- Topic 1 Questions, puzzlement and what is okay
- Topic 2 Secrets and a big important question
- Topic 3 Doing harm without meaning to
- Topic 4 Intentions and knowledge: what might a whale know?
- Topic 5 Making things up, being cross and hurting someone
- Topic 6 Showing off, telling on someone and finding reasons
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Topic 1: Questions, puzzlement and what is okay
One of the goals of ethics classes is to nurture children’s curiosity, as well as their own thinking abilities, so that they are motivated and confident enough to think well and for themselves about issues that matter to them.
In this topic we meet Mia, who likes asking lots of questions and finding things out. Mia asks her mum ‘Can I have ice-cream for breakfast?’ which might be a pretty simple question for Mia’s mum to answer. Mia sometimes asks her brother Oscar other questions which he finds hard to answer, like ‘How do fish breathe under water?’
And then Mia finds a slug in the garden, and she’s never seen one before!
“What is it?” Mia asks. “Is it a snail that’s lost its shell?” And then, picking up a snail, “if I took his shell off, would it be a slug?”
“No! Don’t do that!” Oscar yells. “Don’t!”
“Why not?” asks Mia. She has so many questions for Oscar…
Topic 1 aims to build on students’ developing capacity to recognise questions and answers as parts of speech, and to encourage students to think for themselves about:
- why it is that we ask questions
- whether we sometimes ask questions of ourselves
- why we might sometimes be afraid to ask questions of others, and
- whether sharing and discussing our questions with others can help us make progress towards answers.
Research indicates that supported, collaborative inquiry is one of the most effective means of bringing about understanding.
In ethics we use the term ‘community of inquiry’, coined by Mathew Lipman, to describe a group who puzzles over issues together and makes progress towards answers. For a community of inquiry to achieve its purpose, participants need to show respect for one another and for one another’s ideas by paying attention to whoever is speaking, by giving others a chance to speak, by not talking over each other and by refraining from ‘put-downs’.
These behaviours are captured in the ethics class rules for kindergarten, and a further aim of this introductory topic is to elaborate on the role of such rules – and the principles on which they are based.
Topic 2: Secrets and a big important question
Have you ever wanted to ask a question out loud but didn’t, because you were worried it would sound silly?
This is what happens to Oscar, Mia’s big brother, in our story.
Oscar is able to explain to Mia and her friend Max that the strange pale shape in the sky they see one afternoon is actually the moon. But he has no idea why it’s not possible to see the stars during the day. Maybe Mia and Max know why. But Oscar is more worried about how he sounds than about discovering the answer to his question. Being curious and asking questions can take courage.
Being curious together
Research indicates that supported, collaborative inquiry is one of the most effective means of bringing about understanding.
Matthew Lipman explains:
If some children offer generalisations, others may offer counter-instances; if some voice opinions without reasons, adequate reasons are promptly requested. They gradually come to discover inconsistencies in their own thinking. As time goes on, they learn to cooperate with one another by building on one another’s ideas, by questioning each other’s underlying assumptions, by suggesting alternatives where some among them find themselves blocked and frustrated, and by listening carefully and respectfully to the ways in which other people express how things appear to them. When participants fully appreciate the process in which they partake, they internalize this process, and it becomes a method of approaching any [ethical issue].
- From ‘Philosophy and the Cultivation of Reasoning’ Thinking, Volume 5, no. 4, 1985, p.37
In ethics classes, students are presented with developmentally appropriate ethical issues and encouraged to inquire together so that they make progress towards answers.
Such an approach depends upon students’ willingness to ask questions of each other, even when those questions may not be clearly formulated, to accept help from others and to modify their views in the light of others’ comments.
This requires a degree of courage and some children may initially be afraid to expose their thinking to scrutiny from other members of the group. In the topic Secrets and a big important question we raise this issue openly in the hope that doing so will help students develop the sensitivity to others and confidence in their own thinking that forms the foundation of a fully functioning community of inquiry.
Students also become aware of making inferences. This process of drawing conclusions from information we already have comes naturally to all of us, but it is a skill that develops steadily from Kindergarten to around Year 6 and that development is enhanced when these skills are taught explicitly.
Across the Primary Ethics curriculum there are numerous topics focusing on the skills of inference. These topics form a developmental sequence and one that begins in kindergarten. In this topic we make a very simple distinction between drawing a conclusion in such a way that you can be sure that the conclusion is correct and making a ‘guess’ on the basis of whatever scant knowledge or information you have.
Activity: Asking questions
Ask your child: if Kelly is in the same basketball team as Rory and Rory is in the same basketball team as Phoebe, is Phoebe in the same team as Kelly?
Then ask your child if that was a guess, or did they figure it out? Listen to their reasons and support them to explain this thinking process as much as they can.
Perhaps then you could ask a question like ‘what did I have for lunch?’ (as long as you didn’t eat together!)
Then ask your child if that was a guess, or did they figure it out?
Your child will have to have guessed, although the guess doesn’t have be a total stab in the dark. It’s more likely than not that you didn’t eat ice cream or jelly. It’s more likely to be in the range of rice, a sandwich or a salad. Your child’s background knowledge will guide their response, despite there still being a lot of guesswork involved.
Lastly, hide a coin in one hand and ask your child to guess which hand it’s in.
This time it is a stab in the dark – pure guesswork, although the child is still likely to get the answer right half of the time.
Topic 3: Doing harm without meaning to
In this topic, we aim to encourage students to think for themselves about the difference between meaning or intending to cause harm and causing harm ‘accidentally’ or without wanting to.
More particularly, in this topic we aim to encourage students to think for themselves about
- The idea of meaning to bring about a particular effect
- Whether we can mean to bring about a good effect, but nevertheless cause harm
- Whether such harmful side effects sometimes result from our own carelessness or thoughtlessness.
It’s not unusual to hear a young child insist that he or she ‘didn’t mean to’ hurt another child or that it wasn’t done ‘on purpose’. In making such a claim, the child shows they understand that they have caused harm, but also that their actions will be judged on whether or not they are seen to have or intended to cause harm.
Max, for example, knows he’s not supposed to throw the ball to his dog Watson inside the house.
But today it’s raining, and Watson really wants to play. All day long he’s been coming up to Max with a ball in his mouth. So Max is trying to play really quietly so that his mum doesn’t hear. And Watson is having a great time.
Then, suddenly, there is a loud CRASH!
Through a series of discussion questions, children break down the different factors at play in this scenario, and in the following conversation that unfolds with Max’s mother.
In another scenario, Mia wants the trip to the zoo to be a big surprise for Isabel. But Isabel cottons on that there is something being hidden from her and feels sad, thinking that maybe Mia doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore.
Did Mia mean to make Isabel feel sad?
ACTIVITY: Bedtime story
Aesop wrote a fable called ‘The Ass (or donkey) and the Lap dog’, which considers the unfortunate (yet amusing) events that unfold when the donkey tries to behave as the dog does. You may like to read it to your child: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm%23Page_79#Page_79
Topic 4: Intentions and knowledge: What might a whale know?
This topics begins with a humorous Norwegian folk tale that builds on previous discussions about the difference between doing something ‘on purpose’, and doing something ‘by accident’. In this story, a boy minds a farm for a day while the farmers go to town.
‘Listen carefully’, the farmer said to him. ‘You must go to the barn and milk the cow, and then you must take the milk to the kitchen and make butter. And make sure to shut the barn door, or the cow will get into the cucumber patch. And shut the kitchen door too, or the cat will come in.’
The instructions sound simple enough but the boy makes a few small, seemingly harmless but poorly considered decisions and the day unfolds in a series of catastrophic events. The boy didn’t intend to spoil everything, but that’s exactly what he did!
In contrast, intending to do something involves a plan of action. This topic seeks to build on children’s intuitive grasp of the difference between deliberate and accidental actions and to help them see that our deliberate actions are based on what we know or believe to be true.
Students are then invited to think about a story in which Kio, a young boy we meet again later in the curriculum, is listening to his grandfather describing an encounter with a whale. Grandfather’s tale has him out at sea in a motorboat – a motorboat that almost capsizes after colliding with something. Grandfather is thrown from the boat with a broken arm. Then the boat begins turning in ever decreasing circles and Grandfather is unable to swim out of its way. He is certain he will be killed by the boat. But suddenly a whale rises from the sea and smacks the boat with its tail. Grandfather is saved, and is convinced that the whale recognised his plight and acted deliberately to save his life. Kio is not convinced, and argues that the whale could not have known that his grandfather was in danger, and that the whale did not mean to save his grandfather’s life – claims that Grandfather apparently refuses to accept. This story provides a stimulus for further thought about the act of intention. It raises questions about whether animals sometimes mean to do the things they do, about what is involved in knowing that something is the case as well as questions about the role knowledge plays in the forming of intentions.
For an accessible account of the way philosophers tend to think about knowledge, see http://www.philosophynews.com/post/2011/09/22/What-is-Knowledge.aspx
Topic 5: Making things up, being cross and hurting someone
In this topic we focus on two behaviours common among young children. The first is that of making a mistake and attempting to hide it from others in their peer group by ‘making up’ a story about what happened, rather than telling the true story. We talk of ‘making things up’ rather than lying, which has a strong, immediate negative connotation that may prevent children from identifying with the characters’ behaviours.
The second behaviour involves being angry with someone – possibly with good reason – and retaliating by physically (and usually mildly) hurting them.
In this topic, we use a story about meerkats, rather than (human) children, to explore motives and behaviour. One reason these animals are used is to avoid awkward situations that can arise when children recognise the described behaviour as fitting that of one or more members of the class. Another is that meerkats are social animals, with complex social structures and means of communication. Meerkat behaviour is explored in the topic too because often, in thinking about ethical issues, it is important that children understand the ways in which they are similar to and different from others – not just other humans, but animals as well.
In our story, young Neo is chosen to have his first ever turn at standing on guard to protect the meerkat community from predators like eagles and jackals. This annoys his sister Baka, who has been practising standing on her toes (the ‘on guard’ position for meerkats) much more than her brother has.
Neo is told what is expected of him while he’s on duty. He must;
- stay on his toes and keep his head up
- make regular ‘peeping’ noises to tell others that everything is ok
- bark loudly if he sees a predator, and
- continue barking until all meerkats are safely in their burrows.
Only then can a meerkat on guard run into the burrow themselves.
Neo’s first attempt at guarding doesn’t go according to plan. His toes get sore, the glare gets too much and he’s unable to hold his pose. And when an eagle appears, he doesn’t bark, but gets scared instead and disappears straight down the burrow. Luckily, his co-guard and teacher, Ms Mongoose, does her share of barking and everyone’s ok.
But Neo decides not to tell anyone about the mistakes he made while he was standing guard.
When Baka asks Neo whether he stood up on his toes all the time, he says, ‘Yes. I stayed up on my toes even when it hurt.’
And when she asks him, ‘Did you keep on looking at the sky and the ground?’ he says, ‘Yes, of course I did – even when the sun was glary, I kept looking at the sky.’ And when she asks, ‘Were you scared when you saw the eagle?’ Neo says, ‘No – I wasn’t scared at all! I just stood there and helped Ms Mongoose bark.’
Now Baka is cross again. ‘I could have done that too,’ she says, very grumpily.
‘No you couldn’t,’ Neo says.
Later, when they are playing and wrestling together, Neo is winning and Baka feels he’s showing off and she becomes even more cross. She breaks the one rule of meerkat wrestling: don’t use your claws. Baka scratches Neo’s head – not really hard, but enough to make him let go, and enough to make him bleed.
Questions to explore with your child
Spend some time with your child as you tease out the implications of the meerkats’ behaviour, and considering what their motivations were. When your child offers an opinion, ask them to explain the reason behind it, and do the same when you have a different opinion to add to the discussion.
- Was it ok for Neo to not tell the true story about what happened when he was on guard?
- Why did he do that?
- Why might Baka have scratched Neo?
Was it ok that Baka did that, or did she do something wrong?
Topic 6: Showing off, telling on someone and finding reasons
This topic encourages students to think well and for themselves about the acts of ‘showing off’ and ‘telling on’ someone. More specifically it supports children to think about:
- Whether it’s wrong to ‘show off,’ and if so, what makes it wrong?
- Some of the reasons we might have for ‘telling on’ someone, and
- Whether it is okay to ‘tell on’ someone just in order to get her into trouble.
‘Showing off’ behaviour is often seen in a negative light. If showing off is wrong, what makes it wrong? Suggestions that might be put forward include:
- it makes others feel bad (unworthy)
- it is likely to alienate others so that a show-off may end up with few friends
- it amounts to ‘using’ other people as a means to our own ends (e.g. to make ourselves look good by unflattering comparison) and
- it is a flaw in one’s character.
‘Showing off’ is closely related to boasting or ‘bragging’, as well as to displaying excessive pride. The topics Pride: vice or virtue? (Stage 1), and Bragging (Stage 2) raise increasingly complex issues related to these overlapping concepts.
We use our young meerkats from topic 5, Neo and Baka, to help us explore these ideas.
Read the following part of the story to your child. Ask them if they remember what happens next in the story, and why they think each of the characters act the way they do.
Neo and Baka are playing their wrestling game. They usually play three games in a row. Today, Neo wins the first game.
‘I won! I won!’ he cries out, pumping his fist in the air.
And Neo wins the second game too.
‘I always beat you!’ Neo yells.
And that makes Baka feel cross – and upset too. She’s cross that Neo is winning all the games, and that he’s showing off about it. Somehow it makes her feel bad.