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After Lipman: A Developmental K-6 Ethics Curriculum

Part of the Lippin Lecture Series and the 2015 Moral Literacy Colloquium.
When Apr 24, 2015
from 6:30 PM to 9:00 PM
Where Nittany Lion Inn
Contact Name
Contact Phone 814-863-5911
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In New South Wales, Australia, a new kindergarten- year 6 ethics curriculum is being rolled out in public schools. The curriculum adopts a ‘community of inquiry’ pedagogy, central to which is the ‘discussion plan’. Discussion plans consist of logically sequenced questions designed to scaffold children’s thinking about the ethical issues under investigation. Issues range from whether it is important to keep a friend’s secret, at kindergarten level, to questioning appeals to authority and moral relativism in year 6. Following Socrates, ethical questions are introduced using an initial provocation, which generally takes the form of a story.

We have been concerned to write a curriculum that helps teachers themselves come to grips with the ethical issues raised, while at the same time, assisting them to facilitate children’s philosophical dialogue. In this talk Sue Knight will outline the aims and guiding principles of the curriculum and, using examples, describe its content and pedagogy.

With the publication of ‘Elfie’ in 1998, Mathew Lipman completed his landmark Philosophy for Children curriculum.  Taking almost twenty years to complete, this curriculum reaches from Kindergarten to upper High school. Taken as a whole, it charts a developmental pathway, each unit building on those that have come before, with big philosophical concepts such as truth, beauty, knowledge, fairness and reason being systematically revisited in ever greater complexity.  Subsequently, Lipman’s curriculum has given its name to what has become a widespread educational movement aimed at introducing philosophy to children.

Since that time, few, if any, comparable programs have emerged, despite the fact that the Lipman curriculum is now used very little, at least in much of the English- speaking world. On the whole, the ‘second wave’ of philosophy-in-schools material tends to take the form of unrelated, stand-alone lessons or short topics from which teachers choose at will.   In general, this material retains Lipman’s ‘community of inquiry’ pedagogy, central to which is the ‘discussion plan’: a series of logically sequenced questions, designed to scaffold children’s thinking about the philosophical issue under investigation. Also retained is the use of an initial provocation or stimulus that, again following Lipman, most often takes the form of a story (although the provocation idea goes back to Socrates).

While much of this ‘new’ material is undoubtedly of value, a cobbled- together set of independent, stand-alone lessons or topics necessarily lacks a systematic developmental structureand so, it would seem, is unlikely to deliver the same levels of philosophical growth as a curriculum such as Lipman’s, which embeds such a structure.

We might well ask why, in the last 15 years, we have seen no such developmental curriculum emerge. From experience, I would argue that the answer lies partly in the fact that the writing and delivery of such a curriculum involves a great deal more than composing provocations and follow- up discussion plans and making them available to teachers, although in themselves, these tasks are hard enough. And there is also the fact that, in Australia at least, there has been no call for such a curriculum, no place for it in our schools.

In Australia that changed in 2010 when the New South Wales government called for a secular Ethics program as an alternative to religious education.  Now, some four years later, New South Wales public primary schools have an Ethics curriculum spanning Kindergarten to Year six, delivered to some 20,000 children. And we anticipate a doubling of this number within two years.  Like Lipman’s, this curriculum is developmental and, to use Jerome Bruner’s  term, ‘spiral’, returning repeatedly to fundamental ethical concepts, each time expanding their depth and scope. As well, it is built on Lipman’s ‘community of inquiry’ pedagogy.

But in the Primary ethics curriculum the discussion plan takes on a different form, providing more support for teachers by means of suggested responses to individual discussion plan items and related follow-up questions. For, on the whole, the effectiveness of discussion plans relies on teachers asking substantive follow-up questions, that is, content-rich questions that might, e.g., direct a responder to an argument or counter example she has not yet considered. Yet we cannot expect teachers with little philosophical background to formulate such questions on the run.

This was one of a myriad of challenges we have faced in the writing and implementation of the Primary Ethics curriculum. In this talk I will describe a number of these challenges, and explain how we tackled them.

Why is the Rock Ethics Institute involved?

As a central hub of ethics research and education at Penn State, the Rock Ethics Institute is proud to host this event.

Dr. Sue Knight

Photo used on event page.Dr. Sue Knight holds a PhD in philosophy and a BEd (both from Adelaide), and has spent more than 20 years researching and teaching within the University of South Australia's School of Education. Her research interests include the development of justificatory reasoning skills and the embedding of philosophy within school curricula across the year levels. She has published extensively in these areas.

Dr. Knight drafted the South Australian Years 11 and 12 Philosophy curriculum and remains actively involved with the South Australian Association of Philosophy for Children. In 2010 she served as chief evaluator of the NSW Ethics Course Trial, and is currently curriculum writer for Primary Ethics, the organisation delivering K-6 Ethics classes as an alternative to Scripture in NSW public schools.

This lecture is part of the Lippin Lecture Series and the Moral Literacy Colloquium.