Philosophy? On a Friday Afternoon? The Return

Following on from my Strictly Blogs about Saima Saleh’s work on etymology and vocabulary in the classroom I decided to make use of one particular approach whilst nearing the end of our ‘What Can We Learn From the Great Philosophers?’ unit. This is a year 5 unit that fits into the curriculum by linking Ancient Greek ideas, myths, history and thinkers with Christianity, Islam and the neo-platonic views of the soul and heaven that derive from this time period. The children love learning about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. We explore the Allegory of the Cave, in amongst other allegories during the year (The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe by C.S Lewis and Terrible Things by Eve Bunting). The class are aware of and already use figurative language, symbolism and the idea of telling a story to illustrate bigger, more complex ideas. This is something that feeds into our work in English when we look at The Adventures of Odysseus and the role of myths in communicating meanings. It all sounds like daunting stuff but after 3 years of working with my colleagues to put this curriculum together you can see the hard work really makes the difference. This is a school wide success and to see the children learning with such joy on their faces was so rewarding.

We have looked closely at the three philosophers above and thought about their history and relationships. We look at the politics of the day but only quickly, for context, and we look at their major ideas. I have made some adjustments to the units available on my site as I have thought more carefully about Mary Myatt’s work on ‘Fewer things, greater depth’, and the idea of being really clear on what I want them to learn. I have also been influenced by Shaun Stevenson’s dual-coding versions of my presentations (also on my site) because I know I talk too much and give too much information in one go. I know this because I have recorded audio versions of my lessons and I was constantly telling myself to shut up as I listened again. If I want children to remember, then I have to be more precise about what it is I want them to recall. So, I have stripped this unit down and focused on major concepts – which is something I thought I had already done. These major concepts, when learned and recalled readily end up being sound grounding for all the other things I desperately want the children to think about too. Start with context, major contributions and where to go next. This is schema building and, having qualified for my PGCE in 2008, something I have learned from my encounters with @TeamRE_UK.

I brought together the major ideas and the vocabulary we had learned. The class uses their RE books to record their thoughts and complete work on the philosophers (the questions sheets) but they also have notebooks and have been trained to use the Cornell notetaking format and so during discussions, presentations and activities there is always somewhere risk-free to record their notes. If you can this is an excellent thing to train children to do in the first weeks of the year. It is really paying off. The children were invited to do a ‘subject review’ – this was

how I introduced my low stakes test. I noticed that at first, they struggled to recall some of the content, but I didn’t panic, I just remembered which synonyms we had used to explain those ideas. They understood the soul quite well and some children filled entire pages with their knowledge. The Realm of the Forms was tricky but for weeks we had been talking about it by saying ‘Plato’s version of heaven’. The moment I said this they flew once again.

The Allegory of the Cave was relatively easy to recall due to the animation and their confidence with the word allegory and they were happy to talk about where knowledge came from once, they remembered The Realm of the Forms. This activity showed them something pretty useful too. Once they had recalled one idea the other ideas, linking and interdependent, flowed from their memories quickly and with plenty of explanation. These reviews will be marked at a later date and so I needed some kind of in-class assessment tool to check for misconceptions. This is where Saima’s ideas came in. Saima’s work and her recommendation of this website, from her #StrictlyRE talk ‘Using Etymology In The Primary Classroom - Primary (7-11)’ gave me perhaps the best assessment tool I have ever used in the RE classroom. As RE is more than just matching words to definitions (although that is a useful activity too) I needed the class to match and map concepts. This is what I got from Saima. By cutting out these cards and asking the children to match them up they were able to show the links they make, they saw structures on the table and could see their learning in front of them. When asking them to explain their choices I was wowed, and I have never been so silent in my life.

I gave a set of cards to each pair of children and asked them to match them in whichever way they saw fit. This took some real understanding and negotiation between them. I then went around the room asking questions to see what would happen to the links they’d made if I moved a card. Once you move one card the links begin to emerge in a new way and the affect ripples through. In order to make the adjustment the learning really needs to be there. Thankfully it was and I could hear about all their understanding as they rearranged their cards.


1) In this example the children have grouped Socrates and Plato around the ‘Soul’ and connected Aristotle to Plato for a biographical reason. They have placed Aristotle outside the main group as he was a biologist and more interested in substance and reality, that is to say, the real world. They have connected Socrates to Dualism, Dualism to Heaven, Heaven to Knowledge and Knowledge to the Forms. These interconnected ideas show how the children relate them to one another and the justification, although verbal, is clearly seen.

2) In this example there is a more physical representation of their understanding. Heaven, the Forms, and the Knowledge are placed at the top in order to indicate that these things are thought of as ‘higher’ or, indeed, ‘highest’. The soul then bridges the gap between heaven and reality. Socrates is also there, bridging this gap – ‘like a philosopher freed from his chains’ in this child’s words. They chose also to bring attention to a question they have about Aristotle’s dualism too. They weren’t quite sure about this so they placed Aristotle lower down, closer to the ‘ground’, with Plato slightly higher and Socrates highest to indicate their particular philosophical focuses.


There are lots of examples, but I hope from these two you can see where misconceptions can be identified as well as where they strongest links have been made. I have long thought that the biographical is essential to the studying of philosophy, it has been argued that this becomes less important as you progress through the canon all the way through to modern day philosophers, but this is to exclude the influence of the historical and the political. At KS2 level I want the children to know these people, to place them in time and have some idea of the backdrop against which these ideas formed. Placing them in my philosophy timeline their influence is discussed in multiple lessons. In previous years the children have requested to look at Stoicism, female Philosophers and Christian, Islamic and Buddhists concepts of the soul and how they compare. This year I wanted to home in on fewer things, in greater depth. It has certainly paid-off. A focus on key, technical vocabulary that then enables children to think, sequence and discuss a topic at such a high level has been a great discovery this year and I would not have done it without #TeamRE.


· Note Taking: Train your children in the Cornell note taking method, use a margin-less or customised exercise book in class. It takes a lesson to get them used to it but they can then keep notes, return to and add to their understanding as your curriculum roles on. My class take this note pad with them everywhere and they are encouraged to make links between subjects. They might use their science notes in English or their Geography notes in maths for example.

· Fewer Things, Greater Depth: This is mantra now. Linking fewer things to each other provides greater depth, this doesn’t silo children into becoming specialised experts; it grounds their understanding and gives them the confidence of real knowledge. Once they secure this other ideas, related or contrasting, connections, and cross-curricular links happen on their own.

· Key Vocabulary: If the children can’t talk about it then it is difficult to think about. Etymology and defining key technical and related vocabulary mean the children have the concepts they need to ‘cognise’ what we are teaching them. ‘That guy who said the thing’ isn’t going to lead to any ‘change in long-term memory’.

· Biography and Story: I haven’t referred to this much but using story is essential to human understanding. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is typified in the story of Icarus; the children ‘booed’ when they discovered that Plato had left the Academy to his nephew and not Aristotle, they were dumbfounded when they discovered Socrates was put to death but easily could have escaped in exile. Disney’s Soul was also useful when talking about the Realm of the Forms and a platonic Christian heaven.

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