Philosophy For Children In Geography

I recently complete a unit of work on ‘Food miles’ with a year seven group. We spent a lot of time working with world maps, measuring distances, and simple mathematical calculations – as well as a number of lessons using tools in ‘Digimap’ to explore food journeys in our local area. All enjoyable lessons and great geography, but it soon meant that time was running out and the end of term was rapidly approaching.

During the lessons, students began to express some really thoughtful ideas about food miles, and some of the possible consequences of modern shopping patterns. I was really keen to give them an opportunity to explore this further, so decided to end the unit with a couple of ‘Philosophy For Children’ style lessons.

I usually use this technique to start off a new topic, and provide a focus for the work that follows, but it seems to work equally well as a way to draw a unit to a close. If you have not tried this technique before, I will try to explain the process in the following paragraphs.

The first thing I do in preparation for the ‘lead-in lesson’ is to re-arrange my teaching room. I like to do this on a regular basis, so the students were not surprised one day to arrive to find all the desks pushed to the side of the room, and the chairs placed in one large circle. I am happy for the class to choose their own seats as they enter – because they will soon be on the move!

To help get over the initial excitement of a new furniture layout, and also to shift students into a more random seating arrangement, I ask them to respond to a number of questions. I might begin with “Swap places with someone if you own a cat”, and this will lead to a number of students moving places in the circle. You can continue this as long as you like with additional questions until the group is well and truly mixed. Other questions might be: swap places if – you own a dog, if you own a budgie, if you are wearing socks, if you like ‘One Direction’, if you support Manchester United, if you have been to Barnstaple, if you have been to London, if you have travelled overseas, and so on.

I also use a ‘co-operation’ warm up to help stress that today’s work is going to need students to work efficiently as a class community. They all stand, and are told that the purpose of the exercise is for them all to be seated – but they must complete the task one at a time, and in silence. If any 2 (or more) people try to sit at the same time, the whole group has to stand up and start again. When they have mastered this, it is time for the ‘thinking work’ to begin!

At this point, the class need to be exposed to a stimulus of some sort. It could be an object, a photograph, a piece of film – or something similar. For this food miles lesson, I showed them a short cartoon clip of film (see link below)

photoand then a shopping bag, which I emptied in front of them. It included a number of foods from overseas (dried peaches form China, pears from Belgium, coffee from Uganda, coconut milk from Thailand, chocolate from Venezuela) and a jar of local honey bottled in our home town. Students were given the chance to reflect on what they had seen with some ‘think, pair, share’ before we moved on to the next stage.

Next, the students were divided up into groups of three (a good mix now following the chair swapping exercises) and given the chance to discuss the geography behind what they had seen. Each group had a mini whiteboard, and they were asked to write down 6 (or more) ‘open’ questions that could be used to further our investigations. A brief class chat about the difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions followed, and the groups were then asked to narrow their questions down to just their top 3 choices. Another class chat opened up a discussion about what makes a great question in geography, and the groups reduced their list to leave just their one single best choice question written on their boards. At this point, I usually get one group member to copy their best question onto a post it and stick it on the board for future reference.

The top choice questions were then read out to the rest of the class, and the whiteboards displayed on the floor. The students were then asked to go and stand next to the question they liked best, and we were left with the one single question for the group to attend to. This is where it gets a little bit scary, because the class are in total control of where the lesson will head next – but they invariably come up with a really thoughtful and interesting question to use for further investigation.

I like to give the group who came up with the final question chance to explain what their thinking path was, and what they were trying to reach. I then use ‘think-pair-share’ to give the rest of the class chance to discuss their first response.

For the final part of the lesson, the question is opened up to the whole group. Here, it is important to have some basic house rules established, so that students listen to what is said, and do not all try to speak at once. A magic microphone (giant inflateable microphone available from Amazon) passed around so that only the person holding it can speak works well, and if students sit with the hands on their knees and put their thumbs up when they want to respond, the teacher can manage the group dynamics fairly easily. It is also important to involve the quieter members of the class, and pass the magic microphone to them with prompts like ‘How does that make you feel?’ or ‘What would you do about that?’ This section of the lesson always brings out some really interesting ideas, and invariably, has to be cut short by the bell. I have often had a class staying on into break or lunchtime to go further into their heated discussion.

If there is time, I might use post its to get students to record any final thoughts before they leave – along with the original questions, these can be really useful to help introduce the work in the lesson that follows.

In the next lesson, I try to use the same question discussed as our theme, and get the sstudents working in groups to produce a more formal response. I like to get them to stop a spinning Powerpoint (on the fastest slide timer) to choose a style of presentation – stealing from the idea of John Davitt’s Learning Generator (link below)

Possible options include  something like – a poem, a TV news broadcast, a rap, a mime, a line dance, and so on.


About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
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