Updated: Mar 29, 2022
A conversation with Kevin McArevey - a principal with philosophical mind and compassionate heart
Young Plato is a delightful and heartwarming watch. It's so well produced and its message is so powerful. What was the reception of the documentary so far?
We are blown away by how warm people have received the film and how much it touches their lives. So many different people who watched the film have so many different stories to tell how it touched their lives, people who have lost people to death and suicide, and they love how that's handled within the movie. Also how it's spoken to the children and how children are given a chance to look at it and reflect on it and talk about it in a philosophical inquiry, so it's many different things to many different people. There's so much packed within the story, history of the troubles (Belfast), there's the history of the Holy Cross Girls in 2001 and how are you seeing children respond to that. And a lot of people would comment on the rawness of the children and how they are so articulate and so confident in discussing it.
YOUNG PLATO IN CINEMAS - CLICK HERE
So why philosophy, Kevin? How did a principal of a national school in Belfast end up doing philosophy with the children?
It goes back to when I started my journey with philosophy and my degree in Queen's University. One of the years involved doing political ideologies and looking at Hobbes and Locke and Bentham and Mill and Jean Jacques Rousseau - with a wee bit of Machiavelli thrown in there for good measure. So I remember doing Thomas Hobbes, and his story around the Ship of Theseus and thinking years later, I wonder if we could apply that to children. I didn't really know how to, whether to tell them a story, let them talk about it. I needed more structure. I had a great principal, I worked under in the Holy Cross Boys’ NS called Terry Laverty who had me create the professional learning community within the school I suppose I was trying to bring teachers back to studying and to developing themselves. So I did some research, slowly getting a grip of educational researchers on thinking - Geoff Petty, Barrie Bennett and Edward de Bono (his six thinking hats). Once we had exhausted that, Terry was to retire. But before he left he said, Philosophy, bring it into the school. How can I do that? We did a bit of research and saw this guy, Pete Worley. I contacted Pete, and he said, sure, come on over. I went to London and met all the great guys of the Philosophy Foundation, they made me feel so welcome. I thought this is what I want. Although I wanted a little bit more than what they were doing. As a principal, I wanted it to be something that was within the fabric of the school, something that was permeated, embedded and infused into the curriculum - a logical way to get there. I brought it back, and the teachers were a bit reluctant, but eventually, they embraced it. And now it's a part of who we are, it's in our DNA in Holy Cross Boys’.
Lovely. You are now also in the process of publishing a book right? Would you like to tell us what it’s about?
Yes, the book is a blueprint of this incredible journey. of how we have put teaching and learning of philosophy at the heart of our curriculum. The book shows you how to bring philosophy into a school, the impact of philosophy, why we do philosophy, who the great thinkers are who I'm trying to get to the model themselves on. It also gives a history of philosophy. Going from the Greek three - the book shows the different schools of thought in philosophy to give people an idea of what these thinkers thought and how we use it today. In the book also, there are stories and philosophical inquiries written by the children through the use of Pete Worley's The If Odyssey, and how we get children to actually write. Philosophy is great for conversations and talking, but we develop the journey into writing. And the philosophical inquiries are obviously all conceptual things, and we do conceptual analysis on the different philosophical themes like loneliness, happiness, bullying or handling change, aliens, time travel and religion. Everything is contained within that book. It's called Philosophically thinking in Holy Cross Boys’ TTR PS.
What is TTR?
Think, think, respond. Whenever I ask the boys a question, I tell them Think about it, think about it and then respond. It's just part of what we do with the boys. I want them to have at least 5 seconds before answering a question.
A very prominent motif in the field is conflict. Can philosophy help with resolving conflicts in everyday life, in school life for example, and on a bigger community scale?
I think it can. The reason for us, bringing philosophy into a primary school, obviously, is to promote the mental health and well being of the children, and also as an antidote to fake news. But it's a way of connecting, it's a way of looking in at your emotions. And also, why is it people are doing things they do? Can we challenge it, what way do we challenge it? What strategies do we have? I think if children know what their triggers are, what is it that triggers their emotion of anger, and how can we deal with that? What strategies we have in place whenever these are triggered, because, you know, philosophy is the balm for the wounds of life. And that's what we're trying to show to these kids - you may be able to control that trigger you maybe not, but you recognise the trigger, you may be able to control the emotion that comes after. But you're starting to see triggers. And when these emotions come, you can recognise them and think here are the strategies that Seneca would have told us about 2020 years ago. It's amazing that our children, and you see this in the film, are thinking the same way as this great stoic philosopher. And so philosophy in a way can help us all deal with pressures or stresses. Boethius was talking about the consolation effect of philosophy and a lot of people will argue that you can't really get your consolation from philosophy, but I think it's more than that. It's also about the mind and the working of the mind and a sort of growth mindset as well.
The growth mindset is so important. And teaching children the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset is also very important. And to relate to it. Oh, hold on a second, what is my mindset? What philosophy strategy can I employ? What would Aristotle say about this? What was Plato saying about it?
These kids are doing this and it's fantastic and it spreads out into the community because it's about giving our community the confidence to be confident. It's not confined within the four walls of Holy Cross Boys’ PS. it's like water-fluid and leaks into the community, beyond the community and into the wider world.
Talking about strategies and philosophical thinking. In the documentary, you use a ‘philosophy board’ for conflict resolution. How does the philosophy board work?
The philosophy board is one of the greatest things we brought in, to be honest. A reflexive action in the yard let's say leads to a reflective action in the school. The children will come up on occasion to the philosophy board at the principal's office, and we'll talk - what happened? what should have happened? what should you do? I also have a question there What is X? or Life is... So that with that Socratic question of what is X, after they have sort of resolved in what happened? And then all of a sudden, they're in this philosophical inquiry of What is a friend? Or what is respect? Or what are the consequences of fate? And so this is when I come out and we talk it through.I say well how did things go with the philosophy board. Let's say we're talking about a friend. Do you remember when Aristotle said friend is ...What do you think about that sir? Sometimes they put me on the spot, here's what I say, Well, if I said this, would you think I'd be right? I try as much as possible not to give an opinion because they will follow that then and they will walk away saying, Oh, that was the answer! Well, I don't want them ever to do that. I want them to come along with their own thinking. And of course, at the end of different philosophy sessions, you'll get kids asking Sir, what was the answer? I would say, If I said this, what would you think? Or if I said that? What would you think? They just look and go Aha!. So the philosophy board is brilliant. I mean, some teachers could do with using them.
What would you say, to encourage other principals and teachers to take up philosophy in their schools?
Watch the film, read the book. Look at a community that is healing from trauma. And look at the effect that this philosophy has had on this community, and how it's lifted the community to no end. We all want children to be confident and articulate. It doesn't matter if they have to do a presentation or a talk, if they have a conversation with an adult, it's about how confident and articulate they are. And how not only are they talkers, but how effective listeners they are too. Effective listening is such an important skill because children love to talk, but they really don't like to listen. When you watch the boys listen, they may have heard 10 different points of view before it comes to them within that horseshoe formation, and they have listened and they're able to come back and say, Well, I agree with Lukasz, don't agree with Kevin and that's a great skill in itself because you get them to think in that sort of creative and critical way. But what they're doing is they're analysing the arguments, they're criticising the arguments, and they're not getting up to punch each other, you know. They take it at face value and say I understand what you're saying. I love it because a lot of the kids would have already come with a sort of formed opinions, maybe that are coming from the home, and how they were brought up, and then they're gonna hear maybe something different from somebody else's home who's brought up differently from everyone else So then they start to reevaluate, which, I mean, I just couldn't speak enough of the strategies and the way that philosophy is done, because it makes the teacher such an effective questioner, children so confident themselves, no matter what the conversations, they will have an opinion on everything, and why not?
And on a practical level, how do you see this could happen in a school, I suppose, how to go about implementing this, if you give us maybe two or three steps, what would need to be done to implement philosophy in school?
Great question. Obviously, my first protocol was The Philosophy Foundation. The experience they have, the wealth of knowledge, they are second to none. But it does require a champion within the school. It requires a philosophy champion, an enthusiastic teacher or vice-principal or principal. So you need someone who comes and shows you how to do it, like The Philosophy Foundation does, lay the groundwork, get you all up and rolling and get the staff all trained, and then will focus on the philosophy champion, like they focused on me. But you have to believe in it, you have to have to work at it. It's not something that will necessarily come very easy to you, especially if you've never done philosophy before. And what you will know is that the outcomes of what you're doing will serve to raise the standard of achievements of the children in your school. So start by getting my book, get Peter Worley's The If Machine, or so many different great philosophy books out there that can be used at school, but dare to think differently. If you dare to think differently, you will see a whole new school community that you'll be very proud of, you will see your boys and girls so confident.
Any of us who have children, anybody who teaches children, all we're looking for are successful children who are wise and kind, and philosophy helps with that.
YOUNG PLATO - An inspiring documentary from the filmmakers of School Life, YOUNG PLATO charts the dream of Elvis-loving school headmaster Kevin McArevey – a maverick who is determined to change the fortunes of an inner-city community plagued by urban decay, sectarian aggression, poverty and drugs. The all-boys primary school in post-conflict Belfast, Northern Ireland, becomes a hot house for questioning violence, as the headmaster sends his young wards home each day armed with the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. The boys challenge their parents and neighbors to forsake the prejudice that has kept this low-level civil war on the boil for decades. YOUNG PLATO hums with the confidence of youth, a tribute to the power of the possible.
KEVIN MCAREVEY - I have been the principal for 9 years and have been in Holy Cross Boys’ for 25 years. I am married to Grainne and have four beautiful daughters; Rachel, Grace, Erin and Jane Hence, it is quite ironic that I am the principal of almost 400 boys.
I am a 5 Dan instructor in Ju-Jitsu and also do a lot of mountain biking in my spare time whenever I am not walking my dog San. As an avid reader of philosophy I have to say that Aristotle is my favourite philosopher, ‘ Quality is not an act it is a habit.’ Hence, I am a firm believer that we teach best what we want to learn the most!