Teaching the Allegory of Plato’s Cave in Religious Education can be a daunting task. In this piece, Nikki McGee breaks down how she teaches it to Year 7 and why she teaches it in this way…
What went wrong previously in my teaching?
Our Year 7 curriculum begins with a unit that asks, “what is the love of wisdom?” which draws on Ancient Greek philosophy. The key story for this unit is the Allegory of Plato’s Cave. For many students, this is an exciting start to their KS3 RE because they enjoy the process of questioning what they once took to be certain. It is also a unit that acts as a spoiler for much of their future learning in RE. However, after reviewing the students’ work, I realised that far too many were just learning the narrative of the story and not engaging with the philosophy, there is little point in having a disciplinary curriculum if you don’t engage with the disciplines. I knew that I had to do better.
What do I want my students to know or be able to do?
I want my students to know the “gist” of the story of Plato’s Cave, they do not need the detail that an A Level student needs and whilst I want them to know that the story is an allegory, they do not have to know the meaning of every object or event. At a most basic level, I want them to connect the story to the life of Socrates and to have thought about why seeking the truth is important but can be seen as dangerous. I also want the students to consider that the word “reality” is perhaps a more complex word than they had previously thought and whether there is more to the world than their senses reveal.
What do my students already know?
At the start of the unit, the students learn that philosophy is a search for wisdom. I spend a lot of time preparing the students to read the story of the cave, laying the ground for them to see the philosophical themes rather than adding them in after they read the story.
Rather than leaping straight into the world of the Ancient Greeks, we use a questionnaire from the RE Today Challenging Knowledge series called “What is real? How do you know?”. I have put this at the start of the unit to make the students think philosophically from the beginning. The questionnaire asks students to rate how far they agree with 22 different statements, many of which encourage the students to engage with the themes of reality and knowledge that underpin the allegory of Plato’s Cave. A sample of questions is below:
- I only believe in what I can see, touch or hear. Only my senses can tell me what is real. The human mind is real. We can’t see it, and we can’t touch it, but it’s there, somehow. It is in the brain but not the same as the brain.
- The material world is one kind of reality. The worlds of soul, thoughts, spirituality and emotions are real too, but in a different way.
- The word real has many meanings.
- Ideas are real, but not in the same way that atoms are real.
I use the painting, “The School Of Athens” to introduce the philosophers we will study in this unit, and I then zone in on Heraclitus whom the students will merely encounter rather than study in detail. I introduce Heraclitus as a philosopher known for his melancholy and say that we are going to find out why he was so sad using the quote “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.
We discuss that he is melancholy because as a philosopher he is seeking wisdom about a world that is constantly changing or in a state of flux. I use choral repetition to encourage the students to use the word flux. I compare Heraclitus to my husband (the melancholy Mr McGee!) who is trying to work out how to make me happy, but I keep changing my mind and so the task feels frustrating.
The students have also studied the life of Socrates, they have practised using the Socratic Method and using the painting “The Death of Socrates” we look at the trial of Socrates and how this event haunts Plato. This will help them to suggest that the allegory of the cave could represent the life and death of Socrates.
Finally, I make the students draw horses and circles. I ask them to imagine a perfect circle and draw it and a perfect horse and then draw it. It is important that they think before they draw so that a comparison can be made between ideas and physical objects. This is also an opportunity for some fun and relationship building with my new students as I put their drawings under a visualiser and ask if they really think that a horse looks like that.
We then talk about how ideas can be perfect but as soon as they become physical, they lose that perfection. If I am teaching by a window, we talk about the natural world constantly changing or being in a state of flux and therefore knowing the true nature of a tree, plant, animal or person is a challenge. We also look at visual illusions and ask if they demonstrate that we cannot trust our senses. At this point I will teach them the word empirical knowledge, again using choral repetition and questioning.
Teaching the Allegory of the Cave
I start the next lesson by asking the students to explain to me why they looked at visual illusions and drew horses and circles in their books. I deliberately left a gap in order to check their understanding before I move on to the allegory. I now teach them the words “allegory” and “thought experiment” using choral response.
It is important that they see the story as a thought experiment because this prevents endless irrelevant questions such as “How do the prisoners go to the toilet?”. It is also important that they know the story is an allegory, some students think that this is a historical account. This work is challenging and so it is important to think carefully about distractions and misconceptions and prevent them from happening, especially when you only have one hour a week.
We now turn to the allegory; I will read it to them and then the students will read it again out loud. I will support this by drawing a diagram of the cave under my visualiser and looking at various images of the cave. I sometimes I get the students to very briefly act out the story as I narrate it, to help them understand who the characters are and how the shadows are created.
Some students manage to miss the shadows altogether and think that the prisoners are looking at real objects, which means that they will never understand the philosophy of the story. Once again, I am anticipating misconceptions so that I don’t have to spend time dealing with them. I will also use a carefully chosen video version, I am deliberately exposing them to lots of different versions of the story to help them remember the “gist” of the story. They will also read the story again for their homework and answer questions using a google quiz.
We then spend a lesson unpacking the allegory, very quickly somebody will say that the escaped philosopher must be Socrates and we then talk about which members of Athenian society could be the prisoners or puppeteers. We focus on the fact that the prisoners boast about their knowledge when they are looking at shadows of puppets and not even shadows of real objects. What they think is real is far removed from reality, this will help them link with our previous work on horses, circles and visual illusions and the idea that we can’t trust our senses. We also now talk about seeking knowledge in a world that is constantly changing, linking back to Heraclitus, this gets the students ready to look at Plato’s Theory of Forms in a future lesson.
I now ask the students to interpret the allegory in a modern context. We discuss who are the escaped philosophers of today. Who are the figures who get attacked for asking society face uncomfortable truths? I get suggestions that range from Greta Thunberg to David Attenborough to religious leaders. We also discuss who are the puppeteers of today, answers include social media influencers, journalists and politicians. Finally, we talk about the caves of ignorance that we live in today and this usually prompts a great discussion about social media that can be picked up in their RSE lessons. These discussions will feed into a piece of extended writing.
We now return to our questionnaires on reality and some students now want to change their answers, they can do this in a different colour so they can see how their ideas change over time. At the end of the unit, they will reflect on their reaction to the allegory of the cave and how it is shaping their own worldview. We will also pick key questions and ask what answers Plato might have given.
Having established that Plato thinks that we need to look beyond the physical world for knowledge, the students are ready to look at Plato’s Theory of Forms. The students’ understanding of empirical knowledge will be useful throughout our curriculum but especially when studying Aristotle and later Aquinas and Paley’s arguments for the existence of God. Discussions about change being an imperfection will also help our students consider the nature of God and finally whenever we encounter religious leaders who risk their lives to challenge society, the students will be reminded of Socrates.
Questionnaire Taken from Challenging knowledge in RE: Vol 2: World Views by Stephen Pett (2021)