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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.