Saturday 10 May 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Provocations - Philosophy for Secondary School by David Birch

I love philosophy. I love my students to love philosophy too... and one of my greatest achievements was that from my first A-Level cohort, 3 went on to study philosophy at university. 

At the end of term, many staff do quizzes or show videos. However I now usually do some philosophy. I usually use The If Machine or The Philosophy Shop, both from the The Philosophy Foundation. We do an activity based on philosophical enquiry. Some "don't get it", some love it, a few hate it, some want to do it every lesson! It's also been handy for the 'no pens' day that our school has introduced to help improve literacy.

As such, I was excited to hear about Provocations, which is the latest in The Philosophy Foundation series published by Crown House Publishing Limited. A copy landed on my desk and I found it the perfect distraction from my pile of marking.

Any philosophy book for the classroom must be user friendly. It must be practical and workable. You've got to be reading and thinking, "This'll work for .... class". David Birch's excellent book does just that.

He begins with the basics. I usually brush over the 'set up' sections as I am experienced at running this kind of lesson, but it is vital to include for those new to philosophical enquiry or those who are being thrown in at the deep end! It can be very daunting, and well out of the comfort zone.

The book is then split into four sections, "The World, 'It'", "Self, 'I'", "Society, 'We'" and "Others, 'You'". Each takes a group of topics, many of which feature in GCSE and A-Level syllabi. This is vital, as much as I would love to indulge myself with simply doing philosophy, I have a very real responsibility to enable my students to pass their external exams! However, I have considered running a philosophy club and this would also work perfectly with them.

Quite quickly, I decided that this book would change how I do things. Why not start a unit with some philosophical enquiry? A perfect starter for a philosophy lesson surely?!

Let's take "The Problem of Evil". This features on my Edexcel GCSE and AS syllabus. Birch begins with a quote "World is suddener that we fancy it" (Louis MacNeice) before launching into our starter question, "Should there be no suffering in the world?"

This could easily be on the board at the start of the lesson and students could either write a response or discuss it. There are some questions to take students further if needed, plus a short extract from Mark's Gospel of Jesus on the cross. Birch then offers a selection of 'Task Questions' as well as an alternative starter, "How might suffering prove there is no God?" which lends itself well to GCSE/AS syllabi. There are useful hints, reminders and guides to setting up the discussion, for example in this section reminding the facilitator to avoid making students feel like they are being given the answer. He gives input, background information on early Christianity, before posing more questions. There is a clear line of thought with his questioning and more than enough for even a non-specialist to fill a lesson.

Other sections lend themselves well to PHSE or form time. For example, there is a section on "Race". This has a lot more input, which could be photocopied or even read in advance before again starter and task questions are systematically, and thoughtfully, set out.

It's easy to overlook appendices, but I urge you to not with Provocations. It includes some scripts which would make great fun and fully engage a small group, or a well-prepped group to perform to a larger group. They primarily explore logic. It also provides some 'self run' topics for pupils as well as some puzzles (similar to thunks), the real provocations!

Overall, this is an excellent resource for anyone that wants to bring in critical, creative, independent thinking into their classroom. David Birch was put together a fantastic, user-friendly book that will be well used in my classroom as I readjust my teaching, help my students put down their pens and engage the power of their mind, developing both their thinking, listening and speaking skills.

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