A peak experience

“This was the best morning of my life!”, a Year 9 student enthused, following our recent philosophy workshops at Albert Park College’s Liberal Arts Festival.

Students in Years 9 – 12 gleefully dug their teeth into questions like: Could a convincing simulation of a person be created from data in their social media profiles? And would you be tempted to converse with an artificial-intelligence replica of someone you’ve loved and lost?

One of our stimuli for philosophical discussion, with illustration by Krzysztof Domaradzki

The small-group enquiries pulsed with energy, and students enjoyed the freedom to experiment with ideas – to propose, evaluate, reject or concede arguments as they saw fit.

“I enjoyed getting really into the discussion and talking about situations that we as teenagers can relate to,” a student commented. “I also learnt a lot about myself… There was a lot in me that I didn’t realise I needed to get out.”

Our original stimulus materials presented complex themes in innovative ways, and generated intense and nuanced discussions. These exchanges were marked not by the urge to win a debate, but rather by the search for deeper understanding.

Students engaged in high-level thinking about a variety of contemporary ethical, political and social issues. They dealt admirably with the discomfort of finding no clear-cut answers – only more or less convincing arguments for different conclusions.

A sample page from our discussion stimulus about the Wisconsin vs. Yoder court case

“I learned that…even if you don’t have the same opinion you can still talk about it without getting into an [adversarial] argument,” remarked a Year 10 student who described the discussions as enlightening and thought provoking. “We were able to openly discuss our opinions on very relevant matters for us as a group, and for the current world we live in. We were able to talk a lot and develop our thoughts along the way while respecting the ideas of others.”

Should we humans attempt to enhance our moral character, just as we enhance our ability to play sport and fight disease? If we could genetically engineer human embryos to create a generation of more ethical adults, should we do that? And who decides what ‘more ethical’ really means? Wrestling with these sorts of questions is philosophy at its most vivid: a living, breathing practice that prompts students to challenge and refine their intuitions and worldviews.

Another stimulus we created to provoke philosophical discussion, with photo by Niek Beck

A teacher who attended the event commented: “Thanks again for two wonderful workshops! They were terrific… Great facilitators, stimulus and discussions… Some of the discussions I was able to listen to were complex, rich and highly developed.”

Our thanks go to Kellie Voss who coordinated the event; to our trusted co-facilitators Olly Armstrong, Hannah Kerber, Katie Lyng and Kai Tanter; and of course to all the students who participated so thoughtfully.

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, professional development for teachers, and training for facilitators in the art of collaborative philosophical enquiry.