Reach 11 - Resourcing higher philosophy
A’ Goireasachadh Feallsanachd aig Àrd-ìre
Chris Lindsay and Robert Cowan, lecturers in Philosophy, profess to being committed to promoting the benefits of philosophy outside of the academy. What better way to start than by encouraging school pupils to engage with philosophical thinking? For Lindsay and Cowan, learning about philosophy is a way of improving our critical and analytical thinking, skills which are incredibly valuable and transferable in modern society.
Lindsay and Cowan recognised a clear gap between where philosophical research is today and the resources used to teach Higher Philosophy in Scottish high schools and were determined to do something to address it. The issue first came to light when Lindsay sat on the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) review panel on Higher Philosophy, as a representative from a Higher Education Institution (HEI). It became clear to Lindsay that many of those teaching Higher Philosophy do not have any qualifications within the subject. This is because the teachers largely have qualifications relevant to teaching Religious, Moral and Philosophical Education (RMPS). Those teachers evidently know the nature of the subject, but RMPS is primarily a religious education qualification.
After some investigation, Lindsay and Cowan discovered that there were next to no resources to support those teaching Higher Philosophy to students either. The nature of the current Higher allows students to write an extended essay about an area of philosophy of their choosing, but without adequate resources students had no guidance on what to write on, nor did teachers have any guidance on how to mark such essays. Lindsay and Cowan decided to approach David Ralston, the head of the SQA review panel on Higher Philosophy at the time. Ralston too felt the extended-essay was a problematic area of the course for both teachers and students. What students and teachers really needed, they decided, was for someone to “provide the basics in a clear and straightforward manner.” They began to produce short summaries about different subject areas in philosophy which were designed to be accessible online to students looking for inspiration for their extended essay.
The summaries were produced by a range of philosophers from the subject area in the College of Arts, who each compiled a summary based upon their own area of expertise. Cowan produced a section on knowing right from wrong, Ben Colburn produced a summary of liberal political philosophy and Adam Rieger wrote about different voting systems and methods. Not only are the summaries helpful for essay inspiration, they also present fully referenced, cutting edge research in an accessible way. That allows teachers and students an insight into where the academic field is now and where it is heading in the future.
Ensuring that the summaries were pitching to the right level of ability for students was also important and so Cowan presented the summaries directly to Higher students at Hutchesons Grammar Schools Conference in 2016. Based upon the students’ questions, Cowan was convinced they had judged the level correctly. They also ran their ideas by teachers and SQA officials. You can read some of the summaries at higherphil.org.uk
Next year, Lindsay and Cowan will receive feedback from teachers and examiners of the Higher Philosophy course. They hope to get an impression of how many students used the resources and how many chose to write essays based on the summaries. In early 2018, they will be leading a workshop including conversations with teachers about some of the problems they are experiencing teaching Higher Philosophy and the demand for new resources.
In the meantime, Lindsay and Cowan hope that this project will encourage more teachers to participate in collaborative projects with HEI staff and postgraduate students to produce more and better materials for teachers and students. If you would like to find out more about this project or about working with a philosopher, please email us.
If you wish to find out more about this article or about how you can progress your ideas (i) as an academic wishing to engage with a non-academic organisation or (ii) as a non-academic organisation interested in engaging with the academic knowledge base, please email the College of Arts KE Team.
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