Saint-Didier primary school

Cycle 1 and cycle 2: Philosophy

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I discovered philosophy at Saint-Didier-sous-Riverie School, in November 1997, two months after joining. At the time, I was responsible for the cycle 1 class. My colleague, Remi Casteres, had received a letter from Agnes Pautard, Jacques Levine and Dominique Senore, inviting him to a meeting during which would be presented an educational experiment entitled, 'A community of philosophers, from nursery to college'. The protocol was described in brief. The item that struck me the most was the list of questions to ask the pupils: What is a grown-up? Is everyone the same? Are there stupid people? I had no doubt that the pupils would be interested in these questions; at school, we don't ask these questions, yet everyone has something to say. By setting these questions, I would also be conferring a new status on my pupils, that of 'grown-ups', people who think, and who have a right to think for themselves.

So we attended the meeting at the Lyons Teacher Training Institute. In fact, virtually the whole team attended, because we were all very interested: my two colleagues of cycles 2 and 3, Jacques Pichon and Remi Casteres, two class assistants and me. We obtained the bulky protocol, complete with recordings, notes, and transcripts to aid with implementation. And we made a long-term commitment to hold frequent meetings to analyse what was happening in the classes.


So I started philosophy with cycle 1. I scheduled this activity in the afternoon, at a time when the Nursery Year 1 and 2 children were sleeping. It was obvious to me that philosophy for the younger children was simply not feasible because a certain level of language proficiency is needed to converse without the help of adults. One needs to understand questions and attempt to answer them. One must be capable of listening to others. I have not changed my mind about this. Apart from certain exceptions, it is not possible to start philosophy before Nursery Year 3.

As a team, we decided to set the same question in all cycles. We chose the first question What's a grown-up? easily, on the basis that children of any age could think about this topic. On the day of the first philosophy session in my class, I felt very nervous. I felt that we were about to tackle something very important. I explained to the pupils that they were going to think about a question together and that this process is called philosophy. I presented the protocol:

  • I do not participate, in order that pupils express their own thoughts,

  • The session lasts ten minutes,

  • The children must receive my permission to talk, so each must wait their turn before talking.

In fact, I had to intervene several times to repeat the question. The children were not accustomed to this type of exercise so did not express themselves much and expected me to get involved. However, I did not allow myself to say anything except to repeat the original question – I am convinced that this is the right course of action during a philosophy session. Video recordings made during other classes made me realise that even the slightest intervention of the adult can influence the children's thoughts. Even our expressions or our gestures can have an effect. One must be silent, and if possible, hide all emotions. However, to achieve this, one has to accept that the children may not give the right answer. This requires a radical change in the conception of our profession, and of the relation between the pupil, the teacher and knowledge. One must show humility by accepting that children can think without us.

Philosophy is not like other subjects at primary school. Usually, when the teacher asks a question, he/she expects to eventually receive the right answer from the pupils. When the right answer is given, the teacher makes sure that every child internalises it. However, at the end of a philosophy session, everyone has constructed their own viewpoint, and, undoubtedly, these are all different.

From the first session, I felt that the children, like me, were aware of the importance of the undertaking. They were serious and very quiet. Some pupils fidgeted a lot with their clothes or wriggled about in their chairs, as if their thoughts had awakened something deep inside them. The children often drew from their own experiences, providing anecdotes related to the question. Sometimes, they digressed from the topic, carried away by their own logic. They also relied heavily on what their parents thought or said.

In the class timetable, the philosophy session immediately preceded the activity groups for maths, arts and craftwork. I quickly realised that the children's interest in these other activities was adversely affected by the philosophy sessions. After philosophy, some children wanted to talk more, others did nothing, while others did what they were told, but half-heartedly. At the end of one session, I therefore decided to ask them whether they wanted to draw, either in relation to the philosophical question or something else. And, to my great surprise, most of them just wanted to draw and nothing else. Consequently, I began to offer a drawing period after every philosophy session.

I made a point of offering pupils the choice of drawing either in relation to the philosophical question or something else. Why? It seemed to me that the pupils needed to draw, but not necessarily in a very conscious or rational manner. The most important thing was to release emotions, not to focalise on the exact terms of the questions. I felt that by letting them draw freely, I was giving them a better opportunity to express what they were feeling. And, it should be noted that drawing about something else did not mean that they were not externalising their emotions on the question.

The drawing time was a revelation; the children's work was not meant to be good or to be judged in any way, contrary to normal circumstances. However, the work seemed to fulfil a need. I remember one girl who still felt the need to cover her sheet with coloured lines at playtime, after 30 minutes of drawing. Some drawings seemed very violent to me: in such cases, the children had something to express, something that came from deep inside them. The important thing was not the end result, but the children's behaviour, characterised by intense concentration and a serious frame of mind that had persisted from the session. I felt that the drawing period was an essential release valve for their emotions.

If I had expected my cycle 1 pupils to answer my philosophical questions, I would have stopped a long time ago. One might be disappointed by what the pupils say. This does not matter however. The key thing is that during this period, they ask questions together and try to answer them together. Also important is that they listen to one another's thoughts; they hear these thoughts and start to consider them. Thus, the pupils eventually began to use the expression "I don't agree with ..." regularly during the sessions. They were beginning to perceive what others were saying.

In terms of which questions to ask, originally it had been decided to ask the same question in all three cycles. However, we realised very quickly that this would not work. Cycle 3 pupils can understand questions that cycle 1 pupils wouldn't, while other questions that have no effect on the older pupils stimulate the younger ones.

Gradually, new questions, which were not on the original list, emerged in class. For example, one day, when I told the children to do up their jackets before going outside because it was cold, one pupil remarked that mine was undone and that, even I, as a grown-up, didn't like the cold. He asked me whether I was allowed. This inspired a question for a later session: Can grown-ups do whatever they want? And I felt that children had a lot to say on this matter.

Another day, two children were in disagreement because one wanted to kiss the other, who refused. They came to me, explained their problem, and I told them that their situation could be a philosophical question: When do we kiss? Both pupils were happy to know that their problem would be discussed, and this particular session was also very good. However, this question was of no interest whatsoever for cycle 3. For the older pupils, the question was not philosophical. The answer was obvious, and roughly the same for everyone.

During a philosophy session on the question Can it be useful to lie?, the children spoke a lot about trust. I later decided to ask the question What does it mean, to trust? I am not convinced that this was a good idea; the pupils had little to say. They had already talked at length about trust during the session Can it be useful to lie? For them, it was repetition. I noticed on several occasions with cycle 1 that one shouldn't repeat a question that is similar or related to another one already set or that evokes similar concepts. After the children have talked about a subject, they do not want to return to it or to discuss it in more depth. They seem to have tackled the question inside out and not to be ready to tackle it again.

At the end of one session, the pupils asked me if they could make up their own questions, and I agreed straight away. The first suggestion was: What is a pneumatic drill? I was surprised and asked the pupil why she had suggested this question. She replied, "Because it's difficult". We then had a discussion on What is a philosophical question?, and we all finally agreed that it is a question to which not everyone (adults or children) has the same answer. And I showed them that there was only one answer to the question about a pneumatic drill; after explaining to them what it is, with some pictures, the children understood.

In parallel with the class sessions, the workgroup, still guided by Agnes Pautard, Jacques Levine and Dominique Senore, continued to meet regularly to work, exchange practical experiences and observations, analyse situations, and to try to understand what goes on inside children's heads during the sessions. We put ourselves in their shoes by participating in a philosophical session on time. This made me realise how hard the first stage is: to think about how I saw things in relation to the question. This was even before listening to what others say, trying to understand what they are saying and responding to them. Step by step, my thinking, nourished by other people's contributions, changed. The hardest thing, it seemed to me, was to consolidate all the information given by the group to construct my own viewpoint.

It is difficult for me to measure the effects of philosophy sessions on the class. The pupils are capable of listening, exchanging, thinking, and taking into account what others say. But is this solely due to philosophy? The general functioning of the class, the other talk-based activities, each child's thinking about their knowledge acquisitions, the concept of the child as an individual – all these factors contribute to making the pupils what they are. It's a whole, and it would be inconceivable to hold philosophy sessions in a class where the children couldn't talk, didn't have any rights, or didn't understand why they were there. In order to tackle the major questions of life together, the most important thing is to allow oneself to think. One of the prerequisites for starting philosophy sessions in class is to consider the child as a thinker.

In the four years that I have been holding philosophy sessions with my cycle 1 pupils, only once have they asked me to stop the classes. It was near the end of the school year. When I asked them why they wanted to stop, they replied: "Because we're tired of thinking…"

One and a half years ago, I finished cycle 1 and took over cycle 2. Therefore, I already knew some of the pupils well, and they were used to doing philosophy. We have one session every fortnight, for ten minutes. Here, again, I do not intervene. Sometimes, the session is filmed and we watch it later. While we are watching the session, anyone can intervene at any time, to add something, to say that they have changed their mind since, to ask for an explanation, to summarise…

The pupils often suggest questions. Here are some of them their suggestions:

How do we learn?

What are parents for?

Why are people on this planet?

Why do men and women want to marry?

Why is space infinite?

Who is God?

How was language made?

Of course, it seems easier than with cycle 1 pupils: the children listen to one another, take into account what has been said to arrive at their own opinion, and discuss. Some pupils, as in cycle 1, never contribute. For me, this is not a problem. They can still make their own opinions by listening to others. I had noticed, in cycle 1, that children who didn't take part were those who needed to draw the most. This was their own way of externalising what they were feeling. I also notice that certain children, who do not participate, will use informal periods to talk about the question with me or the other children. Perhaps the whole exercise is too stressful for these children.

To me, forcing a child to speak during the philosophy sessions amounts to preventing him/her from thinking. In such a case, the child would not say what he wants to say, but just provide a 'filler'. During my sessions, I want my pupils to think, not to talk. Sometimes, there are long, almost oppressive, silences. I am convinced that they are necessary for the communal construction of opinions. And, they do not bother me in the slightest so I am never tempted to intervene.

A recent incident showed me the effect of the exercise; only the Nursery Year 4 pupils were involved. I had had an interview with Marouchka and her parents, because she complained of not having any friends. Two other young girls, Coralie and Audrey, were very good friends and inseparable. Returning from a sports session, I bumped into a beaming Marouchka, who told me that she had finally found a friend. In the next class, Coralie was in tears. The others explained to me that she had lost her best friend, Audrey. So I suggested to the pupils that we discuss the matter. Many of them took part, and the main issue was whether someone can have several friends. Some of them told of their own suffering in the past. I felt that the class helped Coralie enormously, and the three young girls seemed happy. During the review of the day, Paolo said, "I really liked philosophy". When I reminded him that we had not done philosophy that day, he explained that the discussion about the three girls was philosophy.

Philosophy has been part of my class timetable for six years now. At the start, it generated a lot of questions from the parents. During the meetings at the beginning of the school year, I explained why we had decided to introduce philosophy. Some parents were worried about the possibility of dealing with difficult questions, such as death. They discussed among themselves whether this subject had a place in school. But generally, they were interested and wanted to find out more. As agreed in the workgroup, we refused to show parents video-recorded sessions involving their own children. Philosophy is very intimate; the child, who reveals himself, must know that he can do this in complete safety, without his relatives watching.

Today, the parents would be surprised, even disappointed, if philosophy were to be abolished. Some families have very interesting discussions at home, about the questions asked in school. They have, in the majority, understood the meaning of this activity, and no longer feel the need to interrogate me. There are no worries.

But if I can't precisely measure the outcomes, why continue ?

It would be inconceivable for me to stop offering this thinking space to my pupils. Philosophy is a departure from school; the child thinks about life, about being human. I want these children to grow up into people who find their niche in the world. When I see to what extent they are capable of thinking, of being interested in others, of asking questions about the world, it is clear in my mind that philosophy has something to do with it…

Corinne Famelart

This page has been translated from French by Andreas Theodorou.






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Last Update :11/11/04