects of our lessons, which are more academic, come after the games: the discussion, the arguments, what the philosophers say. That is something else we do as well and that is an integral part. It’s no good just playing games at all. It’s a way in to their heads.” Jeremy continues, “People struggle with some of the activities. You have to use your brain, you have to get involved with philosophical projects. Just say that computer one, the Burke Demonstration (see below). In no sense are we trivialising. We are literally showing how a computer manipulates symbols around. You’re making it as difficult as it is in demonstrations.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the evangelical Gerald and Jeremy is the current backlash against “progressive” teaching methods. Group-work is now out, and whole class teaching is making a comeback, although philosophy itself is in the ascendant, albeit under the name of “critical thinking.” “That’s why I was a bit afraid of using the word `philosophy'”, explains Gerald. “In fact, we try not to use the word `philosophy’, because it does have connotations of some esoteric, academic, elitist type subject. So we use the word `thinking’. Philosophy is thinking about thinking, and I don’t think that will ever go out of fashion.”
When asked about the philosophical precedents for their methods, Gerald offers, “Plato said something like `Education is play’ in The Republic,” before adding, “I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly useful for us.”
This light-hearted remark reflects both the obvious sense of fun they bring to their teaching and the intellectual integrity which makes them stand back from their work and say, “OK, that’s fun, that works, but is it true, is it philosophical?” They can’t bring themselves to appropriate Plato’s phrase because it doesn’t ring true to them, just as they wouldn’t use a game, no matter how much fun it was, if it didn’t serve the goal of philosophical training.
Doubters, and imitators, take note.
These are activities designed to get people thinking and introduce a topic in a quick and fun way. “The thing about opening gambits is that they’re not meant to take that long. It’s just to get their minds titillated,” says Gerald.
An example of this is the Deity feedback form. Students are given a sheet of paper where they are asked about what kind of deity they want. For example, do they want a deity who is going to always intervene to prevent wrong doing? Should the deity be all-powerful, able to do whatever he or she wants? Do they want their deity to be constantly present in an overt way, or would they prefer it to conceal its presence or not be omnipresent at all? By asking a series of questions like this, students get thinking about the attributes of a supreme being, and the potential conflicts between them, in a way which doesn’t seem too dry or arduous.
Compare this with a traditional way to start a lesson on the nature of God. The teacher could start rattling off a list: God is supposed to be omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient and so on. Such an approach can leave the students cold. To involve students, the teacher could invite them to come up with a list of attributes. But this is often difficult to do, especially if you’re thinking about the subject philosophically for the first time. A good opening gambit should present basic information and ideas to the students and engage them at the same time, in a way in which simple presentation or open questions cannot.
A lot of philosophy is about finding the right criteria for something, such as the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge or personal identity over time. If these questions have puzzled the greatest minds in history, students cannot be expected to come up with good answers off the cuff, and simply presenting the ideas to students often fails to engage them.
Exercises allow the students to play around with ideas that are presented to them, often on cards, and try out different permutations. Take personal identity, for example. Students can be given cards which have on them criteria such as “Continuity of memory,” “Continuity of the same body,” “Continuity of the same brain,” “memory of past events,” and so on. They then get to pass these around and discuss them, deciding which of the criteria to reject and which to keep. By the end of the exercise, they should have learned what the major candidate criteria are, have thought about their importance, and come to some preliminary conclusions of their own.
What these games also do is make plain the whole concept of something having necessary and sufficient conditions for its truth or existence For example, students may have retained the card “A person believes that P” as one condition of that person knowing that P. But the fact that they also kept other cards show it is certainly not a sufficient condition for knowledge, even if it is a necessary one.
“In games there are winners, losers, rules and rewards. They’re the most fun, but they’re the hardest to come up with.”
A good example of an effective game is what they call the Util game. “Each team represents a hospital dilemma committee. There are three rounds, and every month they’re given these patients, what’s wrong with them, a bit of background and how much the operation will cost. They’re given a certain amount of money to last the three rounds, and they have to decide on Utilitarian grounds alone maximising pleasure, minimising pain who to save or who to operate on. It’s not all life and death things. And in the cards are all the classic problems of utilitarianism. Also, there’s a dilemma each round, where they have to put money one way or the other, which they have to solve as well. We have our own marking system, so every round they have the chance to justify their choice of patients and we give them marks on how well they argue as well on their choices.”
Games have all the advantages of the other activities, but have the added bonus simply of being games. No matter how unimportant the game is, having winners and losers certainly helps motivate students, although not too much should be made of who has won or lost.
A major drawback is that they can be very time-consuming to devise and prepare, which is one reason why Hayward and Jones believe there are plenty of teachers who are going to go out and buy their books when they are published!
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest pieces of pedagogic advice ever given, but it is hard to argue with. The idea of demonstrations is to “put the students inside the concept.”
The most elaborate example of this is the Burke demonstration, named after the friend of Jones and Hayward who came up with the algorithm necessary to devise the activity. Students are placed in groups. Each person is given an envelope with instructions and perhaps a few symbols within. These instructions read something like, “If a green card is showed, draw a Pi symbol in the bottom left-hand corner of the brown piece of paper.” When everyone is ready, the teacher comes up to the group, and places a cross somewhere on a tic-tac-toe grid. This is the trigger for one person to follow their instructions, which triggers another persons, and so on. Eventually, someone is instructed to draw an “0” in a particular space on the gird. The teacher then adds another cross.
The game is a demonstration of how a computer manipulates symbols to produce meaningful output, even though there is nothing in that manipulation that requires understanding of the task being executed: playing a good game of noughts and crosses. It is a kind of playing out of John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment and it does bring to life the abstract concepts of his argument. The whole activity makes the questions of the philosophy of mind – such as “Can a computer think?” and “Is the brain like a computer?” much more accessible.