P4C? No, P4U!

Notes from BRAIS conference, University of Edinburgh 10-11 April 2014 Panel 5: Education: Theory and Method:

Ibrahim Lawson (Institute of Eduction, London): Questioning builds a way: Heidegger, Islam and education

In my own presentation on the Student-Centred Classroom and the Self-Centred Student  (read/listen), I point out the connection between the two preceding talks and my theme of schools teaching tools for authentic identity formation through the organised social constructivism of Cooperative Learning.

I want to begin this series of BRAIS posts here, as this talk is best likened to a nuclear submarine roving the dark ocean depths, with all other presentations –  for all their merit –  being mere air balloons above those deceivingly calm waters, blown hither and dither by the winds of postmodern self-referencing.


This is not mere poetic license. Ibrahim Lawson brings a unique set of experiences and skills to the table:  He has read  philosophy and linguistics at University of East Anglia, did his PGCE at Cambridge, has MA’s in Action Research and Theology and has spent 10 years in state school system as RE teacher and head of department. His experiences include serving as Ethnic Minority Provision adviser, Ofsted inspector, SACRE member, he has set up and headed several schools in the UK and abroad and is member of AMS Shura Council.

All this to say his presentation is not idle philosophy, but the reflections of a man who has years of experience combining theoretical and practical levels of education and philosophy trying to see beyond the hall of mirrors which has paralyzed education to the point of the current debacle.

So while the following discussion may superficially seem aimed at confusing teachers in Religious Education and Philosophy for Children (P4C) even more than Ofsted, or even a call to a return to grammar school, it actually deals with the science of existence itself.

The Spirit of in Education

First of all this quote from Heidegger on the consequence of neglecting the spirit, which most of us could easily apply to the current educational ethos of utilitarian intelligence:

“…taking third place to physical health and character, and as a tool of cultural performance, spirit becomes part of a set of ‘holiday ornaments’ to hide the assault on intelligence and culture.

Following this, Lawson writes off any attempt at trying to fascinate children with  philosophy as a subject:

“Spirit is neither empty cleverness nor the irresponsible play of wit, not the boundless work of dismemberment carried on by the practical intelligence; much less is it world-reason; no, spirit is a fundamental, knowing resolve towards the essence of being.”

What is required is the form of discovery Lawson and I attempted to stage in the recent Norwich workshop. He continues on the difference between offering solutions and posing questions:

“…in what way the question of being, or reality if you prefer, is settled is of secondary importance though, since all great truths must first be constantly renewed by bringing them into the place where they emerge into being for the first time, that is, in response to a deeply felt sense of questioning, the piety of thought. Second-hand truths may be useful, but they are not what make us who we are. This is something many school pupils feel very deeply.”

It is the re-activation of this deep resolve, the will to live, to discover, to be, that should be the point of education, education here in the other form of the verb which means to “lead out” – of the banal identification markers on telly, if nothing else.


However, what seems like a hippie fantasy in fact ties in with hard knowledge of grammatical and rhetorical rules, what we might call “teaching language properly”:

“In the barren and spiritless doctrine of the schools, [the mechanical dissection of language has left the] formal concepts and terms of grammar totally uncomprehended and incomprehensible shells. Consequently, whatever is taught in school will sink into the same barrenness unless we succeed in rebuilding the school’s spiritual world from within and from out of the ground, i.e. in giving the school a spiritual, not a scientific atmosphere.”

This is highly pertinent, as, throughout the conference, all discussion on identity and disenfranchisement pointed towards the reduction of language to meaningless sounds as the root cause; an example I pointed out in a previous post, freedom means legally preventing women from choosing to cover her face.

Teachers with experience in challenged communities will recognize the connection between lack of language and lack of thinking skills. Look no further than 1984 to see the end of this slide: With schools no longer providing basic knowledge of rhetoric, words are up for grabs, and with them, reality. Witness the amazing opposing statements on the recent strikes, where the antagonists might as well be talking about completely different topics – in different languages. There is simply no bridge.

Lawson closes with the need for the academic community to step out of the box:

“And here the first step must be a revolution in the prevailing relation to language. But to this end we must revolutionise the teachers, and for this in turn the university must transform itself and learn to understand its task instead of puffing itself up with irrelevancies. These reflections form the basis for a new approach to the understanding of philosophy in relation to Islam and Islamic education as tarbiyah, the bringing up of the child into the flourishing of the essence of being human.”

The Quest inherent in “Question”

The relation to my own themes are clear – going back to the title of Lawson’s talk, “Questioning builds a way” I posit Cooperative Learning as a tool to provide guided inquiry exercises into the nature of existence. Not as a mental exercise, squashed between maths and English, but as a profound, assisted process of self-discovery which is no longer, and can no longer, be afforded by priests and shamans, and yet must be afforded, in both senses of the word.

Schools (or anyone else, for that matter) can no longer present a set of “truths” that learners will buy into. We, as educators, ourselves need to inquire and rediscover ontological and epistomological … questions? Again quoting Lawson:

“The real debate has been lost, the real question buried in centuries of intellectual and cultural sedimentation, to the point where we don’t even know how to ask it, even if we manage to become vaguely aware of the need to do so. The sense of living inside some kind of vast misconception is I suspect, not unfamiliar to many of us.”

Philosophy for Children? No. Philosophy for you.

7 thoughts on “P4C? No, P4U!

Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on cooperativelearning.info and commented:

    Of relevance to participants in the UEA Realising Potential Religious Education conference, this comment on Lawsons talk on Heidegger and the ‘Quest’ inherent in ‘Questioning’ is hereby reblogged.

    “…all great truths must first be constantly renewed by bringing them into the place where they emerge into being for the first time, that is, in response to a deeply felt sense of questioning, the piety of thought. Second-hand truths may be useful, but they are not what make us who we are. This is something many school pupils feel very deeply.”


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