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How Delphi was born: My journey with Philosophy for Children

David Whitney, by Rosie Coulson.
Me, by Rosie.

Hi everybody,

It’s been so exciting over the last couple of weeks watching people starting to download Delphi the Philosopher. It’s perhaps worth emphasising that we’re not a big educational publisher or company – just two normal(ish) full-time primary teachers who wanted to share our story and experiences with you. We really hope this is just the beginning. It certainly feels like we’re just getting started!

Anyway, I thought now would be a good time to share a little of the history behind Delphi Philosophy and how it came to be. Forgive me, but I’m going to go back to the real beginning.

Around fifteen years ago, I was at Lancaster University and had just enrolled onto a marketing course. I took philosophy as well, as a minor, out of pure curiosity. I had never studied the subject before but had recently discovered it through a series of mind-blowing books I had read that summer; not least Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which changed my life (and I know I’m not the only one). I changed my degree to philosophy after two weeks, after we had a lecture on marketing ethics and it became apparent that there weren’t any.

Fast forward three years or so. I’m now at Warwick University doing a Masters and spending my days reading Nietzsche before Keith Ansell-Pearson’s formidable four hour evening seminars. My tiny bedroom in a tiny house, which I’m sharing with four other people, is covered in notes and scattered books. Occasionally I escape for a walk to let my brain cool down enough for Also Sprach Zarathustra to make sense. Surprisingly, it did. What was intriguing me most though was my unit on the philosophy and sociology of education. I learned about citizenship education, issues around inclusion, hidden curriculum and sex education. I wondered if I could teach one day and decided – no way. It was clearly far too complicated and difficult a job.

Anyone remember us?

Two years later. After a bit of travelling, I somehow found myself working for the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency on curriculum and assessment materials. On the day I got the job, David Cameron appeared on BBC Breakfast and announced they would be closing it. We carried on working anyway. The curriculum was cancelled, the assessment materials were published and then unpublished, but I learned a lot. I got to work with some of the finest minds in curriculum and assessment and I stayed until the bitter end to get every scrap of experience I could out of it. When we finally closed, a department of over a hundred had become just the boss and me. It was quite a story. But perhaps one for another time. Suffice to say, I realised two things during my time there: Firstly, primary schools are some of the most remarkable places in the world. Secondly, other people thought I should teach in them.

Another three years on, and it’s 2013 and I’ve completed a PGCE at Warwick and got my first job in a Year 4 class in a city primary school. I’d survived the NQT year and life at school was settling down enough for me to finally go and ask to try something new. I told my headteacher about philosophy for children – about how it could help develop learning and communication skills, about how it might improve reasoning and oracy skills. I was asked some very good questions: what are the children actually learning? What skills specifically are they developing? I started to think about it, and I was given my chance, and was to trial a 12 week scheme with my class and see what happened.

A robot teacher, made by the children
A robot me, created by the children during a philosophy lesson.

All of this led to a pivotal moment – sitting my class down one September afternoon, and placing an empty chair in front of them. I had Peter Worley’s remarkable book The If Machine in my hand, and we were doing the first enquiry from it. It was without question, the most memorable lesson I have ever taught. Bringing children, who had never done anything like this before, to philosophy was a revelation. Children came out with ideas I didn’t think possible. The style of questioning felt joyful. The atmosphere in the classroom was electric. It’s safe to say it was a hit. I overheard children still talking about it two years later.

Over that term, I took some of the enquiries in The If Machine, others from other places, made up a couple of my own, and put them into a skill-based scheme of work. I threw everything at those lessons. Every single one of them was special and surprising. I was often genuinely moved – when one girl started questioning her friend to prove a point about moral relativism. When there were gasps when the children realised that not being able to step in the same river twice meant they were not the same either. When a boy on the autistic spectrum talked about his diagnosis in class for the first time when hearing about the scorpion’s ‘nature’. I wanted, and still want, every child to experience what we experienced in those lessons.

I spent a fantastic two days training with Peter Worley himself, with the Philosophy Foundation (and I can’t recommend them highly enough). I am still delighted that Pete praised the way I used my eyeballs during telling a story. This was quite a compliment, as he was sitting directly behind me at the time. After some more fantastic insights from our teaching and learning consultant, Liz Mynott (who taught me how to make a class go quiet when you walk in the room and is a genius), our scheme became a skills framework too. By the time I was working with my fabulously critical and positive teaching friend Louise Hardie on the lessons, it had become The Philosophy Tree. We rolled it out whole school, and our senior leaders were suddenly noticing how much more articulate our children were becoming.

The Philosophy Tree skills framework
Our original skills framework - The Philosophy Tree

This is getting long; let’s fast forward again. Four years later, philosophy has become a steady part of our curriculum. I’ve now trained teachers across our federation of schools. We’ve also dealt with the most common question I get asked by new teachers to philosophy – how do I know if I’m doing it right? The Philosophy Tree had evolved into a skills progression framework – now it wasn’t just a tick next to a skill, we were able to map out what progression in our four ‘branches’ of listening, questioning, reasoning and explaining actually looked like. We developed the sentence stems tool and rolled out philosophical teaching across the federation. More about all of that another day. The children were making fantastic progress – we’d just had our original cohort leave for secondary school (still arguing about the chair). But I was wondering where to take it next.

Children's partner talk.
Our conversations just kept getting better!

Of course, I’d also been learning so much else from my last few years – too much to summarise neatly. But reading aloud to children was fast becoming my favourite thing in the world. Nothing beats the silence before the gasp when you’re reading a good story to children. Some of the books were a revelation – discovering that stories can build in questions like in Simon Cheshire’s Saxby Smart stories, going through sixteen animal voices in one chapter in Charlotte’s Web, or describing Coraline talking to her cat before she went back to face down her Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece. I had discovered stories had some serious power. Some children who struggled to listen to much else would listen to a story. Everybody cared what happened next.

The pieces were there now. I wanted to create a philosophy for children scheme that combined everything I’d learned. Something that would create the same feeling for children that The Chair did on that first lesson. Something that used this powerful skills progression framework that had developed over years. Something that would link children’s philosophy back to the classic philosophy that I had fallen in love with. Something that would put children into the story. Serendipity leant a hand and I started to work with Rosie, who it turned out, not only had a background in philosophy but could also draw…

Delphi and a dog
Delphi finally arrived!

And so we wrote Delphi.

There’s so much more to say, and we’ve got so much more to share, but surely you’ve read enough for today. Everything you need to know about Delphi is on this website.

Whether you’re years into your philosophy for children journey, or whether this is the very start, I really hope you get as much out of Delphi as I have on my journey to bring it to you. Check it out here, if you haven’t already. I’d love to hear your journey and how Delphi might fit into it. Come talk to me on Twitter or Facebook and tell me all about it.

Thanks for reading.

Dave Whitney.


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