How I… teach Phillipa Foot’s Trolley problem to 9-year olds

One of the major things I use in the classroom is controversy. I don’t mean that I say deliberately offensive things to get my students angry, but I do pose difficult questions. I often play devil’s advocate and ask them ‘Big Questions’ that are usually reserved for adults or older children. I decided to do this after watching Mary Myatt talk about ‘High Challenge and Low Threat’. If they fail, they haven’t lost anything – it was a difficult question. If they succeed, then they have tackled something huge that adults struggle with.

So, when thinking about these huge questions, about life and death and the universe, we look at Phillipa Foot’s ‘Trolley problem’. This is the first thing we study in the year 5 RE Curriculum. I use it to get the children talking to each other and posing questions, knowing that it is a question given to Harvard Law students. The problem goes roughly like this:

There is a runaway train or trolley car that is hurtling towards a fork in the tracks. In one direction there is a person tied down who will certainly be killed if the trolley travels on that track. To make matters worse in the other direction there are, inexplicably, 5 people tied to the track! There is a person, looking rather glum at the junction box – they must choose which track to send the trolley. Herein lies the dilemma; which way should the lever be pulled?

The children often spend the first 20 minutes trying to ‘James Bond’ their way out of it by placing the lever in the middle, derailing the train and quickly running to untie everyone. After these possibilities are denied to them, as inventive as they are, they start to tackle the real issues and discuss the agonizing problem at hand. The unit itself is about Utilitarianism and before we look at the Trolley Problem the children are well versed in the principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Because of this some of the children immediately make their decision based on this principle and save the 5 and let the 1 die. Once this has been discussed we talk about the complications:

‘What if the 1 was a doctor and she could save a million lives?’

‘What if the 5 were all murderous criminals?’

‘What if the 5 were very old?’

What if the 1 was the Prime Minister?’

All of these complications lead to wonderful discussions about the worth of people and what, if anything, makes some ‘worth’ more than others- and also if this is an acceptable position to hold. Some children are quite assertive that all people, no matter what or who they are, are of equal worth.

The final option we discuss is that of a ‘third way’, I let them know that the person at the lever can simply walk away, knowing that it was in a certain position before they got there and that they cannot be held responsible….But as one child countered recently;

‘Choosing not to act is still a choice.’

Starting the debate all over again…


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John is the new chair of Norfolk SACRE, blogs about philosophy and teaches in Norwich. Follow him on Twitter @philosophyinKS2 or read his blog at

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