- Topic 1 Empathy
- Topic 2 Being similar and being different
- Topic 3 When is it fair?
- Topic 4 Good reasons?
- Topic 5: Different kinds of animals, different needs?
- Topic 6: Is it important to understand the rules?
- Topic 7: Stereotyping
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Topic 1: Empathy
This topic aims to foster children’s developing capacity to empathise and to encourage students to think for themselves about the process of empathising. Students are encouraged to:
- Identify their own feelings
- Recognise the kinds of situations that invoke in them particular kinds of feelings
- Recognise the kinds of body/face language and behaviours that tend to accompany these feelings
- Imagine how other people (or other animals) would feel in particular situations; and
- Engage in the kinds of reasoning which underlie the processes described above.
Imagination plays a big role in empathy, as we need to imagine how others feel. In this topic we meet Jack (6), and his big brother Gus (9). They like playing lots of games together, but sometimes Jack gets a bit fed-up when he and Gus play cricket. The children listen to the story and try to figure out why that might be.
We also meet the family dogs, two border collies called Paddy and Nessie. The dogs both like some of the same things, but are scared of different things – just like Gus and Jack. Gus is scared of the dark and Jack is not; Jack is afraid of heights while Gus loves climbing. Would Jack be able to understand how Gus feels when his night-light suddenly goes out? And would Gus be able to imagine how Jack feels when he climbs a tree? Children think about these questions and discuss them and are encouraged to give reasons for their views.
This topic includes a warm up game called ‘Spot the Change’. You might like to play it with your children too.
Instructions: “I want you to look at me very carefully and to notice as many details as you can about the way I look.” (Give your child 30 seconds to do this). “Now turn around so that you cannot see me.” (Once you are sure they are not watching, change something about your appearance – e.g. put on or take off your glasses, or a hat or change your hairstyle in some way. If possible make a couple of fairly obvious changes and also a more subtle one.) Then ask “Can you see anything different about me?”. Once the changes have been identified, it is time to swap, and now it’s your turn to guess.
MORE BACKGROUND FOR PARENTS AND CARERS:
Topic 2: Being similar and being different
Being able to detect similarities and differences between things underlies our capacity to make distinctions and to form concepts. It’s one of the most fundamental of our cognitive capacities.
For example, a toddler acquires the concept ‘dog’ by recognising similarities between the animals we point to and say ‘dog’ and differences between these animals and those to which we point and say ‘cat’. The child has an uncanny ability to focus on the particular characteristics of dogs and cats that distinguish these groups of animals from one another. They learn quickly that similarities and differences in size are irrelevant here, as are similarities and differences in colour, while similarities and differences in capabilities and ways of behaving are more relevant. But of course we sometimes make mistakes, which can lead to forming concepts based on incorrect assumptions.
Until the late 18th century, for example, whales were classified as fish on the basis of their shared environment. Now, of course, scientists look for deeper similarities and differences by comparing genetic codes. As is well known, our ability to recognise those similarities between persons that mark them out as persons – and so as worthy of being treated as such – tends to be limited. We have a natural bias towards an ‘in-group’: our attention tends to be drawn towards surface differences between members of our ‘in-group’ and others (for example, differences in colour of skin or gender). But research shows that focusing our attention on the deeper similarities between members of the ‘out’ and ‘in’ groups helps to correct for this bias (see Further Reading, below).
One of the scenarios presented in this topic involves Tom and his cousin Noah. Noah lives on a farm and Tom, who lives in the city, likes to visit in the summer holidays.
‘I can’t wait to see the animals’, Tom says to Noah. ‘I’ve got some of my own now – a dog called Rupert – and a cat called Fluffy – and some fish.’
‘But your animals are pets’, Noah says. ‘Ours are farm animals. Farm animals are completely different from pets.’
Is Noah right? Are farm animals completely different from pets?
Ask your child to help you think of three things that you both have in common.
What about a brother, sister, parent or best friend? What are three things your child has in common with each?
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Topic 3: When is it fair?
‘It’s not fair!’ is a cry often heard from the playground. It might be due to someone missing out on a turn in a game, by another child refusing to share a toy, or a best friend inviting someone else home to play.
Fairness has to do with who should get what.
Aristotle put it like this: for a distribution to be fair, equals must be treated equally, and unequals may be treated unequally. But of course people differ from one another in a great many respects, and this principle does not tell us which differences justify inequality of treatment.
How then do we determine what people deserve?
At a birthday party, we might say that the child who deliberately knocked another child’s ice cream to the ground is less deserving, and the child who missed out on a cupcake earlier in the day is more so. But not everyone will agree. The children themselves might stick steadfastly to the idea that to be fair, everyone should be given the same sized ice cream, irrespective of what has gone before.
Progressive taxation provides another useful example. Under this taxation system, all those at the same level of income are considered equals and treated equally; that is, are required to pay tax at the same rate. Those at different income levels are considered unequals and required to pay tax at either higher or lower rates, according to whether their income levels are higher or lower. Here, level of income is the one difference – among all the other differences between people – that is considered relevant to the rate of tax a person should pay. But again, not everyone will agree.
Research seems to show that children’s ideas about fair sharing develop from an early, purely selfish view at about age three to a ‘strict equality rule’ (everyone gets the same) at age five or six and then to an idea of ‘merit’, or contribution: the idea that rewards should reflect how much someone has contributed to a task. So it is likely that the six to seven year olds who engage with this topic are, at some level or other, already thinking about what makes for fair sharing. It seems the right time, then, to encourage them to think and talk about issues of fair treatment and to reflect on the strict equality rule, as well as on the idea that rewards should reflect individual contribution.
An adaptation of the story of the Little Red Hen in this topic is used to help children consider how the bread ought to be split between the animals. Should Hen get more because she did the most work? Should Pig get any if he didn’t help at all? Should Cat get more than Mouse because she’s bigger?
You might like to read the story of the Little Red Hen to your child. You and your child can adapt the story by deciding whether any of the animals will help out. Together you can help Hen decide how much bread might be offered to each animal, and why.
Topic 4: Good reasons?
Children may express their beliefs often, and with conviction. It’s not uncommon to hear statements like “I’m not going to play with Tom” or “my sister is always mean to me”. Yet, children are less likely to tell us about the reasons behind their thinking, unless they are asked.
When pressed, it can sometimes be difficult – and sometimes for us adults too – to articulate the reasons behind an opinion or belief. It’s harder still to work out whether those reasons are actually good reasons; that is, reasons that are both relevant and strong.
In this topic, Good Reasons, we help children to consider the importance of giving reasons. The topic uses games, role-playing and everyday scenarios to help children explore what makes a reason good. The focus of this topic is on a particular set of critical thinking skills which will then be applied in subsequent discussions around ethical issues.
First we look at the need for a reason to be relevant, or to make sense.
For example, two friends go to see a movie. When asked if they thought it was a good movie, both say yes. When asked why, one says, she loved the characters and found it quite exciting. The other agrees that yes, the movie was great because the popcorn was delicious and buttery.
Which of these reasons is actually relevant to the question “was it a good movie?”
Once we’ve established what makes a reason relevant, then we consider what makes a reason strong?
For example, which of the following reasons is the strongest, and why?
1: Teacher, I couldn’t do my reading last night because I was watching TV.
2: Teacher, I couldn’t do my reading last night because I had to visit my grandma in hospital.
3: Teacher I couldn’t do my reading last night because I didn’t feel like it.
With your other family members, take turns in asking each other a question. Some useful types of questions for this exercise are: What’s your favourite animal/film/sport/book?
You can then direct the person to give you a good reason, or a silly reason, for each of their choices.
What is your favourite animal and why? I’d like a good reason please.
Microbats because they eat mosquitoes.
[Now take turns]
What is your favourite animal and why? I’d like a silly reason please.
Topic 5: Different kinds of animals: different needs?
This topic aims to encourage students to think for themselves about:
- The basic needs of pets
- The basic needs of wild animals
- The similarities and differences between the needs of these two groups of animals
- Whether we should think about the basic needs of animals when we act in ways that affect them.
We start this topic with a story in which young Gus is required to think deeply about these questions.
Every summer, the blackbirds build a nest in the same bush in Gus’s garden. And every year, the mother bird lays three eggs in the nest and sits on them until they are ready to hatch.
Today it’s been windy, and branches of the trees have been bending and swaying. Gus hopes the baby birds are safe.
Gus runs outside and looks inside the nest. He sees two babies.
But wait – there should be three! Then Gus looks down. At his feet lies a little bird, covered with fluffy feathers.
Gus can tell that in its fall, one of the bird’s wings has been damaged. He runs to tell his father. Together they bandage the wing, and care for the bird for three weeks until it has healed.
But when Gus’s dad prepares to let the bird go, Gus becomes upset.
“Why can’t we keep her here, as a pet?” Gus says.
Can you help Gus figure out what they should do?
Topic 6: Is it important to understand the rules?
We are surrounded by rules – road rules, school rules, family rules. We’re most likely to pay attention to them if we understand the purpose behind them.
Cats and dogs and toddlers have rules, too.
Don’t claw the furniture
No digging in the flowerbeds
You must hold someone’s hand when you cross the road.
This topic starts by asking students to consider how much rules like these are likely to be understood by the individuals they apply to. Does a cat really understand why she shouldn’t tear the armchair to shreds, or does she only know she’ll get put outside if she gets caught?
As children get older, they can be encouraged to make an effort to understand the purpose of, or reasons behind, the particular rules laid down for them, rather than simply following these rules blindly.
In this topic we focus on helpful rules. We take particular rules and invite children to think for themselves about why they should follow these rules, as well as the importance of such thinking.
In Lesson 3, the focus is on two children, Jessie and her brother Max, and what happens when they fail to understand why they are forbidden from playing under their favourite tree.
This will be a good time to remind your children of some rules that you have for them, and to encourage them to explain why these rules might exist.
“We have a rule that you can’t run with scissors. Why do you think we have that rule?”
And follow up, as needed, with further questions like:
“Can you think of any reason?”
“Do you think it’s a good rule? Why do you think that?”
“Do you think it might still be a good rule, even if you don’t like it?”
It might well be that your child comes up with a reason as to why a rule should be modified. If so, it’s important to respond to the argument, rather than just enforce your authority as a parent. Also be prepared to explain why a rule is in place if it is important, in case your child needs help thinking of a reason for that rule.
Topic 7: Stereotyping
This topic reinforces the value and practice of ‘flexible thinking’ as a means to counter the habit of stereotyping. When we stereotype, we express false or misleading beliefs about others and are resistant to evidence to the contrary.
Philosopher Lawrence Blum points to a number of ways in which all stereotyping (no matter what its content, whether positive or negative) shows a lack of respect for the members of the stereotyped group. He argues that all stereotyping involves:
- a failure to see the members of the stereotyped group as individuals, rather “seeing individual members through a narrow lens in which they are viewed as much more alike than they actually are”
- an exaggeration of the difference between members of the stereotyped group and other groups (especially the stereotyper’s group), creating a sense of ‘moral distance’ between them, and preventing an appreciation of a common humanity.
Can thinking carefully about stereotyping help us avoid it?
Psychologists Rennels & Langlois use the term ‘flexible thinking’ to refer to “understanding that members from a particular social group may possess attributes different from those typically linked to that group… and that members from different social groups may possess similar attributes”. Consistent with other studies, they found that children who think flexibly in one domain (i.e. gender) tend to apply the same flexible thinking across the domains of race and attractiveness. They conclude that, “efforts to reduce [stereotyping] should have the broadest impact… if the intervention focuses on teaching flexible thinking…”
Can you think of an example where you thought something was going to be one way but it turned out to be different?
This is true in our story about Nosey, Curious, Dumpy, Big Ears and Shy; a group of bilbies and wombats who live near to each other but are discouraged from playing together by their parents who believe that ‘wombats are slow and grumpy’ (according to the bilbies) and ‘bilbies are scaredycats’ according to the wombats.